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FDR's final speech has lessons for managing the coronavirus crisis

Franklin D. Roosevelt during his 1932 Presidential campaign.

Franklin D. Roosevelt during his 1932 Presidential campaign. Credit: SEE CAPTION/see caption

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed tens of thousands, infected hundreds of thousands, overwhelmed our health-care system, wreaked havoc on the economy and shut down American society, leadership is crucially important yet has largely been missing. What we need can be found in an unusual place — a speech never given.

Seventy-five years ago this week, on April 12, 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Ga. He had spent the previous day composing a Jefferson Day address he planned to deliver on April 13 via nationwide radio hookup. This final speech, though never given, contains important lessons for us today. As the country grapples with another global crisis that demands bold leadership, Roosevelt's message provides an example of inspirational, positive leadership that contrasts with the dark, often hectoring tone of today's politics.

For decades, Democrats celebrated Thomas Jefferson's birthday with fundraising dinners and other party-building events (Republicans held similar Lincoln Day dinners). Early in his presidency, Roosevelt frequently spoke at these events, particularly in election years, when his partisan swipes at Republicans could generate votes for Democrats. But by 1945, it had been years since he'd given an official Jefferson Day talk.

His 1945 address was a collaborative effort; the Democratic National Committee suggested a few lines, and his speechwriters Jonathan Daniels and Robert Sherwood contributed some language. But the speech was really Roosevelt's: his ideas and his words.

The president knew his health was fading. He arrived in Warm Springs on March 30 underweight and exhausted from 12 years in office, suffering from an enlarged heart, chronic digestive ailments and other medical problems. In contrast to his own decline, he recognized that the world was on the cusp of a new era. Nazi Germany was near collapse, and the crucial Pacific island of Iwo Jima was in American hands. One of Roosevelt's pet projects, the United Nations, was about to convene its first session. Japanese resistance remained fierce, but winning the war was, by that point, a question of "when" rather than "if."

Although still a wartime president, Roosevelt focused his speech on the coming peace. He spent the morning of April 11 on the porch of his six-room cottage, pencil in hand, working and reworking his lines. That afternoon, he dictated the finished product for typing. It was only two pages long - 761 words - but it struck him as a fine piece of work. It was brief and uplifting, used Jefferson as a springboard to his own thoughts and set the stage for his scheduled appearance before the United Nations on April 25.

By the evening, the president's color had faded. His hands shook so badly that he could not hold a cocktail glass steady. The next day, he was gone, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage.

On April 13, Roosevelt's funeral train, bound initially for Washington before transporting the president's remains to his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., pulled into Atlanta's Terminal Station. Press secretary Steven Early hopped off and distributed copies of the president's final speech to reporters. Newspapers reprinted it in full and ministers cited it in Sunday sermons, treating the address as a valedictory comparable to Washington's Farewell Address. In the words of the Louisville Courier-Journal, it was Roosevelt's "last request of the American people" - "a high and solemn request" for decency, courage and strength.

In his address, Roosevelt, sensing Americans' weariness with wartime sacrifice, urged them to keep fighting until they achieved total victory. "The once powerful, malignant Nazi state is crumbling," he assured them, and the "Japanese war lords are receiving, in their own homeland, the retribution for which they asked when they attacked Pearl Harbor." Americans must also avoid following victory with complacency. "More than an end to war," Roosevelt wrote in one of the speech's pivotal lines, "we want an end to the beginnings of all wars."

The president had the top-secret Manhattan Project in mind when he asked Sherwood to research Jefferson's thoughts about humanity's relationship with science. He wanted to prepare Americans for thinking about technology's positive potential in an atomic age, when an international misunderstanding could metastasize into global catastrophe. Roosevelt selected an optimistic Jefferson quote for his address: "The brotherly spirit of science," the Founding Father wrote, unites people "into one family . . . however widely dispersed throughout the different quarters of the globe." From this rhetorical launching point, the president mused that "if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships," overcoming national, ethnic and political differences to forge a better world.

Jefferson also inspired Roosevelt's core message: the importance of international engagement. Roosevelt depicted Jefferson as a cosmopolitan figure, a onetime minister to France and former secretary of state who, as president, "sent our Navy into far distant waters to defend our rights" during the Barbary Wars. This action embedded internationalism and the protection of the United States' global interests through justifiable military action within the country's historical DNA. The president wanted Americans to remember these lessons in the coming years. "Great power involves great responsibility," he noted. The wise use of American political, economic and military power could prevent "a third world war."

This was a controversial message. Many Americans wanted only to win the war, come home and forget about overseas affairs. But Roosevelt defied this resurgent isolationism when he reimagined the United States as a global peacekeeper. This internationalist spirit had pervaded his presidency. He had spent years lowering trade barriers through tariff reductions and the Bretton Woods system and facilitating diplomacy with institutions such as the embryonic United Nations.

Roosevelt paired this grandiose vision of an American-led world with a humble, grass-roots political philosophy. He spoke not as a Democrat, but rather as an adherent of democracy "with a small d." Preserving peace was a nonpartisan cause that depended on "millions and millions" of ordinary Americans uniting "to make this work endure."

Presidents must lead, but success required an active, committed, informed citizenry. Roosevelt placed the world's future direction in the hands of decent, everyday Americans guided by enlightened leadership. This, too, reflected long-standing Rooseveltian motifs. New Deal art celebrated common farmers and laborers. Wartime movies featured G.I.s named Joe, regular fellas from Nowheresville who toppled the fascists' mighty war machines.

Roosevelt's final speech articulated other themes that defined his presidency. His Four Freedoms that articulated his war aims, and his insistence that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," informed his calls for "confidence" and "resolve" for the sake of "an abiding peace." Tyranny, he said, spawned from "fears . . . ignorance, and . . . greed." Americans must overcome these vices, lest the world's wartime sacrifices be in vain.

Roosevelt's inspirational, aspirational final vision remains only partially fulfilled. Today's world is a violent place, yet international bodies and economic interdependence have given us generations of relative military peace among the great powers. Science and reason have produced enormous advancements and greater understanding of humanity while awakening new dangers, uncertainties and skepticism. The Cold War kept the United States internationally active, but not always for just causes.

There is still hope, Roosevelt might interject. His address's final words, originally written in pencil and now carved into the FDR Memorial, offered his audience, and us, a challenge. "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today," he wrote. "Let us move forward with strong and active faith." His optimistic message provides no specific blueprint for tackling global crises. Rather, it affirms the positive spirit necessary to bear hard times and reminds us that, for all our differences, our fate rests in each other's hands.

Welky is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas and author of "A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier." He is currently writing a book about FDR's family during World War II.

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