David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • FDR's Response to Pearl Harbor: Economic Freedom as Vital National Security Policy

    Dec 7, 2011David B. Woolner

    In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

    Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

    Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...

    In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.

    Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:

    Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan...

    The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation...

    No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory...

    Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

    I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire. -Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

    It was 70 years ago today that the myth of American invulnerability came to a sudden and dramatic end. On that day, wave after wave of Japanese bombers attacked the sleeping base at Pearl Harbor and in their destruction helped usher in a new era in American and world history.

    Like virtually all other Americans, FDR was shocked and outraged at the events that occurred that Sunday morning. But in other respects, the events at Pearl Harbor confirmed what he and many of his advisors already knew about the state of the world in the mid-20th century: It was a much smaller place. In an "air age," the distances across seemingly vast oceans had been dramatically reduced. If one looked at a map of the world from the perspective of the North Pole -- as FDR was wont to do -- the continents of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres seemed to almost touch one another.

    These observations may seem commonplace to us today with our satellite communications and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in 1941, they were quite profound and to a large extent reflected, as the historian Alan Henrikson has written, the "mental map" that Franklin Roosevelt had developed over years of interest in geography, map reading, and even the collecting of stamps from far-off lands.

    FDR, in short, had a profound understanding of the physical make-up of the planet. As such, he tended to see the world as a single community made up of neighboring states inhabited by peoples who shared many of the same hopes and aspirations. He also believed that "people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." One only had to look at the catastrophic decade of the 1930s, with its global economic crisis and the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, for confirmation of this sad truth.

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    For Roosevelt, then, the Second World War, as he called it, was as much about the perils of economic depravity as it was about blatant international aggression, for the latter was one of the by-products of the former. In a very real sense, therefore, the welfare of peoples living in the heretofore distant corners of the earth had a direct bearing on the welfare of the people of the United States. The war in fact proved beyond a doubt that the two were inextricably linked. The hardship suffered in one part of the world -- hardship that led to the creation of the most brutally aggressive regimes history had ever seen -- had now reaped its destruction upon America itself.

    It was for these reasons that FDR implored the American people in their "righteous might" to not only help him "win through to absolute victory," but also to help create a world, as he said nearly a year before, founded on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. For by helping to establish these rights, including the right to live free from hunger and fear -- "everywhere in the world" -- the United States would render itself far more secure and much less likely to have to face an even greater conflagration in the future.

    In light of these revelations, FDR did all he could to convince the American people that the United States had to play an active role in world affairs. He felt it was critical that the "United Nations" -- the long forgotten name of the wartime alliance created just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor -- continue to strive for peace and prosperity after the war was over. He sought to work with our friends and allies to build the necessary institutions, such as the United Nations Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to reorder the world's economic system and facilitate great power cooperation in the postwar world.

    Of course, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR also accelerated the build-up of American arms, including a massive expansion of the U.S. Army Air Force, and engaged in a significant restructuring of American defense and intelligence capabilities. This led to the creation of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the postwar Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies -- all designed to transform American foreign policy into what might best be called National Security Policy.

    But in the long run, FDR understood that American military and economic power were not enough to provide the kind of security the American people desired in the wake of the day of infamy. Equally important was moral leadership -- the promotion and adherence to the rule of law, democratic values, and basic human rights, including the all-important right of every person to enjoy basic economic security.

    Today, as we look around the globe, we can see that FDR's assessment of the basic hopes and aspirations of peoples the world over to live in a world based on his four fundamental human freedoms is as strong as ever. The evidence is clear in recent events in the Middle East, Moscow, and here at home in Zuccotti Park. The United States may face a future where our status as the world's leading economy may one day no longer be certain, but the values that inspired the valiant men and women who fought the Second World War can and should remain a beacon of hope to all those who aspire to live in a more prosperous and peaceful world.

    As FDR reminded us seven decades ago: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them... To that high concept there can be no end save victory."

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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  • A Feast for the 1%, a Famine for the One Third

    Nov 23, 2011David B. Woolner

    As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

    [H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

    I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

    As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.

    [H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

    I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

    I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

    I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

    I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

    I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

    -Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937

    Nearly three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt rededicated himself and his administration to the creation of an America where the government and the people alike would strive to eliminate the destructive and unjust disparities of wealth that had wrought such great economic hardship that they threatened to undermine the very essence of our democracy. Thanks to this commitment, generations of Americans embraced the idea that, as President Obama once said, "in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play."

    But in a disturbing article published earlier this week, the New York Times took note of the growing number of Americans whose hard work and responsibility have not brought them the measure of economic security they deserve. Struggling with incomes that stand just above the poverty line, they are labeled the "near poor." This diverse group of individuals and families lives paycheck to paycheck under the constant threat of economic ruin, often working multiple jobs at low wages that have remained stagnant for decades. According to data that has yet to be published by the Census Bureau, the number of "near poor" in the United States has risen to 51 million individuals, which, as the Times reports, places approximately 100 million people, or one in three Americans, "either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it."

    The fact that one in three Americans now lives in poverty or just above the poverty line provides us with another distressing link between the Great Recession and the Great Depression. It harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt's Second Inaugural Address, when, after noting the nation's economic progress since the beginning of his first term, he challenged the American people to do better and join him in an effort to "paint out" from our national canvas the sight of "one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."

    It was true, Roosevelt said, that since the day of his fist inauguration, the country had made great strides in reversing the downward economic spiral that had gripped the nation in paralyzing fear. Faced with an unprecedented economic catastrophe, the people of the republic had dedicated themselves "to the fulfillment of a vision -- to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness." But, he went on, "our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need -- the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization."

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    In that purpose, he continued:

    ...we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit... We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.

    This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.

    It is odd that in this time of Thanksgiving, one hears little about the millions of Americans trapped in or threatened by poverty or the need to fashion a society where the "elementary decencies of life" -- a job with a decent wage, access to health care and higher education -- are within the reach of all. It is even more perplexing that in a time of serious economic depravity, the focal point of our all-but-dysfunctional Congress is not how "to find through government the instrument of our united purpose" but how to obstruct the very sort of structural reforms needed to help average Americans secure better lives for themselves and their children.

    Part of this stems from the blind faith that free market fundamentalists have falsely promoted as the solution to all of our problems and from the inordinate amount of money that now flows from Wall Street to Washington, creating a new Gilded Age where the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. But another part of it stems from our own misguided perception of what constitutes wealth and progress. In this second Gilded Age, wealth and progress have come to mean one and the same thing -- the acquisition of an inordinate amount of capital or other assets by an individual, often obtained through mere financial transactions.

    For Roosevelt, however -- and for much of his generation -- the definition of wealth and progress was much more in keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving. "Happiness," as FDR famously said in his First Inaugural Address, "lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort." Four years later, he added that the "test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

    For the 100 million citizens of our nation now struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, these words sadly offer little comfort, for it appears we have abandoned the noble effort of the Depression generation to paint the specter of poverty out of our national canvas.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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  • 2012: 1932 Redux?

    Nov 8, 2011David B. Woolner

     

    If Congress continues to obstruct efforts to revive the economy, today's incumbents may suffer the same fate as Herbert Hoover.

    The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

     

    If Congress continues to obstruct efforts to revive the economy, today's incumbents may suffer the same fate as Herbert Hoover.

    The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

    We need enthusiasm, imagination, and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely. We need to correct, by drastic means if necessary, the faults in our economic system from which we now suffer.

    -Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 22, 1932

    Seventy-nine years ago today, on November 8, 1932, the people of the United States elected Franklin D. Roosevelt President of the United States.  No one was absolutely sure what FDR would do as president, but everyone understood that the United States -- and much of the rest of the world -- was in deep trouble.

    Since the start of the Great Depression three years earlier, unemployment had climbed above 20 percent, average annual family income had fallen by 40 percent, and thousands of banks had closed their doors, wiping out the savings of 9 million individual bank accounts. Roughly half of all the home mortgages in the United States were in default, with another 1,000 homes going under every day. American industry had all but collapsed. To take but one example, in 1929 United States Steel Corporation had 225,000 full-time employees; by the end of 1932 it had no full-time employees save its corporate officers and a mere handful of part-time workers. The same was true in the financial sector, where overall stock market values had declined by 85 percent since their high in September 1929.

    The human side of this story is even more distressing. In its November 1932 issue, The Nation estimated that approximately 20 million Americans -- one sixth the total population -- were at risk of starvation during the coming winter. By the end of the year, more than 2 million homeless people were roaming the streets looking for work or relief, of which approximately 200,000 were children -- mostly boys under the age of 14. In the coal mining regions of West Virginia and Kentucky, over 90 percent of the young were already suffering from malnutrition, as were more than 160,000 young people in New York City.

    In the face of such a devastating crisis, FDR came to the conclusion that the forces of the market place had failed to deliver basic economic security to millions upon millions of Americans. He rejected the laissez-faire ideology that dominated the 1920s and understood that the forces of greed and avarice -- led by what his cousin Theodore Roosevelt called "the malefactors of great wealth" -- had created such an imbalance in our economic system that without immediate, significant reform, the U.S. might find itself in the throes of a revolution. This became all too clear with the rise of fascism and other forms of totalitarianism in parts of Europe and Asia.

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    In essence, FDR believed that for democracy to work, capitalism had to work -- not for the few, but for all. He dedicated himself to the idea that against the forces of "economic tyranny" that had brought about this great crisis, "the American citizen could only turn to the organized power of government."

    It was out of this basic conviction that FDR launched the New Deal, not to destroy the free market system, but to save it. Under his guidance the American people embraced the notion that in a complex modern industrial society the government can and must serve as the primary instrument of social and economic justice. It was this simple philosophy that brought us Social Security, unemployment insurance, banking and financial reform, the minimum wage, the right of labor to organize, and a host of other reforms that fundamentally altered the relationship between the American people and their government. The New Deal also offered millions of unemployed the dignity of work -- the chance for the laborers, architects, artists, and engineers of this great nation to build much of the economic, artistic, and environmental infrastructure that we still enjoy today.

    Above all, FDR understood -- as he said in his first inaugural -- that "this nation asks for action and action now." Thanks to the support he enjoyed among most congressional Democrats and a significant number of liberal Republicans, he was able to push through the most significant slate of legislative reforms in our nation's history. In doing so, he not only helped alleviate a great deal of economic suffering but also restored the American people's faith in democratic government.

    There is no question that a good share of the support FDR received in his campaign for the White House in 1932 stemmed from his repeated calls for action and his criticism of the lack of initiative on the part the Hoover administration to meet the economic crisis. After more than two years of unemployment at or above 9 percent, the mood of the electorate today is not all that different than it was in 1932. Polls show a mixture of anxiety, despair, and frustration at Congress's refusal to pass common sense measures -- like President Obama's jobs bill -- that would offer some relief to the millions of unemployed Americans.

    To date, the deficit hawks in Congress seem unconcerned about the cost of their obstructionism, but if 1932 is any guide, this may prove a risky strategy for the coming election. To paraphrase FDR, the American people may tire of a "hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing government" -- except that this time they may take out their frustration not on the president, but on Congress.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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  • After Violence in Occupy Oakland, Remembering FDR's Engagement with Another Occupation

    Oct 28, 2011David B. Woolner

    FDR engaged with the Bonus Army instead of cracking down. Today's mayors should take note.

    The violence that broke out in Oakland earlier this week and the wounding of Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran, recalls a similar "occupy movement" involving veterans that took place in Washington at the onset of the Great Depression.

    FDR engaged with the Bonus Army instead of cracking down. Today's mayors should take note.

    The violence that broke out in Oakland earlier this week and the wounding of Scott Olsen, a Marine veteran, recalls a similar "occupy movement" involving veterans that took place in Washington at the onset of the Great Depression.

    In 1932, thousands of unemployed World War I veterans, desperate from lack of work, converged on Washington, mostly by riding the rails, in support of a bill that would have allowed them to receive immediate cash payment of the war service "bonus" they were due in 1945. The veterans called themselves the "Bonus Army" or "Bonus Expeditionary Force." By the end of May of that year, more than 20,000 had occupied a series of abandoned buildings near the Washington Mall and a sprawling shantytown they built on the Anacostia Flats not far from the Capitol. On June 15, 1932, the House of Representatives passed a bill in favor of the veteran payments, but as both President Hoover and a majority in the Senate opposed it, the "Bonus bill" went down to defeat two days later.

    In the wake of this defeat, roughly 15,000 members of the Bonus Army decided that they would continue their occupation as a protest against the government's decision. By late July, President Hoover decided it was time to clear the city of the protesters, using four troops of cavalry under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Late in the afternoon of July 28, General MacArthur's troops -- with sabers drawn -- cleared the buildings near the Mall. They then fired tear gas among the men, women, and children encamped in Anacostia (many veterans were accompanied by their families); stormed the area on horseback, driving them out; and intentionally burned the shantytown to the ground in the process. More than 1,000 people were injured in the incident and two veterans and one child died.

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    In attacking the shantytown, MacArthur had exceeded his orders, which were simply to clear the buildings and surround the camp so as to contain it. But this meant little to the public, who were outraged at the treatment the veterans had received at the hands of the government and furious at Hoover for ordering the operation. Hoover, nevertheless, remained publically unrepentant and refused to apologize to the veterans -- moves that contributed greatly to his massive loss to Franklin Roosevelt a few months later.

    FDR, for his part, was disgusted by the whole affair. When a smaller group of about 3,000 Bonus Marchers converged on Washington with the same demand a year later, FDR took quite a different approach. Where Hoover had refused to meet with the protesters, FDR invited a delegation to come to the White House. He also provided the marchers housing in an unused army fort, made sure that they were given three meals a day plus medical attention, and sent Eleanor Roosevelt to engage them in further discussions and check on their condition. Not wanting to single out any group for special treatment, in the end he refused to support their demand for the early payment of their pensions. But the men were offered work in the newly formed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which 90 percent accepted. Shortly thereafter the Bonus Marchers voted to disperse, and those that opted to return home rather than join the CCC were given free rail passage.

    Perhaps the municipal authorities in Oakland, New York, and elsewhere might learn something from FDR. They could use a lesson on the value of dialogue and the benefits a government that is responsive to the needs -- if not the demands -- of its citizens.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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  • FDR, Obama, and Occupy Wall Street: Time for Another New Deal?

    Oct 20, 2011David B. Woolner

    FDR didn't just extend his sympathies to protesters. He listened to their demands and worked to implement real solutions to their problems.

    As the Occupy Wall Street protests that originated in lower Manhattan gain momentum, a good deal of speculation has arisen in the press. Will the protesters coalesce around a set of demands? Will President Obama and the Democratic Party embrace the movement? What impact will the protests, which have now spread to other parts of the country, have on the 2012 presidential election?

    FDR didn't just extend his sympathies to protesters. He listened to their demands and worked to implement real solutions to their problems.

    As the Occupy Wall Street protests that originated in lower Manhattan gain momentum, a good deal of speculation has arisen in the press. Will the protesters coalesce around a set of demands? Will President Obama and the Democratic Party embrace the movement? What impact will the protests, which have now spread to other parts of the country, have on the 2012 presidential election?

    Although there has been some resistance to the idea of the movement adopting a formal agenda for reform, many of the demands and some of the rhetoric generated by the protesters echo similar calls for reform that emanated during the New Deal. Last Sunday evening, for example, it was reported that Occupy Wall Street's Demands Working Group had endorsed the idea of a New Deal-style public works program that would put millions of Americans on the government payroll rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Another idea that has surfaced within the movement is the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act.

    What is most significant, however, is the possibility that the Occupy Wall Street movement might spur the Obama administration and Congress to embrace reform and take stronger government action to combat the current economic crisis. In this respect, it has the potential to mirror the powerful social justice movements that emerged during the 1930s -- movements that not only drew national attention to the great disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor in the United States, but also pushed the Roosevelt administration and Congress to adopt some of the most significant pieces of reform legislation in U.S. history. The passage of the all-important Wagner Act, which established a permanent National Labor Relations Board and enshrined the right of private sector workers to form unions, was inspired in large part by the more than 1,800 strikes that broke out in 1934. The Social Security Act, which provided an old-age pension and established unemployment insurance, was spurred on in part by the 2 million-member Townsend movement that put forward a tax and pension scheme that made it clear that the government had to do something to provide basic economic security for the elderly. For the millions of unemployed, who often took to the streets in frustration, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, which put over 8.5 million Americans to work building the roads, bridges, airports, and schools that still make up a significant portion of our nation's economic infrastructure.

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    President Obama has recently indicated that he sympathizes with the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but he has yet to embrace it. FDR was not nearly so circumspect. It is true that during his initial year in office, FDR -- much like President Obama -- adopted what can best be called national unity politics. This, coupled with his innate political caution and abhorrence for ideology, made him reluctant to join ranks with those who were in the streets demanding reform.

    But as early as mid-1934, the president -- who in his heart of hearts agreed with the calls for more progressive government -- began to change his tune. In one of his famous Fireside Chats, delivered near the end of June 1934, FDR took note of the fact that in spite of the great progress that had been made stabilizing the economy and meeting the immediate crisis, it was time to look to the future -- time for the country "to find a way once more to well-known, long established but to some degree forgotten ideals and values," and time for the Government and Congress to "seek the security of the men, women and children of the nation." He continued:

    That security involves added means of providing better homes for the people of the Nation. That is the first principle of our future program.

    The second is to plan the use of land and water resources of this country to the end that the means of livelihood of our citizens may be more adequate to meet their daily needs.

    And, finally, the third principle is to use the agencies of government to assist in the establishment of means to provide sound and adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life -- in other words, social insurance...

    A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it "Fascism," sometimes "Communism," sometimes "Regimentation," sometimes "Socialism." But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical.

    I believe in practical explanations and in practical policies. I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing -- a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals.

    In the coming 18 months, FDR -- inspired and motivated by the determination of the millions of Americans who embraced a number of mass movements demanding social and economic justice -- would launch his famous Second New Deal. It was a wave of legislation that, through such programs as Social Security and the Wagner Act, is still very much with us to this day.

    As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to grow, perhaps the president and our leaders in Washington should do more than merely extend their sympathy. Perhaps they should take a lesson from the New Deal and act to address the concerns of a new generation -- a generation that may not yet have articulated a specific set of demands, but one that is crying out for a government animated by the same spirit that stood at the heart of the New Deal, driven by the desire to provide social and economic justice for all.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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