FDR Drew on Thomas Paine in the Most Difficult of Times

Jan 28, 2011Harvey J. Kaye

fdr-radioside-150This coming weekend sees the birthdays of two great Americans: Thomas Paine, born on January 29, 1737 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born on January 30, 1882. They share more than a birthday weekend -- they both believed in America's purpose and promise.

In the winter of 1941-42, Americans faced their gravest crisis since the Civil War. The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor had propelled the United States into the Second World War, a global conflict in which the very survival of freedom, equality, and democracy were at stake. And things did not look good at all. Germany had conquered most of Europe, Japan had overrun East Asia, and on every front from the Atlantic to the Pacific the Axis powers were advancing. At home, the reports of military disasters and setbacks triggered criticism of the government's handling of the war, rumors of invasion, and a sense of despair, if not defeat.

Though he had spoken to the nation in a Fireside Chat soon after securing a declaration of war from Congress, President Roosevelt recognized he would have to talk to his fellow citizens once again. He would not only have to clarify the military situation, but also reassure them of their strengths, mobilize their spirits and energies, and present them with a vision of a world worth fighting for.

Announcing that the President would deliver another Chat on Monday evening, February 23, at the close of the Washington birthday weekend, the White House did not reveal any details beyond requesting that everyone have a map of the world at hand. Still, Americans anticipated something important. Stores quickly sold out their maps. Newspapers rushed their own into print. And when Monday night came, 61,000,000 Americans, along with millions more around the world, tuned in to hear the broadcast.

Roosevelt understood that he needed to firmly engage American collective memory and imagination. Rallying support for the New Deal, he had regularly evoked historical images and personages such as Jefferson and Lincoln. But on this occasion, the nation's 32nd President would reach even more deeply into America's Revolutionary heritage, to the very crucible of war out of which the United States had emerged.

Seated at a desk behind a bank of microphones in a first floor White House room, Roosevelt opened up by recalling George Washington and his Continental army. Pointing to the "formidable odds and recurring defeats" they had suffered, the President recounted how their conduct had served as a "model of moral stamina" to ensuing generations. Contrasting their bravery and fortitude to the behavior of America's Tories -- those "selfish men, jealous men, fearful men" who preached defeatism and pressed for a negotiated peace -- he observed that America's first soldiers had never given up because they "knew that no man's life or fortune was secure without freedom and free institutions." And returning to the present, with isolationists in mind, he posited that the current "great struggle has taught us increasingly that freedom of person and security of property anywhere in the world depend upon the security of the rights and obligations of liberty and justice everywhere in the world."

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The present war, Roosevelt said, was a "new kind of war...not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography." Referring to the maps he had asked Americans to have ready, he surveyed the far-flung battlefronts and communications and supply lines to show how the conflict was unavoidably a global struggle, involving "every continent, every island, every sea, every air lane in the world." While granting that Germany and Japan had the immediate advantage, and warning of further losses, the President defiantly added that despite the odds, American soldiers and sailors were fighting valiantly and performing magnificently. And he promised that the United States and its allies would turn back the enemy, regain the ground lost, and ultimately prevail.

The President spoke of the sacrifices Americans would have to make on the assembly lines and, even more heroically, at the frontlines. And scoffing at Axis propaganda that portrayed them as "weaklings" and "playboys" who were eager to "hire" others to fight for them, he exclaimed: "Let them tell that to General MacArthur and his men. Let them tell that to the sailors... Let them tell that to the boys in the Flying Fortresses. Let them tell that to the marines!"

Just as fervently, the President reiterated America's commitment to pursue the war in partnership with its allies and insisted that doing so required the kind of "national unity that can know no limitation of race or creed or selfish politics." And apparently envisioning the extension of New Deal liberalism to the "whole world," he enunciated the principles they would seek to apply globally: "disarmament of aggressors, self-determination of nations and peoples, and the four freedoms -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear."

Finally, after again acknowledging the awesome task Americans had before them, Roosevelt welded together past and present:

"These are the times that try men's souls." Tom Paine wrote those words on a drumhead, by the light of a campfire. That was when Washington's little army of ragged, rugged men was retreating across New Jersey, having tasted naught but defeat. And General Washington ordered that these great words written by Tom Paine be read to the men of every regiment in the Continental Army, and this was the assurance given to the first American armed forces: "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the sacrifice, the more glorious the triumph."

So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!

Harvey J. Kaye is the Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, from which these paragraphs are drawn. He is currently writing The Four Freedoms and the Promise of America. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye

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