FDR's Message to Obama and Romney: America's Strength Abroad Begins at Home

Oct 29, 2012David B. Woolner

FDR knew that America's willingness to fight inequality was more important than its ability to wage war.

Our strength is measured not only in terms of the might of our armaments. It is measured not only in terms of the horsepower of our machines.

The true measure of our strength lies deeply imbedded in the social and economic justice of the system in which we live.

For you can build ships and tanks and planes and guns galore; but they will not be enough. You must place behind them an invincible faith in the institutions which they have been built to defend. – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1938

In their recent debate on foreign policy, both President Obama and Governor Romney made a point of linking America’s security with the health of the U.S. economy. Governor Romney, for example, argued that the ability of the United States to promote “the principles of peace” abroad “begins with a strong economy here at home,” while President Obama said that thanks to our experiments with nation-building in places like Iraq, “we've neglected…developing our own economy, our own energy sectors, our own education system. And it's very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we're not doing what we need to do here.”

Both candidates are correct, of course, in pointing out that a healthy economy—and in Mr. Obama’s case, a healthy education system and energy sector—are critical to the overall strength of the nation and hence our ability to project American influence overseas. But as has been the case with so much of this campaign, neither man had much to say about another critical element of national health that also plays an important part in our foreign policy: the social health of the nation.

Roughly 70 years ago, when the United States was living in a far more dangerous world than we are living in today, Franklin Roosevelt argued that America’s place in the world was not merely dependent on our military and economic power, but also dependent on our ability to create a society where social and economic justice were paramount. For Roosevelt, this meant building a nation which, in “arming itself for defense has also the intelligence to save its human resources by giving them that confidence which comes from useful work,” which in “creating a great navy has also found the strength to build houses and begin to clear the slums of its cities and its countryside,” and which as “the industrial leader of the world has the humanity to know that the people of a free land need not suffer the disease of poverty and the dread of not being wanted.”

Indeed, in gazing out over a world where anti-democratic forces were on the march, Roosevelt also insisted that “unhappy events abroad” had “re-taught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people.” The first truth was that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living.”

For Roosevelt and the generation that lived through the Depression and war, these truths were very real, and as such the conviction that the health and strength of the nation were linked directly to its ability to deliver social and economic justice for all its people was regarded, not as a luxury, but as a critical component of national security.

And yet on the campaign trail today we hear very little about the vital need to address the same disturbing trends that FDR warned us about all those decades ago: the vast and growing unequal distribution of wealth among the American people, the dangers of the rise of “private power” to the exercise of democracy, the fact that in America today roughly one-third of our citizens have rejoined the ranks of the poor or near poor.

No, instead what we hear is an endless stream of uninspiring messages about each candidate’s “plans” to create jobs, reduce the deficit, and “keep America strong.” But after living through four long years of the Great Recession and bearing witness to a society where 400 individuals now own more wealth that the bottom 150 million combined, the American people deserve more than mere platitudes. They want to hear their leaders articulate a vision for America that involves the creation of a better and more just society, a society that will inspire what Roosevelt called “the anguished common people of this earth.”

President Obama has offered hints of this in his call to move the country forward, but in the dangerous world that our parents and grandparents inhabited, Franklin Roosevelt went much further. In the final and anxious days of the 1940 election, for example, he reminded his fellow citizens that they were a generation living in “a tremendous moment of history,” where the “surge of events abroad” had led some to ask whether “the book of democracy” might “now to be closed and placed away upon the dusty shelves of time.” For Roosevelt the answer was clear and unequivocal:

All we have known of the glories of democracy—its freedom, its efficiency as a mode of living, its ability to meet the aspirations of the common man— all these are merely an introduction to the greater story of a more glorious future.

We Americans of today—all of us—we are characters in this living book of democracy.

But we are also its author. It falls upon us now to say whether the chapters that are to come will tell a story of retreat or a story of continued advance.

I believe that the American people will say: "Forward!"

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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