Roosevelt did not leave it there, however. Distinguishing “clear-thinking businessmen” from the rest, he alerted his fellow citizens to “the grave dangers of rightist reaction.” And he then put Congress itself on the spot: “I ask Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights – for it is definitely the responsibility of Congress to do so.” Finally, linking the question of addressing the needs of the war veterans to that of enacting the new bill of rights in a universal program of economic and social security, he declared: “Our fighting men abroad – and their families at home – expect such a program and have the right to insist upon it.”
The labor movement quickly mobilized around the president’s proposal. Liberal politicians, editors, academics, and theologians enthusiastically joined in a newly created National Citizens Political Action Committee to bolster labor’s efforts. Civil rights organizations firmly embraced the promise they heard in FDR’s words. And Americans energetically rallied as workers, consumers, and citizens.
Roosevelt himself did not retreat in the autumn presidential campaign. He not only reiterated his call for a new bill of rights. He also insisted that the “right to vote must be open to our citizens irrespective of race, color or creed – without tax or artificial restriction of any kind.” And that November, he won re-election to a fourth term with 53.5 percent of the vote, and the Democratic Party, though it lost a seat in the Senate, gained 20 in the House.
Tragically, FDR was right about the dangers of rightist reaction. Americans’ hopes and aspirations were stymied by aggressive and well-funded conservative and corporate campaigns. Still, compelled by popular pressure, Congress did enact a “GI Bill of Rights,” an historic initiative that enabled 12,000,000 veterans – nearly 1 in 10 Americans – to radically transform themselves and their country for the better. And in years to come their generation would not only make America richer and stronger, but would act anew to progressively realize the vision that Roosevelt had projected.
We need to redeem that vision. President Obama has rightly warned that inequality seriously threatens America’s promise. He may not be able to enact any new grand initiatives before he leaves office. But remembering Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Message, and speaking with confidence in and to his fellow citizens, he may not only get Americans to vote Democratic in November and set the agenda for 2016. He may also encourage us to go “All Out!” in the fight to renew America’s grand experiment in democracy. That would be a great second-term legacy.
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of the forthcoming book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). Follow him on Twitter @harveyjkaye
Photo via Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum
Copyright 2014 The National Memo