Weekend Reader: ‘The Fight For Four Freedoms: What Made FDR And The Greatest Generation Truly Great’

Weekend Reader: ‘The Fight For Four Freedoms: What Made FDR And The Greatest Generation Truly Great’

Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Fight for Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great by Harvey J. Kaye, Director of the Center for History and Social Change at the University of Wisconsin. Kaye provides an enlightening and important historical account of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fight for the freedom from want and fear, and the freedom of speech and religion. The author makes a strong case that these policies helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression and led to the nation becoming a world superpower. The excerpt below outlines the battle for social justice by progressive politicians, despite years of pushback from conservatives. 

You can purchase the book here.

A new story of America was definitely in the air, encompassing not only labor and class, but also ethnicity, race, and gender. Work­ing with both the private Service Bureau for Intercultural Education and the WPA, the U.S. Office of Education produced Americans All, Immigrants All in 1938–39. A program of twenty-six weekly, half-hour national radio broadcasts, it recounted the country’s development through the experiences of nearly every “nationality” that came to this country and contributed to its development and the making of Amer­ican democratic life. The show was heard by millions of Americans—including schoolchildren—either directly on the radio or on specially produced recordings. In fact, many people listened together in groups and “hundreds of organizations” from ethnic and religious societies to union locals and patriotic clubs like the American Legion and DAR wrote to the producers requesting additional materials.

The WPA itself created two series of radio plays, Women in the Mak­ing of America and Gallant American Women, which told of women’s ac­tivism in and contributions to U.S. history and gave special attention to the campaigns of radicals such as Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth for equality and democratic rights. And the Communist songwriters Earl Robinson and John LaTouche composed “Ballad for Americans,” an uplifting, twelve-minute-long, multiethnic, multifaith, and multiracial call-and-response telling of American history that became—following a nationally broadcast performance by Paul Robeson and the American People’s Chorus in 1939—not only the “anthem” of the progressive cul­tural front, but also a major American “hit” (which even the Republi­cans wanted performed at their 1940 party convention!).

African Americans, too, intensified and expanded their struggles. Under the slogan “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work,” civil rights groups in the northeast organized boycotts of stores that refused to hire blacks. Even in the racially regimented South, protests intensified. The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union grew to 30,000 members. African Americans in southern cities formed more “voting clubs” to challenge the laws and practices that prevented them from casting their ballots. And with encouragement from the White House, prominent south­ern liberals, black and white together, joined by the First Lady her­self, gathered in Birmingham, Alabama, in November 1938 to found the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (SCHW) and proceeded to launch an anti–poll tax campaign that looked toward undoing the region’s reactionary regimes by restoring the franchise to the masses of poor blacks and whites who had lost it with the ascendance in the 1890s of Bourbon and Jim Crow politics. Plus, the NAACP scored a critical victory that year in its pursuit of the “equal” in “separate but equal” when the Supreme Court ruled in Gaines v. Canada that Mis­souri “could not give whites a legal education . . . and deny that right to blacks.” The Court did not overturn segregation, but everyone knew the decision represented a critical precedent.

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The democratic surge could also be seen and heard in the new “swing music” that, with its big-band orchestras led by progressives such as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, not only roused the spir­its of young people of every sort and region of the country, but also broke the “color line” in both their songs and performances.

Eleanor Roosevelt herself campaigned all the more vigorously for social justice and the rights of women, young people, minorities, and labor—in fact, Mrs. Roosevelt joined a journalists’ union, the Ameri­can Newspaper Guild, when she began to write her “My Day” column in 1936. Even more famously, she not only resigned in protest from the Daughters of the American Revolution when it refused in 1939 to permit the world-renowned African-American contralto Marian An­derson to perform before an integrated audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., she also worked with Interior Secretary Ickes to arrange an open-air concert by Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, which drew an integrated crowd of 75,000. And belying the continuous ranting of her conservative critics, the more the First Lady campaigned, the more popular she became. A poll conducted by George Gallup of the American Institute of Public Opinion in early 1939 showed that 73 and 62 percent of American women and men, re­spectively, approved of the First Lady’s activities.

All of which did not go unanswered. Corporate executives, along with political conservatives and reactionaries, invested fresh resources to contain, if not reverse, the new democratic surge. Business groups responded to heightened consumer activism by creating their own “shadow” consumer organizations bearing names such as the Crowell Institute on Consumer Relations. And though the Liberty League it­self disbanded, the National Association of Manufacturers launched another huge public relations campaign to advance among America’s middle classes a more favorable image of business.

Projecting private enterprise—which capitalists now took to call­ing “free enterprise”—as “The American Way” to prosperity, bill­boards across the country portrayed happy families enjoying the best of American industry. Plus, fearful that the President and his progres­sive enthusiasts were enlivening Americans’ historical memories and imagination in dangerous ways, NAM also published Young America, a magazine distributed to many of the nation’s public schools, which sought to counter their influence. And the DuPont Corporation re­newed its sponsorship of Cavalcade of America, a radio series that pre­sented plays on the nation’s past intended to emphasize “the qualities of American character which have been responsible for the building of this country”—which usually meant highlighting the inventiveness, innovativeness, and beneficence of the nation’s industrial pioneers and leaders.

Corporate ideological initiatives included more direct and ag­gressive actions than simply roadside billboards and radio broadcasts, however. Convinced that progressive ideas held too powerful a sway in America’s classrooms, NAM commissioned the Columbia Uni­versity banking professor Ralph Robey to conduct an investigation of the nation’s social-studies textbooks. And outfitted with Robey’s six-hundred-page report, the organization, with the assistance of the American Legion, waged a public war on works that lacked the “right kind of patriotism.”

Congressional reactionaries mobilized, too. Headed by Representa­tive Martin Dies of Texas, an infamous nativist, anti-Semite, and racist who actually admired Hitler for his “philosophy of Aryan racial purity,” they gained control of a House committee originally created to inves­tigate Nazi subversives and sympathizers and turned it into what would become the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Duly authorized, Dies and company, intent upon portraying the New Deal as “un-American,” pursued a political inquisition against the Roosevelt presidency and the Left and incited something of a “Red Scare” when they began to call administration officials and labor and progressive leaders to testify about the presence and possible influence of not fascists, but Communists, in their agencies and organizations.

No doubt with just such reactionary machinations in mind, Roo­sevelt warned in a November 1938 election-eve radio broadcast:

As of today, Fascism and Communism—and old-line Tory Re­publicanism—are not threats to the continuation of our form of government. But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land.

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But FDR also knew that Americans had come to believe—as Har­old Stearns had observed in 1937—“that we have not yet fully explored the democratic way of life.” Reflecting the spirit and determination of the day, the civil liberties attorney Arthur Garfield Hays argued in De­mocracy Works that democracy was most essentially about “the right to make a fight.” Citing Jefferson, Adams, and Paine, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in “America was Promises”:

America is promises to
America is promises to
To take them
With love but
Take Them.

Oh believe this!

And echoing the labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the editors of Chi­cago’s black newspaper, The Defender, declared: “Democracy is never given. It must be taken.”

Like Roosevelt, Stearns, Hays, MacLeish, and the editors of The Defender were reacting to as much as encouraging the average Ameri­can’s embrace of the nation’s quickening progressive impulse. The de­gree to which that impulse both permeated down and percolated up is registered in the declarations of the National Congress of Spanish Speaking Peoples (“El Congreso”), a coalition of 136 union locals and Latino organizations formed in 1938 to promote the mutual causes of labor and civil rights. As the historian George Sanchez has noted, the young Mexican Americans who belonged to El Congreso—despite the abuses they endured and the criticisms they voiced—were eager to “fight for American democracy” against fascism and imperialism. By no means, he explained, did they think the United States “represented a society of equality.” But as their own words testify, they cherished America, for they saw in its democracy “a chance for change.” In de­mocracy, they said, “voices can be lifted. Songs can be sung. You can belong to a union, a club, to a church. And through that union, that club, or that church you can ask for a chance.” And in the wake of Pearl Harbor, after urging everyone, young and old, to cooperate in the war effort, they declared: “We are also children of the United States. We will defend her!”

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

From The Fight for Four Freedoms by Harvey J. Kaye. Copyright © 2014 by Harvey J. Kaye. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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