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

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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.



  1. idamag May 10, 2014

    One of the greatest leaders of all time. Lots of Republicans, as well as Democrats, have enjoyed the fruits of Roosevelt’s labors. When he proposed Social Security, the cry went out, “Socialism!” Preston Bush was like the nut jobs, in Washington today, and tried to repeal Social Security. . George the elder would not touch Social Security. George the younger would have. If people were really against any type of social programs, they would refuse to take Social Security or use Medicare. They would have never liked the forty-hour week. I guess those in business don’t like those things.

    1. midway54 May 10, 2014

      There was an average man in my extended family through marriage who always cheered and voted for the fatcats and their rightwing stooges and ranted against ongoing residual programs of the New Deal and FDR and of LBJ. In his misguided or just plain ignorant notion that he shared the views and objectives of those whom he considered his idols he was on his soap box regularly. His immediate family joined him in the nonsense. Then came the twilight of his life. He spent the last couple or so years in a nursing home suffering Alzheimer’s before he died. His care was paid for by the federal government and his red state of residence. Not one member of his family decried that FDR/LBJ socialism by rejecting the payments and coming forward beating their chests, and paying all the costs in that flag-waving American Way of fending for themselves as regularly preached by the scoundrels they so much followed and adored. I suspect that there are myriad stories along the same lines…when reality strikes the dupes.

      1. idamag May 10, 2014

        I have one of those, also. They are millionaires many times over and they started from scratch so I admire them. It helped that his millkonaire father-in-law gave them the start-up money. But they had the idea and it paid off. I don’t begrudge them their success. I don’t think they should share it with me. However, they cursed the Democrats and pointed out Roosevelt as a socialist president. Fast forward to about 8 years ago. They turned 62. Guess who put in for Social Security immediately. They are humble and don’t lord their success over anyone, but he doesn’t seem to think part of his wealth comes from those who work for him. He works them less than 35 hours so he doesn’t have to pay benefits. When I pointed out my negative thinking on this practice, he said, “I pay them a damn good wage to make up for it. I give them $8/hr.”

        1. midway54 May 11, 2014

          His response re the wage is typical. I suppose an addendum to it would be that he could tell his employee to find another job because there are plenty more (especially nowadays) to replace him for the amount the employee is being paid.

  2. midway54 May 10, 2014

    I have read this wonderful book, and would recommend it. While it was not recounted in the volume, I recalled a story I had seen on television over the years on the subject of FDR’s administration. It was while FDR’s funeral procession was passing and being viewed by huge crowds lined along the way that a reporter saw an elderly man openly weeping. He asked this man whether he knew FDR. His response was, “No, but he knew me.” It was one of the most moving episodes I ever heard about concerning the response of the great majority of citizens to FDR’s death.

    1. idamag May 10, 2014

      My father was a staunch Republican. My mother was a Democrat. She never forgave the Republicans for closing the banks and causing her family to lose everything they had worked for all their lives. My father had the dominant personality and she started voting his way. Thomas Dewey was the man. Look how he had stopped crime. Then next term, suddenly he was all for Truman and remained a staunch Democrat the rest of his life. I don’t know what changed his mind. It might have been Truman’s stance on war profiteering or it may have been when the kkk put a contact out on Truman for integrating the armed forces. Truman went to a kkk meeting and told them, “I am not afraid of cowards in white sheets.” I think racism might have been a factor in joe mccarthy calling Truman a communist.

      1. midway54 May 11, 2014

        I think all of us remember the unforgettable headline in the early editions of the Chicago Tribune shouting in large print the result of the election: Dewey Defeats Truman. To millions of us this great humiliation suffered by rightwinger Colonel Robert McCormick and his merry band who ran the newspaper was a delight.

        1. idamag May 12, 2014

          I remember Truman holding up that newspaper at his headquarters when the election proved he won by a landslide.

  3. charleo1 May 10, 2014

    There once was a time in America, apparently too long ago for some of us
    to remember. Or to read about, evidently. (1900s) Working men, women, and children, lived lives of extreme hardship. And there wasn’t a single thing they could do about it. They were trapped, because they had no options but to go to work. They owned nothing, had no savings to fall back on, so lived day to day. And if they were injured, as they often were, in dangerous, and unhealthy working conditions. Then the Sons, or Daughters, sometimes as young as 6 or 7, had to drop out of school, and take up their Father’s or Mother’s place. They had no other choice, see? Their parents, paid only in company script, were deep in debt to their employers, who ran the company store, and charged their workers exhorbitant prices, and owned the houses they lived in. For Roosevelt to proclaim, “That we have not yet explored the democratic way of life.” Would have been a tremendous, understatement for most Americans, who once labored under the boot of unrestrained, and unregulated Capitalism. For perspective purposes, who among the current Republican members of Congress, do we suppose would have stood up to the monied elite, of that era, and demanded better pay, or safer working conditions, prohibited child labor, or demanded medical care, and compensation for injured workers, until they were able to return to work?

    1. idamag May 12, 2014

      See “Ludlow Massacre.” Also some of it is mentioned in a book, “Nothing Daunted.” Perry, the mine owner imported workers from Russia. They could speak no English and he paid them in script to buy from the company store. They lived in sub standard housing and worked 14 to 16 hour days. They went on strike and the company kicked them out of their housing. They were camped in tents, when the Pinkertons were hired to come in and end the strike. These were men, women, and children. They were unarmed. They were massacred by the Pinkertons. You are absolutely right about their children being sent into the mines. It is easy to imagine, who among our congress, would be on the side of the mine owners. Wherever there is money, there is going to be someone who wants it, even if it gets it by nefarious means. In Chicago, gangs did infiltrate some of the unions and therefore it was easy for the real takers to make the unions look like they were organized crime. However, thugs have stolen from the government, from churches, just about anywhere there is money. You can be sure big business was behind the push to discredit unions. Then they say that higher wages cause higher prices when their CEO’s can make 22 million dollar bonuses.

  4. lottopol May 11, 2014

    “…The effects of the 2007 depression are much less severe than
    the 1929-41 depression because of safety-net benefits now provided. Consider the horrendous, though not uncommon situation of a household in 1932 comprised of elderly grandparents being supported by their working-age children with young children of their own, when the breadwinners became unemployed. The 1932 family would be destitute. Today the grandparents would have social security and Medicare benefits. Their working-age children could now collect unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks. Additionally, the entire family could also be eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, rent subsidies, heating fuel subsidies, free school lunches and other benefits. The 1932 family might also have had a bank account in one of the many banks that failed and lost their savings. Today, Federal Deposit Insurance protects such bank accounts. You might say we are now in a depression with benefits…”

    1. idamag May 12, 2014

      You do have it right. There is a push to destroy those safety nets. They call the people that use them takers, when they are the takers and abusers.

  5. charles king May 11, 2014

    This is Why? I am in (Love) with Democracy because I lived through that whole FDR era and (1) thing I know for sure and that is, Democracy Works, keep it moving forward with some Critical Thinking, You will keep America safe from (Greedy Capitalistic Pigs, Plutocracts, Do-Nothingiers Republicans, Democracts and Etcs, Who? play the “Government Is at Fault game) and as long that you have the VOTE, disallow these anti-DEMOCRACY people from having asscess to your country’s leadership. Keep those Four Freedoms in mind When? you are wondering Where? did our Democracy go and Unions, and J A Z Z all the things that spelled Freedom Of, By, and For the People. By the way, Social Security Works, Obamacare Works, Public Education Works, and anything else that is needed for the American People these Too will WORK. Thank You are the magic words in my book. I Love Ya All. Mr. C. E. KING


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