Harold Saperstein, Martin Dash, and Akiva Skidell heard President Roosevelt’s 1941 Message to Congress and, like so many other Americans, made the Four Freedoms their own. To these young Jewish Americans, “freedom of speech and expression” meant the right to speak even when doing so challenged the prevailing consensus; “freedom of worship” signified the right to pray and live freely and equally as a Jew in an overwhelmingly Christian society; “freedom from want” declared that the pursuit of economic security and opportunity had just begun; and “freedom from fear” meant a determined effort to “end discrimination and persecution.” And these young men carried that vision with them into the war—Saperstein as an army chaplain in Europe, Dash as a naval officer in the Atlantic on the destroyer USS McCormick, and Skidell as a radio operator in Europe with the 2nd Armored Division.1
Discussing her work for “What My Job Means to Me,” a 1943 article for the black journal Opportunity, Leotha Hackshaw, an inspector of binoculars in an army ordnance plant, stated: “In our own time our President has raised the standard of the ‘Four Freedoms.’ These freedoms are not new. They have been fought for over and over again. The Negro has attained one of these and part of another. Freedom from fear and freedom from want he is fighting for now; for under them democracy can reach its fulfillment.” And recalling his disappointment that he and his men were assigned to battling forest fires in Washington State instead of the nation’s enemies, Walter Morris, a platoon leader in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion—the U.S. Army’s first black paratroop unit—related that when he seriously confronted the question of what he was doing and why he so wanted to succeed, he realized he was doing it for his “children” and his “children’s children,” for “I knew . . . in my heart,” he said, “that this country, as great as it is, would overcome the stigma of separation and prejudice.”2
In a letter to his not yet born son—a son whom he would never see, for he was killed in action in France in August 1944—First Lieutenant Wallace Zosel of the 666th Engineers Topographical Company wrote: “I am grateful [you] can grow in the best country in the world, and, believe me, we who are overseas really know how wonderful America really is. True, we . . . have seen many things we would like to have changed, but that is what we hope to do . . . That is perhaps our chief reason for fighting this war . . . Millions of us over here are working, and fighting, and dying because we want America to be a nation of hope for mankind.”3
How could those young Americans have felt as they did? Anti-Semitism excluded Jews from organizations and activities and expressed itself in acts of violence. Racism segregated people by color and oppressed those of color, sometimes murderously so. Women’s lives were limited by “traditional” assumptions and expectations. Business hostility to labor unions led to pitched battles and bloodshed. And an economic depression so severe it had led citizens to speak of the death of the American dream and, possibly, democratic government itself continued to shadow the nation with high unemployment right up until the country’s full-scale mobilization for war.
Given all of that, what gave those young men and women these hopes and aspirations they expressed even as they faced a war threatening the very survival of the United States? What sustained their faith in America and led them to believe they could advance the Four Freedoms?
Eager to indict Franklin Roosevelt for hijacking the Constitution and crippling free enterprise, conservatives don’t tell us. Eager to arraign him for serving the interests of capital and stifling revolutionary possibilities, radicals don’t tell us. And as eager as they remain to defend his record and legacy, liberals don’t tell us, either. In fact, even the tribunes of America’s “Greatest Generation” and “citizen soldiers,” such as Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, and Ken Burns, never really tell us.
They do not tell us that the men and women and boys and girls of the 1930s witnessed, if not themselves experienced, not just fierce racial and religious oppression, brutal class inequalities and injustices, and the terrible trials and tribulations of the Great Depression, but also the greatest democratic upsurge and transformations since the 1860s, if not the Revolution.
Americans did not simply suffer and endure the Great Depression.
They confronted it.
They did so in diverse ways. Critically, they did so by electing a man to the presidency who believed in America’s democratic purpose and promise and gave full voice to the progressive imperative and possibilities inherent in it—a President who through his spoken words and a vast host of newly created agencies such as the NRA (National Recovery Administration), AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), WPA (Works Progress Administration), and NYA (National Youth Administration) articulated Americans’ democratic memories and yearnings and mobilized their spirits and energies to pursue not only relief and recovery, but also reconstruction and reform. Moreover, they did so by electing and reelecting a President who spoke to their deepest understandings, hopes, and aspirations and challenged them to fight not just the economic depression but also the order of things that had engendered it—a President who called on them to remake America by advancing and affording themselves a new deal.
And they responded to the challenge with conviction.
They responded not only by backing their President’s efforts to publicly regulate industry and commerce and by going to work in their millions in public-works projects to rebuild the country’s public spaces, infrastructures, and landscapes, but also—increasingly determined to both secure their rights as Americans and compel FDR to pursue the New Deal faster and further than he might otherwise have done—by speaking their own words and creating or expanding their own alphabet soup of agencies such as the UMW (United Mine Workers), ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union), AYC (American Youth Congress), NNC (National Negro Congress), and CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).
Defying historical expectations, fierce conservative, reactionary, and corporate opposition, and the siren calls of demagogues, they and their President initiated progressive changes in American government and public life, changes that radically extended and deepened American freedom, equality, and democracy.
How could those young Americans have felt as they did?
How could they not? They and their fellow citizens had confronted the Great Depression and prevailed. Yes, they had much still to do. However, in contrast to so much of the rest of the world, where dictators had come to rule with iron fists and concentration camps, a generation of Americans had stood up to the crises that threatened them by making the United States not just physically and culturally richer, but at the very same time all the more free, equal, and democratic. That generation—those men and women and those boys and girls—had already begun to prove to themselves that they could not only endure hardship and triumph over adversity, but also mobilize and harness the powers of democratic government to progressively remake America and themselves. Indeed, they had not just reaffirmed the nation’s democratic purpose and promise, but also, whether they knew it or not, helped to compose FDR’s Four Freedoms peroration.
• • •
In 1937, in the immediate wake of FDR’s first term and at the very outset of his second, the cultural critic Harold Stearns would remark, “At whatever point you touch the complex American life of today you get a sense of new confidence, new pride, and even new hope.” Insisting it had to do with more than “economic recovery,” he explained: “It is a dim but growing conviction that our way of life has not yet been tried and found wanting—indeed, a feeling that we ourselves have not even completely attempted it. In a word, we do not believe that democracy has failed us, but that we have not yet fully explored the democratic way of life.”4
Yet not many years earlier—even before the economy went into free fall—such democratic optimism would have seemed misplaced to most Americans. The Roaring Twenties may be remembered as a time of economic growth and prosperity. And for a certain class of people it was. But it was also a time in which conservatives, reactionaries, and the corporate rich dominated American life, politically, culturally, and economically. It was anything but a time of progressive hopes and dreams.
The United States entered World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” but doing so did not encourage democracy in postwar America. Women gained the vote. However, a vicious Red Scare drove radicals out of the country or to the margins of public life; and racism, nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism—all the favorite isms of the renascent Ku Klux Klan—not to mention Prohibition and a narrow-minded evangelical Protestantism, intensified their hold on public life. At the same time, isolationism replaced internationalism, which the U.S. Senate signaled clearly by rejecting U.S. entry into the new League of Nations.
America was ethnically and racially diverse—and it had become all the more so with the arrival of millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, east Asia, and Mexico in the years before the war. But the country continued to be dominated by “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” elites. As the columnist Joseph Alsop would later observe: “The nation’s culture was a WASP culture. The nation’s economy was WASP-dominated . . . Even the nation’s politics were WASP politics.” And that politics included stemming the tide of immigration. In 1924, Congress enacted restrictive immigration acts that banned Asian newcomers altogether and set quotas effectively limiting the annual number of new Europeans to 150,000 and those from beyond “Nordic” Europe to 15,000.5
Moreover, governed by Republican presidents, Americans seemed uninterested in the turn-of-the-century leftist politics that had inspired challenges to the ruling classes of the corporate mogul-dominated “Gilded Age”—leading the former president and now Chief Justice William Howard Taft to happily state in the wake of Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 presidential election victory: “This country is no country for radicalism. I think it is the most conservative country in the world.” And not only conservatives thought so. Heading into self-imposed Parisian exile along with many another intellectual and artist—placing American culture all the more in the hands of those eager to market it or, like the renowned social critic H. L. Mencken, debunk it—the same Harold Stearns who would write so optimistically fifteen years later lamented in 1922: “We have no heritage or traditions to which to cling except those that have already withered . . . and turned to dust.”6
Ever more concentrated, corporate enterprise reigned supreme in this so-called New Era of the 1920s. Business boomed, wealth accumulated, and labor union rolls shrank from 5 million to fewer than 3.5 million members. President Calvin Coolidge declared, “The chief business of the American people is business,” and capital’s publicists, preaching the wonders of technological innovation, promoted a “cult of prosperity.”7
Prosperity, however, did not characterize everybody’s life. Inequality widened and economic insecurity intensified. Agriculture never recovered from its postwar price depression, sending many not just deeper into debt, but also into town for work—which, along with industrial mechanization, served to swell the urban labor supply, suppress wages, and keep living standards low for most workers and their families.8
Sensing that workers wanted to organize unions, their organized bosses did everything they could to prevent it from happening. Presumably, the very things that had impressed the socialist Sidney Hillman, Russian-Jewish leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union, had impressed them. Moved by the skill and savvy of his co-unionists, most of them, like himself, immigrants, Hillman said in 1914: “To see these people, only a few years ago from lands where factories were unknown, meeting to discuss problems of the rights and wrongs of shop discipline, of changing prices, of the rightfulness of discharge is a thing to fill one with hope for the future of democracy.” But whereas for Hillman this fresh democratic energy had signaled the coming of “the Messiah,” for capitalists it portended the arrival of the Antichrist.9
Harnessing the wartime rhetoric of “Americanism”—“100% Americanism”—and the fears of the Red Scare, the business classes denounced unions and their demands as “anti-American.” As they saw it, collective bargaining between management and labor and the creation of “closed shops” in which all workers were obliged to join the union denied individual rights and equal opportunity. John Edgerton, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers, exclaimed: “I can’t conceive of any principle that is more purely American, that comes nearer representing the very essence of all those traditions and institutions that are dearest to us than the open shop principle.”10
Seeking to dissolve the ethnic communal ties that limited their own prerogatives, businessmen not only promoted conservative renditions of “Americanism” in the public arena. They also instituted “Americanization” classes in the workplace and underwrote such campaigns in the schools. Moreover, hoping to prove that unions were unnecessary—as well as obviate the desire for state welfare programs they could not control—many adopted the American Plan of “welfare capitalism,” paternalistically providing their employees with small pensions, paid holidays, and company-approved social activities.11
Still feeling insecure, however, bosses employed private police and spies, demanded that workers sign contracts promising not to join a union, and even resorted to setting up “company unions” to deter independent efforts. And if workers did organize and stage actions, companies did not hesitate to recruit both strikebreakers and head-breakers and to secure court injunctions with their implicit threat of force by police or state militia. Forever favoring property and contracts, judges refused to recognize labor organizing as a matter of free speech and assembly. In 1922, Chief Justice Taft, the “labor law architect of the New Era,” expressed the sentiment of the ruling elites when he noted, “we have to hit” organized labor.12
It’s not that those elites rejected democracy. They just didn’t want more of it. Nor did they reject government. Again, they just didn’t want more of it. The War Department’s Manual of Citizenship Training clearly reflected their thinking. It not only warned that immigration from “central, eastern, and southern Europe” presented a “grave danger” to “our constitutional form of government and the blessings of liberty we enjoy.” It also laid down that “the United States is a Republic, not a democracy,” presented the former as “the culmination of civilized government,” and made clear that citizenship guaranteed “Unrestricted possession of property.”13
While instructors were to teach that “The mission of America is to demonstrate that a people can govern themselves,” the history they were to impart simply affirmed the existing order. Introducing “Great Americans,” the manual referred to Thomas Jefferson as a “radical democrat.” Yet, lest anyone get the wrong idea, it explained that, “Living to-day, he undoubtedly would be found . . . giving voice in protest against the present tendency—marked as well in his time—of too much government.” And though it praised Abraham Lincoln for “saving the Union,” it effectively ignored emancipation.14
The governing elites’ real hero was neither Jefferson nor Lincoln, but Alexander Hamilton, whose policies as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary subordinated democracy and laboring people to commercial growth and the formation of a powerful mercantile and financial elite. Celebrating his vision and legacy in 1923, President Harding dedicated a prominent statue of Hamilton in front of the Treasury Building.
Democracy deferred to capitalism nationally. But down south it also bowed to a species of feudalism. White supremacy and racial apartheid ordered society by law, custom, and terror. Three-quarters of the region’s 30 million citizens lived essentially in poverty. Cotton was king and peonage was common. And while land and mill owners gave lip service to liberty and democracy, they maintained, with impunity, one-party, specifically Democratic Party, regimes that, through poll taxes, all-white primaries, and intimidation, disfranchised most blacks as well as a good majority of poor whites.15
The governing elites had reason to be anxious. They had subdued America’s democratic impulse, not discharged it. Though in retreat, unions soldiered on, committed to advancing not only workers’ material interests, but also a more democratic conception of what it meant to be an American. Labor activists of the 1920s set forth an “Americanism” that insisted upon workers’ rights to both free speech and assembly and an “American standard of living” in which higher wages provided good housing, medical care, and education, and shorter hours afforded time for family, civic affairs, self-improvement, and recreation.16
While committed to “voluntarism”—the principle of not relying on government for protection—the craft unions of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) advocated active citizenship and support for candidates who “uphold the cause of labor.” Though handicapped by their own prejudices, they officially opposed bigotry, and a few major unions, like the United Mine Workers (UMW), International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), and Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA)—all three, industrial unions—pursued interethnic and even, in many places, interracial labor solidarity.17
Unionists, African Americans, and immigrants also kept alive an alternative national history to that promoted by the powers that be. In his 1925 book, The Miners’ Fight for American Standards, the UMW president John L. Lewis praised industrial capitalism’s productivity and the prosperity it provided, but called on the ideals of the “Fathers of the Republic” and the nation’s long history of “progressive” movements to decry the “substitution of the dictatorship of ownership for constitutional government.”18
Proffering an equally radical vision of America’s making, the president of the black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, told a crowd of 60,000 at the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that “despite the cynicism of certain political historians on the reconstruction period of Negro history, an unbiased examination will reveal that black freedom gave to the South its first glimpse of democratic institutions.” And after proclaiming that blacks ever since “have fought nobly in the ranks of white workers” and served ably as “the carriers and preservers of democracy,” he prophesied that their “next gift to America will be in economic democracy.” Meanwhile, bearing “memories” of Emancipation and Reconstruction and an “expansive view” of democracy, 100,000 southern blacks every year pursued America’s promise by heading north in the “Great Migration.”19
Most immigrants wanted to become American. In the predominantly working-class Slovak communities, activists contended that their people’s “love of liberty and democracy” would naturally make them good Americans; but they also insisted, “If there is any Americanization to be done, we will do it ourselves.” And though unable to celebrate their participation in the nation’s founding, Slovaks celebrated their role in the country’s industrialization, “building railroads, working in the mines, steel mills . . .”20
Others, higher up the social ladder, sought to sustain Americans’ democratic memory and imagination as well. In popular works such as The Rise of American Civilization, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America, and Main Currents in American Thought, “Progressive scholars” such as Charles and Mary Beard, Claude G. Bowers, and Vernon Louis Parrington reminded their fellow citizens that the battles of the Founding era made the United States “not only a republic, but a democratic republic” and that American history has entailed a perennial contest between “the rights of man” and “the rights of property.”21
Diverse middle-class and better-off folk joined groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Consumers’ League (NCL), and the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), seeking to defend freedom of speech, secure the rights of minorities, and enact laws to abolish child labor, protect women workers, and guarantee all employees living wages, decent hours, and the right to organize unions. While they did not constitute a movement, they were not without consequence. The NCL and WTUL, for example, engendered a progressive women’s network and the latter afforded a venue in which women as different as the future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the Polish-Jewish immigrant and union organizer Rose Schneiderman could work together and become good friends.22
Liberal politicians such as Senators George Norris, Robert F. Wagner, and Robert M. La Follette (followed by his son Robert Jr.)—respectively, a Nebraska Republican, a New York Democrat, and a Wisconsin Progressive—also continued to challenge the status quo by speaking in favor of both labor’s rights and public initiatives for the public good. And in 1928, New York’s governor, Al Smith, enthused immigrants and ethnics, both Catholic and Jewish, by becoming, despite southern suspicions, the first Catholic ever to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.23
The very notion of a renewed progressivism made conservatives nervous. Secretary of Commerce and Republican candidate for president in 1928, Herbert Hoover ardently believed in private enterprise and local initiative, but, renowned as the “Great Humanitarian” for his refugee relief work in the First World War, he was no Social Darwinist, no advocate of “survival of the fittest.” Still, perceiving in Smith’s candidacy the dangerous potential of a new, possibly ethnic-based politics, he was not beyond accusing the Democrats of abandoning “the principles of our American political and economic system” for “state socialism” simply for proposing in their platform that the federal government address the existing joblessness, develop the nation’s water resources, and invest in public works.24
Bolstered by continued “prosperity” and anti-Catholicism, Hoover won. But in the very same speech in which he charged the Democrats with being un-American, he twice boasted that Republican administrations, and the “American system,” had brought the country “nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear and want, than humanity has ever reached.” Those words would soon come back to haunt him, as the fruits of conservative governance would come to haunt the nation.25
What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great
The Fight for the Four Freedoms
What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great
On January 6, 1941, the Greatest Generation gave voice to its founding principles, the Four Freedoms: Freedom from want and from fear. Freedom of speech and religion. In the name of the Four Freedoms they fought the Great Depression. In the name of the Four Freedoms they defeated the Axis powers.
In the process they made the United States the richest and most powerful country on Earth. And, despite a powerful, reactionary opposition, the men and women of the Greatest Generation made America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.
Now, when all they fought for is under siege, we need to remember their full achievement, and, so armed, take up again the fight for the Four Freedoms.