Occupy Wall Street and FDR’s vision for America
I always associate Thanksgiving with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech. When I was in elementary school, a series of images by Norman Rockwell illustrating the four freedoms hung on the walls of every schoolroom. The illustration of Freedom from Want was a family gathered around a table for their Thanksgiving turkey. Of the four images, that one stuck in my mind.
My association of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech with Thanksgiving seemed particularly poignant this year because of the prominence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The “occupiers” have more claim to Roosevelt’s legacy than most of the Democrats in Congress.
Roosevelt used his January 1941 State of the Union address to alert Congress — and the nation — to the danger Hitler posed for the United States if he was not stopped in Europe. “I find it unhappily necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders,” the president said.
With the effects of the Great Depression still lingering in much of the country, Americans were too absorbed with their own problems to care what was happening far away. In addition, isolationists and pro-German Americans had strong objections to involvement in Europe.
Most of Roosevelt’s speech was a pragmatic argument to Congress as to why we needed to increase our aid to Europe, and increase our manufacturing sector to meet the demand for planes, ships and other war materials for our European allies as well as for ourselves.
At the end of the speech, almost as an afterthought, Roosevelt introduced the concept of the Four Freedoms for which the speech is justly famous. “In the future days, which we seek to make more secure,” Roosevelt told the Congress, “we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” These freedoms are, as Roosevelt enumerated them, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Looking forward to a new world emerging after fascism was defeated, Roosevelt addressed his remarks not just to Americans, but to all nations and all peoples willing to stand against the threat of a new world order. This “is no vision of a distant millennium,” Roosevelt said. “It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order ... the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
Behind the Four Freedoms speech was Roosevelt’s analysis of the essential conditions for democracy to flourish. “There is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy,” he said. “The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple.”
The list of essential conditions for democracy listed by Roosevelt bear a close resemblance to issues raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement: equality of opportunity for youth and others, jobs for those who can work, security for those who need it, ending special privilege for the few, the preservation of civil liberties for all and the enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
Among areas needing immediate improvement, Roosevelt listed old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, access to medical care and a better system to help the unemployed.
To support these programs, Roosevelt asked Americans to share the burden by paying more in taxes “in accordance with the ability to pay.”
The fact that today’s occupiers are pressing for progress on issues that Roosevelt introduced 70 years ago shows how little progress on social programs the country has made. From the behavior we have seen in Congress recently, it is unlikely they will do much better in the future.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement can revitalize Roosevelt’s vision for a better America based on shared sacrifice and justice for all, they will be our next Greatest Generation.