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FDR Memorial

Do Your Part

“I think that we have every right and every reason to maintain as a national policy the fundamental moralities, the teachings of religion, the continuation of efforts to restore peace because some day, though the time may be distant, we can be of even greater help to a crippled humanity.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Fireside Chat
September 3, 1939

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Lately I’ve been reading FDR’s Fireside Chats. Lessons on leadership abound. At the close of his broadcast on March 12, 1933, at the height of the financial crisis, and at the depths of despair for so many in America, he said, “Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith, you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”

On May 7, 1933 he addressed the nation on the progress made to restore faith in the financial system. He established the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide the “opportunity of employment to a quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young men who have dependents, to let them go into forestry and flood-prevention work”.

He emphasized the importance of choosing a way to rebuild the economy based on fair play. He said that the alternative of simply allowing the banks to fail, businesses to close, and homes to go into foreclosure would not lead the country back to prosperity. He went on to explain, “I came to the conclusion that such a policy would be too much to ask the American people to bear. It involved not only a further loss of homes and farms and savings and wages, but also a loss of spiritual values - the loss of that sense of security for the present and the future that is so necessary to the peace and contentment of the individual and of his family.”

To lift the spirits of the people, FDR brought beer back to the table, “In addition to all this the Congress also passed legislation as you know authorizing the sale of beer in such states as desired it. That has already resulted in considerable reemployment, and incidentally it has provided for the federal government and for the states and much-needed tax revenue.”

His commentary on what is fair treatment toward our fellow man is threaded through each Fireside Chat. The hallmark of a great leader is knowing how to bring together the common concerns of the people by addressing their individual needs. FDR had a keen intuitive sense of how to make this happen. In a time of tremendous national upheaval and global turmoil, this man, who found himself at a crucial point in the history of the world, calmly assumed his position of authority with dignity and grace. He provided a timeless example for the rest of us to become leaders in our own communities, no matter our circumstance, no matter our limitations.

His words in the Fireside Chat of July 24, 1933 show another facet of his leadership skills - that of assigning a common cause that gives everyone a real sense of belonging:

 “There are, of course, men, a few of them, who might thwart this great common purpose by seeking selfish advantage. There are adequate penalties in the law, but I am now asking the cooperation that comes from opinion and from conscience. These are the only instruments we shall use in this great summer offensive against unemployment. But we shall use them to the limit to protect the willing from the laggard and to make the plan succeed.

In war in the gloom of night attack, soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure that comrades do not fire on comrades. On that principle, those who cooperate in this program must  know each other at a glance. That is why we have provided a badge of honor for this purpose, a simple design with a legend, We Do Our Part; and I ask that all those who join with me shall display that badge prominently. It is essential to our purpose.”

The program behind the motto was the National Recovery Administration (NRA) established in an attempt to create a code of conduct for American businesses that ensured fair competitive practices, improved labor standards, and increased wages. This program was the most controversial of Roosevelt’s New Deal and came to an end in less than two years. The National Archives’ website sums it up:

For a time, the NRA worked. It gave an air of confidence to the American people to overcome the fears of the Depression and the downward turn of wages and prices. However, once recovery began, hostility among businessmen grew with the daily annoyances of code enforcement. Within two years the NRA had developed many critics and by May 1935 was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The experiment of the NRA was generally put down as a failure. Nevertheless, the codes had set new standards for business and workers such as the 40-hour week and the end of child labor. The NRA also helped the growth of unions with the endorsement of collective bargaining.

The best lesson on leadership that FDR taught was that of courage. He understood how fear fuels aggression. He knew that to do nothing in the face of provocation, does nothing for the sake of peace.

In his Fireside Chat of December 29, 1940, he defined peace in terms that any citizen could understand, “They call it a ‘negotiated peace’. Nonsense! Is it a negotiated peace if a gang of outlaws surrounds your community and on threat of extermination makes you pay tribute to save your own skins? For such a dictated peace would be no peace at all.”

President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Associated Press

President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. Associated Press

On June 6, 1944, FDR addressed the nation in a D-Day Prayer. This took courage for him to display his faith in such a public manner, but he wanted to pull the nation together in a powerful way that would show his conviction toward freedom, and that included freedom of religion. He recognized that everyone of us has a right to such freedoms and that those who foster intolerance pose a threat toward all.

He stated in his prayer, "With thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances."

President Franklin Roosevelt faced some of the greatest challenges a leader has ever had to confront. He fought for the right for all to live a decent and peaceful life. His example in global leadership is one that we can continue to learn from and apply in our own communities.

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You can read all thirty Fireside Chats at the FDR Library.

You can read an article in the Washington Post by Frank Ahrens, 2008, with links to audio versions of the Fireside Chats.

Next time you are in Washington, DC, you can visit FDR’s Memorial, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week because it is an outdoor installation.

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Cover photo by Kathleen Franks

Background image by Getty Images

© 2014 - 2017 Kathleen Franks