In 1933, President Elect Franklin Roosevelt stood before a demoralized, desperate country and proclaimed “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This profound statement reverberated through the nation buoyed by the strength of confidence and conviction of the man who first spoke them, galvanizing the United States into its first steps toward a new nation. It was the height of the Great Depression, people were out of jobs and out of food with nowhere left to turn. To understand just how powerful a president Franklin Roosevelt was, it is necessary to understand just how dire the situation was for most Americans on the day that he took office and how much the nation had changed by the day he died in 1945, just a little more than 12 eventful years later.
Prior to Franklin Roosevelt taking office, the nation had been sunk into the greatest economic depression it had ever seen, sending the populace into a tailspin with nowhere left to turn for help. At the time, there were even fewer social safety nets than there are today with those in the country still faring worse than those in the towns, but just by degrees. “Everywhere [Roosevelt] went he heard stories about the lack of electricity in the countryside and the exorbitant rates paid for it in town, about bad schools and low farm prices” (FDR, 1994). People who were down on their luck in one way or another had only family and friends, and perhaps a few charitable organizations or churches to turn to for help.
As was pointed out in the American Experience film, people who were crippled by illness or accident could, at best, hope that their family would provide them with a back bedroom where they could remain hidden for the rest of their days (FDR, 1994). Although it is reported that as much as a quarter of the population suddenly had to go on welfare with the advent of the Great Depression and there were entire tent cities in places that had come to be called Hoovervilles because of the lack of effectiveness of Herbert Hoover in meeting this crisis, “the great tradition in the United States had been private charity, community charity. Families take care of their own and so the notion that somehow the government would take care of the poor or the unemployed or the old — this is something that was just not part of our tradition. We didn’t know of it” (FDR, 1994). Indeed, part of Hoover’s ineffectiveness was his belief in a trickle-down type economic theory in which he expected people to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. This illuminates the nation’s standard approach to national disasters as well.
Films such as The Great Gatsby have been made about the fun times of the earlier 1920s, the so-called Jazz Age, when American life was shifting from the farms to the cities and economic drivers were beginning to switch from farms to banking and investments. Americans were buying up the new commodities available on the market such as new household appliances and cars on credit while seeking to make their fortunes on Wall Street. When the banks came crashing down in 1929, so did people’s livelihoods, savings, appliances, and over-all well-being (FDR, 1994). And that was just the people in the city.
The people in the country were about to be struck with a double whammy in the form of a decade worth of extreme draught in what has since come to be called the Dust Bowl. Crops withered and faded, farmers could no longer pay to stay on their lands and no one had anywhere left to go. “There’s only one word that adequately describes it and that’s surely despair — a sense of helplessness, a sense of hopelessness. About a third — imagine, a third — of labor totally unemployed, 14 million people. There was a sense of fright, a sense of horror. … Five thousand banks closed. Each month, 20,000 farmers lost their land. The economy had collapsed” (FDR, 1994). Hoover can’t be blamed too much for clinging to his idea that people should be able to take care of themselves. Self-sufficiency was a hallmark of the American character and it was something even Roosevelt believed throughout his childhood and early adult years (FDR, 1994). It’s been speculated that his battle with polio and the insights of his wife Eleanor helped to open his eyes to what the country really needed – governmental intervention to get the country back to work.
Within his first 100 days in office, Franklin Roosevelt already introduced sweeping change to help the nation out of this despair which would also serve to help it weather the upcoming storm that was the Second World War. His decision to extend government aid to the common man was not made immediately. “In his first six months, he advocated tax relief for farmers and cheap electric power for consumers, but when disaster suddenly struck the economy, no one was sure what Roosevelt would do” (FDR, 1994).
Neither was Roosevelt. He reportedly encouraged his administration to try something and if that didn’t work, to try something else. He came up with solutions such as “assistance for the aged and the country’s first program to provide relief for the unemployed” (FDR, 1994). By pledging billions of dollars to the American people, he promised to help save farms and homes from foreclosure, brought relief to the unemployed, helped put thousands of men back to work, and guaranteed the savings accounts of millions of Americans, thus restoring confidence in the United States economic system. “The important thing,’ he told the New York State Assembly, ‘is to recognize that there is a duty on the part of government to do something about this’” (FDR, 1994). However, the measures he took upon entering office were not enough to get the job done. With Eleanor’s help, he championed the New Deal policies that pumped $5 billion into the Works Progress Administration which put people to work in schools, hospitals, landing fields, on building playgrounds and even creating public art. He brought electric power to the countryside and created the Social Security Act to protect the elderly and the impoverished. He used this same energy to guide the nation through World War II, pumping an additional $380 billion into the economy to create a new nation.
Throughout it all, FDR’s statement about having nothing to fear but fear itself could have been used as a banner cry. The nation’s economy has collapsed? Don’t cower in fear about it, do what it takes to fix it. The system isn’t working? Don’t be afraid of the failure, just try something else until something is found that works. Franklin Roosevelt consistently focused on solutions to the problems that came up rather than the fear of what those problems implied, where they could lead, or what the consequences of specific actions might have been. Through it all, he demonstrated fear was not an option.