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FDR's Antidote to Great Depression, Totalitarianism


It's an important day of primaries and caucuses in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. And since here at NPR we take a break from reporting on the candidates on an election day. This morning we remember an historic inauguration day.

Former President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

MONTAGNE: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself: historic words spoken 75 years ago today in the depths of the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his presidency.

Mr. DONALD RITCHIE (Author, "Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932"): Well, it's one of those moments in which the nation was in crisis. Around the world people were turning to dictatorships. And Roosevelt, people called on him to become a dictator. But he led the United States through an age of totalitarianism that left the democratic system intact.

MONTAGNE: Donald Ritchie is the author of "Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932."

Congress famously passed much of Roosevelt's New Deal during his first 100 days in office. Bills that created jobs for unemployed Americans, established farm support, reformed the financial system, and as soon as he took office, Roosevelt did something really extraordinary in that he closed every bank in the country so that they could all be audited.

How was he able to persuade Americans to do that?

Mr. DONALD RITCHIE: Well, for one, the economy system, it collapsed. The banks were closing on their own, they were failing at record numbers. Roosevelt came up with a lot of ideas over the first 100 days of his administration drawing on ideas that had been circulating in Congress for a long time, but people were ready for a change, and that was a - I think a bipartisan feeling because he had very strong support from both parties in Congress.

MONTAGNE: And then he also had charisma if you will, or you know, a way of making people trust him.

Mr. RITCHIE: That's right. Well, you know, he introduced that banking bill, it passed the House of Representatives on the morning it was sent to them. It passed the Senate that afternoon and he signed it that night. And the one thing that's absolutely certain is that absolutely nobody in Congress ever read that bill. Part of it was that no bank could reopen unless the government had said that it was sound. And so when the banks came back the next week then, people felt that they could trust those banks.

But Roosevelt also went on the radio that Sunday night to talk to the American people and one of the CBS correspondents called it a Fireside Chat and that nickname stuck. But he spoke in a very personal way and he got a huge amount of mail from people thanking him for explaining this banking system to them, and he continued that policy of directly communicating with the people as often as a possible.

MONTAGNE: How much did he owe his election to his New Deal agenda and how much to his own appeal as a candidate?

Mr. RITCHIE: Roosevelt was a very skillful campaigner, but he was also very careful not to be too specific during the campaign. He was trying to broaden his base, not narrow it and when his advisors wanted him to be more specific, he said, you know, a campaign is not adult education. So part of his speeches were liberal and part of his speeches were conservative, and some of them were very vague, some of them were very specific, it just depended on what the issue was, the location where he was giving the speech. Much of the New Deal was the same way. Roosevelt kept embracing new ideas as they came along, if it didn't work, trying something else, and that was his approach to government.

MONTAGNE: One thing you have written is that in the race between Herbert Hoover and FDR, voters were given a choice between hope and fear.

Mr. RITCHIE: That's right. Certainly presidents after Roosevelt tried to embrace his cheerful optimism, and the one who did it perhaps the best was Ronald Reagan in 1980, who in fact had been a New Deal Democrat back in the 1930s. He had voted for Franklin Roosevelt and he adopted Roosevelt's very jaunty style in the face of adversity.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, anyone who was around in the 1980s would remember the theme of Ronald Reagan's second campaign, summed up in a few words, Morning in America.

Mr. RITCHIE: The remarkable thing about Franklin Roosevelt and about Ronald Reagan is that in their second term when they ran for reelection, they won by enormous majorities. Roosevelt and Reagan shared a lot of similarities in some respects in terms of their personality and I think Ronald Reagan having grown up in that era always modeled his presidency after what he saw - the qualities that he saw in Franklin Roosevelt.

MONTAGNE: Donald Ritchie is the author of Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932. He's also an associate historian for the U.S. Senate. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. RITCHIE: Sure, this was a lot of fun.

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