The End of History? FDR, Trump and the Fake Past

Photo Credit: Hackernoon



“I’m a student of history and I see what happens when you fire people and it’s not good.”
Donald Trump, remarks, April 26, 2019


Perhaps we are so inured to President Trump’s declarations of “fake news” that we don’t think much about his other methods of disinformation—history, for example—unless, of course, it is to chuckle at his apparent ignorance of the past when he makes a gaffe. But Trump is thinking more about history than we imagine and he is doing so in a way very different from former presidents, who used history as a way to unite the nation. For Trump history is a way to enhance his personal power. Occasionally Trump’s apparent ignorance of history makes headlines, and when it does we tend to dismiss it as not very serious in comparison with other presidential failings. But we should not be complacent. It is a powerful part of his political armamentarium aimed at our democracy.


Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump moved a portrait of Andrew Jackson into the Oval Office. We soon learned that under the tutelage of chief strategist Steve Bannon, the president had become an admirer of Andrew Jackson—ironically enough the founder of the Democratic Party. But it wasn’t Jackson’s party affiliation that attracted the new president; it was his populism and strong man anti-establishment politics, qualities that Trump sees in himself.

The president’s apparently slender grasp of history grabbed headlines on May 1, 2017, when he gave an interview on satellite radio, telling the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito, that “had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”  

Of course Andrew Jackson died in 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War broke out. Trump may have been referring to the nullification crisis of 1832, a standoff between the federal government and South Carolina. But the facts of history have little relevance when Trump is making a point. The point was that in Trump’s view a powerful leader who breaks the rules can save the country, even from a calamity as “irrepressible” (to quote William H. Seward) as the Civil War.

The Jackson portrait controversially formed the backdrop for an event honoring World War II Navajo code talkers later in 2017, when the president created a spectacle by posing the Native American veterans in front of the Jackson portrait. Could it have been accidental—or simply boorish—that he drew attention to Andrew Jackson’s infamous 1830 Indian Removal Policy, the forced relocation of Native Americans from their homelands in the southeastern United States to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River in today’s Oklahoma? Are there echoes here of his white nativism and anti-immigrant policies? Politicizing the event further, Trump took the occasion to renew his attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren with the insulting nickname “Pocahantas.”   

President Trump at event honoring Navaho Code Talkers, November 27, 2019 Credit: AP

Trump is famously proud of what he sees as his intelligence, which often leads him to depart from prepared remarks. When he extemporizes about history, he betrays his abysmal ignorance—but it is worth remembering that such comments have their origins in a vainglorious desire to impress, not an innocuous ignorance. During Black History Month in 2017, Trump seemed to think Frederick Douglass is still alive. “I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” There were other times when his basic ignorance of history raised eyebrows: he inquired from the podium at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising dinner if anyone knew Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican.” Or when he spoke to the Women’s Empowerment Panel and asked his audience, “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?”

He was rightly ridiculed for these remarks. But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has said, “History is no joke. It’s on the curriculum because it is only through it that the psyches of other nations can be understood and wars averted.” I would add that it is only through an understanding of American history that we can transmit the principles of our democracy to the next generation.  



The title for this piece is borrowed from Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay published in The National Interest. Fukuyama declared that with the fall of the Berlin Wall the world was about to experience the “end of history.”

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” he wrote, “or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such.” For Fukuyama writing in an age of hope for a new “post-ideological” world—that is, a world not driven by communism, fascism, or even monarchism and imperialism—it seemed that we had achieved a level of human political development marked by the triumph of liberal democracy in partnership with modern capitalism. He saw “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Fukuyama has been much criticized for his seemingly premature (if not naive) declaration of the triumph of liberal democracy, especially as the events of the past decade unfolded: the disastrous outcome of the Arab Spring’s promise of democracy; the rise of autocrats in Hungary, Turkey, Thailand, and Poland—not to mention China and Russia; and now the increasingly illiberal politics of nativist and anti-immigrant parties in France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. Britain struggles to define itself in the wake of Brexit . . . and in the United States the Trump administration has made common cause with dictators around the world and breathed new life into nativism, white nationalism, and isolationism.

We may, in fact, be witnessing the end of liberal democracy instead of the end of history. And closing our minds to the objective past can only hasten the process.



In an impromptu press conference on the White House lawn before heading to a National Rifle Association event in Indiana, Trump reprised his notorious statement that there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the August 12, 2017, riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. His comments were prompted by Joe Biden’s criticism of Trump’s response to Charlottesville as the centerpiece of his announcement of his presidential candidacy against Trump. In response, Trump pronounced that he had handled the incident “perfectly.” Denying that he was referring to white supremacists when he equated the opposing sides of the demonstrations that led to the riot, Trump insisted he was “talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.” He continued, “People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.”

The history of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee sculpture controversy bears review. Its origins lie in the 2015 mass shooting in which nine African-American worshippers were murdered at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a neo-Confederate white supremacist seeking to incite a race war. In the wake of that shooting, Confederate monuments and symbols were removed nationwide. In Charlottesville local citizens petitioned the city council for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and other symbols. To decide the question, the city council appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces—which recommended removal, an action approved by the city council in February 2017. Opponents of removal, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed a lawsuit against the city. By then the fate of the statue was the subject of intense local controversy. In May a notorious local white nationalist, Richard B. Spencer, led a torchlight parade protesting the removal of the statue; in July fifty Ku Klux Klan members held a rally to protest removing the statue, which attracted several hundred counter-protestors. Both events were dispersed by police, who used tear gas and made 23 arrests at the July rally.

Unite the Right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Image courtesy of Unicorn Riot via Wikipedia Commons

A larger gathering of white supremacists from several states, dubbed the Unite the Right rally, was called for August 11–12. Protesters included neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and far right militia members. They chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and displayed neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, and anti-Muslim regalia as they marched carrying lighted torches. They were met by counter-protestors, one of whom was killed and nineteen of whom were injured when a white nationalist plowed his car into the crowd of counter-protestors.

This nuanced and highly sensitive history is completely erased by Trump’s simplistic explanation of his comment that he was referring to nothing more complicated than protests and counter-protests over the statue of a “great general.” Given the circumstances of the events surrounding Charlottesville, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is deliberately distorting these events. Is he trying to solidify his electoral base by changing the facts to suit his purposes? And do those purposes include glossing over America’s troubled history of race relations?

In addition to simplification, repetition is an important part of Trump’s political strategy in using history. A series of extracts from the Washington Post’s Fact makes this clear. For example, on January 19, 2019, he declared:

Newt Gingrich just stated that there has been no president since Abraham Lincoln who has been treated worse or more unfairly by the media than your favorite President, me! At the same time there has been no president who has accomplished more in his first two years in office!

This statement was repeated 57 times. In rebuttal, Fact Checker states in part, “Trump, unlike many presidents in his first two years, had signed few major pieces of legislation. Certainly, the whirlwind of accomplishments under presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama exceed Trump’s efforts.”

Or there was this statement on February 12, 2019: “More people working today in the United States than at any time in the history of our country.” This claim was repeated 55 times and was rebutted in part by Fact Checker with these words:

Of course there are more Americans working. That’s because there are more Americans today than ever before. More meaningful measures of the overall health of the job market take population into consideration. The unemployment rate, or the share of people who don’t have jobs, was at 3.9 percent in December and that wasn’t a record low.

Or on February 21, 2019, the president proclaimed “the largest tax cuts in the history of our country” and repeated it 131 times. Fact Checker responded:

Trump’s tax cut amounts to nearly 0.9 percent of the gross domestic product, meaning it is far smaller than President Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981, which was 2.89 percent of GDP. Trump’s tax cut is the eighth largest tax cut—and even smaller than two tax cuts passed under Barack Obama.

Trump also declared, on April 15, “Our country has one of the best economies in many years, perhaps ever” and repeated it 134 times, but as the Fact Checker pointed out:

The president can certainly brag about the state of the economy, but he runs into trouble when he makes a play for the history books. By just about any important measure, the economy today is not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton—or Ulysses S. Grant.

These distortions of the historical record are just a few excerpts from the first few months of 2019. Psychologists tell us that repeating an untruth has the effect of validating it as truthful. This is called the “illusory truth effect” and is used often in advertising, political campaigns, and propaganda. Researchers first identified it in 1977 but its practitioners date back to Quintillian, Napoleon, and Marcus Antonio in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. President Trump understands the truth effect and uses it artfully as part of his disinformation attack on American history.  



Politicians, of course, have always used history—and continue to do so today—to bolster their programs and policies. Some distort it to serve their purposes. Franklin Roosevelt spoke about how politicians use history to validate their positions at a Jackson Day dinner, January 8, 1940.

Millions of unnecessary words and explanations and solemn comments are uttered and written year in and year out about the great men of American history . . . to prove what Jefferson or Hamilton, Jackson or Clay, Lincoln or Douglas, Cleveland or Blaine, Theodore Roosevelt or Bryan, would have said or would have done . . . if they were alive today. . . . Yes, the devil can quote past statesmen as readily as he can quote the Scriptures, in order to prove his purpose.”

And yes, FDR massaged history to meet his political objectives . . . but I think there is much to be said about a president who communicates with the public secure in the knowledge that he and they share an understanding of a generally accepted “truthful” understanding of the American past.

According to Alexander Heffner, host of PBS’s Open Mind, Trump’s acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016—unlike the acceptance speeches of previous nominees—failed to mention a single presidential precedent.  Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860, in which Lincoln showed that a majority of the signers of the Constitution opposed extending slavery into new territories, presidential candidates have bolstered their positions to the electorate with historical allusions. Lincoln was able to demonstrate that his position, and that of the new Republican Party, was hardly radical; it was the view of the majority of the Founders. Other Republican presidents have similarly borrowed from their forbears. When Theodore Roosevelt broke away from the Republican Party to start the Bull Moose Party, he cited Lincoln. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Wendell Willkie—in his 1940 bid against Franklin Roosevelt—embraced TR’s motto “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Ronald Reagan famously evoked the Puritans’ “shining city on a hill” to inspire his vision for a new America.

President Obama delivering his Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2013.
Credit: USA Magazine

Yes, we are in a “post-historical” era in which the traditional narrative of American history is much contested. But the fundamentals of the American creed of liberty and equality remain potent—as Barack Obama made clear in his Second Inaugural, which was anchored in the Declaration of Independence. He called upon Americans to remember the Revolutionary War, Lincoln, the Civil War, and John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. He referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the nation’s struggle for civil rights including Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.

As Obama and every successful president before him has demonstrated, the power to lead this nation is connected to the power to inspire people to act upon the generative ideas of American democracy. When the president and the American public share an understanding of American history, they are in communication with one another and engaged in an exchange of ideas that can result in persuasion, changed minds, leadership, and a stronger and more equitable democracy.  

Donald Trump’s uses of history are qualitatively different from those of other presidents. Unaware of or uninterested in the complexities of the past, history is useful to him only out of necessity when faced with the requirement to preside at an event with historical resonance (i.e., comments on Black History Month or before a group of feminist women), or when he finds himself in trouble for making insensitive comments (Charlottesville). These uses are, perhaps, easily dismissed by informed Americans for their obvious inaccuracy. But Trump also routinely turns to history to employ the “truth effect” on the record of his presidency. In broad, erroneous, and self-serving generalizations, he delivers a steady stream of disinformation: Trump has produced the best or the most successful economy or employment record, or the largest inaugural audience, or the most legislation and the most successful first hundred days of any president in American history. He bends and twists history to deliver a fake past that glorifies him and inflates his power. Americans who have an understanding of the nation’s past dismiss these conceits—but for many his “fake past,” like his pronouncements on “fake news,” take on the illusion of truth.   



Franklin Roosevelt often led by using historical example. Sometimes he made light of it, as in his Second Fireside Chat when he used America’s most famous self-made man to criticize Wall Street speculators who chafed under the New Deal’s banking and investment regulations. “Only a very small minority of the people of this country,” he declared, “believe in gambling as a substitute for the old philosophy of Benjamin Franklin that the way to wealth is through work.” Then he cheekily pointed out that government regulation was even favored by America’s first Republican president. “I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that ‘the legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves.’”

Franklin D. Roosevelt Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

But if reference to the “great men” of American history does not resonate today, FDR also called upon the common narrative of American resourcefulness in a speech commemorating George Rogers Clark.

I have called those of us who are here today ‘pioneers of 1934.’ . . . We, too, . . . have come to a realization . . . that the accustomed order of our formerly established lives does not suffice to meet the perils and the problems, which today we are compelled to face. Again, mere survival calls for a new pioneering on our part.

In the midst of World War II, FDR used Washington’s Birthday as the opportunity to call the nation together, recalling Washington’s famous prayer at Valley Forge.

The skeptics and the cynics of Washington’s day did not believe that ordinary men and women have the capacity for freedom and self-government. They said that liberty and equality were idle dreams that could not come true—just as today there are many Americans who sneer at the determination to attain freedom from want and freedom from fear, on the ground that these are ideals which can never be realized. They say it is ordained that we must always have poverty, and that we must always have war.

Here and in many other speeches FDR linked the achievement of lasting world peace to his two new freedoms (freedom from want and freedom from fear) and the fundamental guarantees of the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Much as Obama linked the Declaration of Independence to civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of the LGBT community, FDR—like any president seeking to strengthen the nation and the world—knew he could turn to history to support his case.



During their historic visit to the U.S. in 1939, the King and Queen of England visited Mount Vernon. Here they are pictured a few days later in front of the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, June 8, 1939. From left: Eleanor Roosevelt, King George VI, Sara Delano Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, and Franklin Roosevelt. Credit: Legacy Files WordPress

In a telephone call to Mount Vernon I learned that Franklin Roosevelt visited Mount Vernon twelve times during his presidency, the most visits by any president before or since—most famously, perhaps, when he escorted the King and Queen of England to Washington’s home during their 1939 state visit. It was the first time that a reigning British monarch had set foot on American soil. With that visit FDR signaled the metaphorical end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Anglo-American alliance that would be needed to defeat Hitler.  

It was recently reported that President and Mrs. Trump escorted President and Madame Macron on a visit to Mount Vernon in April 2018. The museum’s president and CEO, Doug Bradburn, conducted the tour but found it hard to hold President Trump’s attention. So he explained that Washington was a major real estate speculator in his time.  

Trump couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself. “If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”   

Bradburn then told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.

President and Mrs. Trump and President and Madame Macron at Mount Vernon,
April 23, 2018. Image courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association

But did Trump really get the point?

That Washington’s greatness was founded in his modesty, truthfulness, and above all his understanding that presidential power in a democratic republic requires the ability to turn away from it.

That Washington could have been king, or at the very least president for life. Everyone wanted him to remain in power but he returned to Mount Vernon.

That Washington knew he was establishing important precedents for every president to follow. Does Trump understand what every president before him has understood: the importance of historical precedent, not as useful for “cover,” self-promotion, or personal protection, but rather as fundamental to American governing?

Trump’s behavior suggests that he does not understand the basics of our form of government, all of which are grounded in history.

  • The separation of powers and the necessity for the executive to share power with Congress and the courts.
  • The importance of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.
  • The importance of honoring and extending national values—among them, the U.S. as a haven for the world’s dispossessed.
  • An awareness of the accomplishments of past generations.
  • The need to continue the unfinished work of the promise of liberty and justice for all.
  • The importance of understanding the sources of U.S. power in its alliances, upholding its treaties, and in international institutions such as NATO and the UN.
  • And above all America’s role in the world as the exemplar of liberal democracy.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing on the eve of the millennium, was as confident as Fukuyama that we had achieved an historic triumph over the political ideologies of the past.

Our world at the millennium is plainly not Hitler’s world. 
The Thousand Year Reich had a ghastly run of a dozen years. 
Nor is it the world of Lenin and Stalin.  
The Communist dream turned out to be a political, economic, and moral nightmare.
Nor is it Churchill’s world. He was a great war leader, but he was the son of empire, and empires have faded into oblivion. 
Our world today is Roosevelt’s world.

For liberal democracy to survive, let alone to thrive as Schlesinger and Fukuyama saw it, the president must understand history and his place in it. And then he (or she) has to use it to lead all the people to a shared understanding of the meaning of American democracy.

In Trump I’m afraid we have literally come face to face with the end of historical understanding, which opens the door to that which our founders most feared—the abuse of power. In the 18th century the danger was the unbridled monarchy; today it is the autocrat, the demagogue. Let us reconfirm our national commitment to historical understanding as a vital force in animating American citizenship and democracy.


“Address at the Jackson Day Dinner, January 8, 1940.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt [v. 9]: War and Aid to Democracies, 1940. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Macmillan, 1941, p. 29.
“Second Fireside Chat of 1934, September 30, 1934,” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, v. 3: The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Random House, 1938, pp. 421-22.
“Address at George Rogers Clark Celebration, Harrodsburg, Kentucky, November 16, 1934.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, v. 3: The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Random House, 1938, p. 457.  
“Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt [v. 12.]: The Tide Turns, 1943. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950, p. 112.   
Telephone conversation, Karen Anson, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, with Jennifer Kittraus, George Washington–Mount Vernon Historic Site, January 20, 2006.  
Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr. Time, April 13, 1998.

Then and Now: When Presidents Fear

Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” the ringing words by which he inspired courage and hope in a nation devastated by the Great Depression.  Eight years later, in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this same president signed Executive Order 9066, which removed over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast and confined them to internment camps during World War II.

If Franklin Roosevelt, champion of the Four Freedoms, fell prey to xenophobia in 1942, with lasting injury to our democracy, what damage is being done today by the Trump presidency, which targets Muslims, Mexicans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Africans.

Greg Robinson’s historical paper was originally presented at our conference When Presidents Fear on March 4, 2017.   We post it now in remembrance of the 76th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.


FDR’s Decision to sign Executive Order 9066: Lessons From History

Greg Robinson, Professor of History at l’Université du Québec À Montréal.



On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt singed Executive Order 9066. As a result of the President’s order, over 110,000 Japanese Americans were ordered from their homes without trial and sent to camps under military guard. Some 70,000 of these people were U.S. citizens of an average age of approximately 18, and the rest were long-resident aliens who were predominantly middle-aged. They were allowed to take only what they could carry, and were thus forced to sell or dispose of homes, businesses, cars and all other personal property. The Japanese Americans were first herded into a network of “Assembly Centers,” which were generally disused fairgrounds and race tracks. There the inmates were housed in stables and animal pens. After several weeks or months, the Japanese Americans were sent on under guard to a network of “relocation centers,” camps operated by a new government agency, the War Relocation Authority. These American-style concentration camps were located in remote desert and swamp areas and were surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries. The inmates were housed in hastily-built tar paper shacks, with one room per family. Health and sanitary facilities were primitive, especially at the outset, and food was limited and poor quality. Although all adults were expected to work, their maximum salary was set at $19 per month. The stark conditions of the camps and the stigma of arbitrary imprisonment led to trauma and conflict among the inmates, and sparked several strikes and riots in the camps. In the end, most Japanese Americans remained in the camps throughout the war years.

How could this have happened in a nation fighting a war to preserve freedom against fascism? In particular how could it have happened during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, a President justly renowned for his humanitarianism and support for democracy? This is the question with which I began my inquiry. Still, it is possible to identify several important factors that shaped the President’s actions. As Milton Eisenhower, who became the first director of the WRA, the civilian government agency that ran the camps, later stated, “The President’s final decision was influenced by a variety of factors, by events over which he had little control, by inaccurate or incomplete information, by bad counsel, by strong political pressures, and by his own training, background and personality.”

In my book By Order of the President (Harvard University Press, 2001), I discuss at length how all these factors influenced the actions of President Roosevelt, first in his decision to approve the mass removal of West Coast Japanese Americans, and subsequently in his actions in support of the policy. Although sporadic, these decisions were essential in determining the duration of the incarceration and the consequences to its victims. What I would like to explore is to look at the role played in the President’s decision by the last of the factors cited by Eisenhower, namely the President’s training, background, and personality. From this point of view, the President’s past attitudes towards Japanese Americans must be considered as a significant factor in his decision to approve Executive Order 9066. Franklin Roosevelt had a long history of viewing Japanese Americans in undifferentiated racial terms as essentially Japanese, and of expressing hostility to them on that basis.

In order to understand this history, it is necessary to look back at the turn of the century American society in which the young Franklin Roosevelt grew up and came of age, and how he was shaped by dominant ideas. At the time, the nation’s intellectual climate was dominated by Darwinian or biological thinking. According to the ideas of Charles Darwin on animal evolution, which were adapted to human society by such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, humanity was divided into different groups, or races. Just as the various species of animals adapted in order to survive more easily in a given environment, each race developed particular characteristics that gave them an advantage. Thus, the various races developed not only different physical characteristics—height, skin color, body shape, skull shape, and so forth—in response to their particular surroundings, but also particular personality traits.

How did these ideas affect the young FDR? He deplored visceral prejudice, and he expressed interest in Japanese culture and became friendly with a number of Japanese. Nevertheless, he regarded the Japanese as a danger. In 1913, shortly after Roosevelt was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the government of Woodrow Wilson, the protests of California whites against Japanese immigrant farmers led to the Alien Land Act, as I mentioned, which forbade these immigrants property rights. The passage of the law set off vigorous protests within Japan, and when an extreme nationalist called for a blockade of America in return, Roosevelt had drawn up a plan for naval war between Japan and the United States and recommended the massing of the Pacific fleet in preparation for such a war. Although the immediate crisis abated following some careful diplomacy, in the years that followed, even as the United States moved closer to involvement in World War I, he continued to call for the arming of the Pacific fleet for war against Japan, which he considered the most dangerous foreign threat. The greatest lesson he took from the incident was that Japanese Americans were a source of trouble—friction with their neighbors and aggression by Japan.

 Even when FDR’s attitude towards Japan began to change, following the end of the First World War, his opinions about Japanese Americans remained constant. In 1922-1923 FDR was invited by his old friend George Marvin to write an article for Asia magazine about Japanese-American relations. It was a time of international tension, following the Washington Naval Conference. Roosevelt feared that a resurgence of militarism would set off a futile and costly war between Japan and the United State, and he decided to write in opposition. By March 1923 he had produced the first draft of a text called “The Japs – A Habit of Mind.”  After Marvin made some minor stylistic changes and inserted some additional factual material, the piece appeared under the title “Shall We Trust Japan?”  in the July 1923 issue of Asia.

“Shall We Trust Japan?” was designed as a plea for a “pacific attitude” in the Pacific and for an end to the instinctive hostility most Americans felt for Japan. Roosevelt’s principal argument was that, even assuming that it had been “natural” in the past for Japan and the United States to consider each other as “the most probable enemy” and to plan for war against the other, the new era crystallized by the Washington Naval Conference made such thought obsolete. FDR expressed confidence that, once the “yellow peril” fears of Japan were eliminated, the two countries could resolve peacefully the underlying causes of Japanese American friction.

Roosevelt confessed that the principal cause of such friction, which had to be eliminated, was the presence of Japanese immigrants and their children in the United States. FDR brought up this vital question with reluctance, because, as he said, it was so difficult to discuss without sparking “unreasoning passions on one side or both.” Nevertheless, while he conceded that the Japanese, as well as other groups such as the Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians, were “ a race…of acknowledged dignity and integrity,” they nonetheless had to be excluded on racial grounds from the United States

So far as Americans are concerned, it must be admitted that, as a whole, they honestly believe—and in this belief they are at one with the people of Canada and Australasia—that the mingling of white with oriental blood on an extensive scale is harmful to our future citizenship…As a corollary of this conviction, Americans object to the holding of large amounts of real property, of land, by aliens or those descended from mixed marriages. Frankly, they do not want non-assimilable immigrants as citizens, nor do they desire any extensive proprietorship of land without citizenship.

The assertion that Americans (whom Roosevelt clearly assumed were white) “honestly” believed that they had to combat mixed marriages through discriminatory legislation and that people of “oriental blood” were inherently and ipso facto unassimilable, constituted an undeniable rationalization of white prejudice both towards Japanese immigrants and towards their native-born children in the United States. Roosevelt continued that immigration restriction, whether by laws or by the Gentleman’s Agreement, was morally justified because it was reciprocal :

The reverse of the position thus taken holds equally true. In other words, I do not believe that the Americans people now or in the future will insist on the right or privilege of entry into an oriental country to such an extent as to threaten racial purity or to jeopardize the land-owning privileges of citizenship. I think I may sincerely claim for American public opinion an adherence to the Golden Rule.

Even ignoring the fact that white Americans never in fact obeyed the “golden rule”—the United States held colonies in Asia and American investors enjoyed extensive property rights and extraterritoriality in Asia—Japan was not a nation of immigrants, and there never were any large groups of Americans who wished to emigrate there. Although Japan limited immigration, it never singled out Americans or whites for exclusion on a racial basis.

In any case, Roosevelt’s assertion that discriminatory laws had been passed in order to preserve “racial purity” was illogical. White-Asian intermarriage was statistically insignificant on the West Coast, where such laws existed, and in any case laws banning the practice had existed long before passage of the Alien Land Act, so it could not have been passed to prevent the threat of mass intermarriage. Instead, as Roosevelt well knew, such laws were passed to reduce economic competition Japanese immigrant farmers and landowners and to stigmatize them as undesirable. 

Roosevelt nevertheless continued to believe that the Japanese would not object to race-based exclusion. In 1925, while on his first visit to the Georgia resort of Warm Springs, to take treatments for his wasted legs, he began a short-lived substitute newspaper column in the nearby Macon Telegraph. One of his columns, dated April 30, 1925, explored the “Japanese question.” It was written during a minor diplomatic crisis between the United States and Japan prompted by the announcement that the US Navy would be undertaking naval maneuvers in Hawaii designed to guard against an eventual Japanese attack. Roosevelt agreed that the Americans had a perfect right to defend their coasts, in which the Hawaiian bases played a vital role, but he deplored the announcement as needlessly provocative. FDR declared that the announcement paralleled the campaign by “troublemakers” on both sides of the Pacific that had led to the Japanese exclusion law. He contended that the United States, instead of using economic arguments, should instead justify its policy on racial grounds. He saw no contradiction between American-Japanese friendship, on the one hand, and the exclusion of Japanese immigrants as a racial danger:

It is undoubtedly true that in the past many thousands of Japanese have legally or otherwise got into the United States, settled here and raised children who become American citizens. Californians have properly objected on the sound basic ground that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. If this had throughout the discussion been made the sole ground for the American attitude all would have been well, and the people of Japan would today understand and accept our decision.

Roosevelt was sure that if the United States defended exclusion on a purely racial basis, the Japanese would not protest and relations between the two countries would remain harmonious. After all, he said, the Japanese were known to have strong taboos against interracial marriage, and would not want to have their national culture polluted by such inter-mixtures:

Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results…The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated, and delightful Japanese. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to have thousands of Americans settle in Japan and intermarry with the Japanese as I would feel in having large numbers of Japanese come over here and intermarry with the American population. In this question then of Japanese exclusion from the United States, it is necessary only to advance the true reason—the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples.  

These words and action point to Roosevelt’s continued acceptance, in the months after Pearl Harbor, of the idea that Japanese Americans, whether citizens or longtime residents, were essentially Japanese and unable to transform themselves into true Americans. Therefore, in a time of conflict between the United States and Japan, they could be presumed to be supportive of their Japanese brethren. This presumption was not absolute—Roosevelt could well imagine that there existed loyal Japanese Americans. But in the absence (and sometimes in the presence) of significant evidence testifying to their loyalty, the presumption remained and controlled Roosevelt’s actions in regard to the Japanese American community generally. Roosevelt’s ideas about the Japanese left him prepared—even overprepared—to believe the worst of Japanese, and to accept without challenge in the wake of Pearl Harbor the military’s false accusations regarding the disloyal activities of a Japanese American fifth column, even if he had solid proof to the contrary. He therefore gave the Army much too free a hand in dealing with West Coast Japanese Americans.

Roosevelt’s basic attitude towards Japanese Americans may have also shaped his response to the moral and constitutional questions involved in mass evacuation. FDR’s refusal to admit the discriminatory purpose behind race-based exclusion of Japanese immigrants during the 1920s and his contention that Californians rightly objected to the Japanese presence in their midst also serves as a model for his voluntary blindness to the essential role of racial hostility and economic jealousy in motivating calls for mass removal of Japanese Americans by Californians with a long history of nativist bias. Moreover, during his 1920s articles, Roosevelt defended the denial of property rights to Japanese immigrants as a way to ensure racial purity. This attitude could well have contributed to Roosevelt’s unwillingness to stake steps to protect the property of the evacuees such the appointment of a strong Alien Property Custodian, with the result that the interned Japanese Americans were forced to sell off their property at ridiculously low prices or were stripped of it by the white “friends” to whom they entrusted it, or were forced to place it in unguarded warehouses which were looted and vandalized.

Perhaps the most important part that Roosevelt’s anti-Japanese prejudices played in shaping his decision to approve mass removal and his subsequent actions in support of the policy was in nourishing an indifference to the condition of the Japanese Americans involved. As extraordinary as it may seem, Roosevelt was ready to approve mass removal without hesitation precisely because the matter was unimportant to him. In the end, it is this indifference, which marks not only Roosevelt’s decision to sign Executive Order 9066, but his involvement in the policy that followed. In that sense, the sin that pervaded the President’s actions, if we can use such a loaded term, was not hostility but indifference.



GREG ROBINSON is Professor of History at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. A specialist in North American Ethnic Studies and U.S. Political History, he has written several notable books, including By Order of the President: (Harvard UP, 2001) which uncovers President Franklin Roosevelt’s central involvement in the wartime confinement of 120,000 Japanese Americans, and A Tragedy of Democracy: (Columbia UP, 2009), winner of the 2009 AAAS History book prize, which studies Japanese American and Japanese Canadian confinement in transnational context. His book After Camp: (UC Press, 2012), winner of the Caroline Bancroft History Prize, centers on post war resettlement. His most recent book is The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches  (UP Colorado 2016) an alternative history of Japanese Americans through portraits of unusual figures.

Demagogues and Democracy

Demagogues and Democracy

The specious promises of the prophets of an unearned plenty are a mirage which beckons and lures us, not to the millennial city, but into the deserts of disillusion and ruin. And perhaps we shall even lose our liberties on the way.

-Winston Churchill, “Soapbox Messiahs,” 1936

Out of office during the 1930s, Winston Churchill devoted himself to—and earned his living from—writing. In this piece from the June 20, 1936, issue of Colliers, a popular opinion magazine of the time, Churchill’s critique of the leading American demagogues of the Depression—Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and Dr. Charles Townsend—warned that the magical thinking that “some great new world is going to open where work will do itself, and where ‘something for nothing’ is the order of the day” was nothing but a “mirage” (p. 11). A firm believer in capitalism (and democracy), he lambasted those who would turn to communistic or fascistic solutions to address the worldwide financial crisis. Echoing the optimism of Franklin Roosevelt, with whom he would forge the Anglo-American special relationship a few years later, Churchill declared, “I believe that prosperity will return. I believe that the greatest days of that system of private enterprise which has done so much for the world in the past century lie in the future and not in the past. But the gains of tomorrow can be won only by thought and effort” (p. 46).

These are not the words of a demagogue. They speak of hard work and sacrifice and to those facing starvation and homelessness, they offer no immediate solutions. Much more alluring in times of uncertainty and despair, are the charms of the demagogue. He (and most of the time, but not always, a demagogue is a he) promises easy solutions to complicated problems using dubious methods. He stirs up people’s passions and fears with exaggerated rhetoric and scapegoating. Slogans, name calling, and misrepresentation are his stock in trade. And most of all, he cajoles people into believing that he and only he can solve their problems—often turning himself into a messianic figure who commands “emotional attachment to his person” that “effectively block[s],” in the words of David H. Bennett in his book Demagogues in the Depression, “any group awareness of either the real sources of unhappiness or the real means of solution” (p. 4).

Demagogues have a long history associated not only with suffering and deprivation, but with the very foundations of democracy. Perhaps it is because only in democracy do ordinary people dare to believe that their lives can be better. That seductive dream opens the door for the demagogue. The word itself derives from ancient Greek and means quite simply a leader who espouses the cause of the common people. Plato’s Republic suggests a more sinister meaning in Book VIII: “[T]yranny is . . . established out of no other regime than democracy . . . the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom.”

Dr. Michael Leib of Philadelphia,
an Antifederalist

In the United States, by the 1790s our first demagogues were appearing in “democratic societies,” which opposed the strong central government and elitism of the Federalists. Many were idealistic democrats inspired by Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution; others more easily fit the contemporary description of “mob-masters” who, as described by Reinhard H. Luthin in “Some Demagogues in American History,” eschewed gentlemanly decorum for rabble rousing. As we know all too well, the Founders—well-born, educated gentlemen—carefully restricted voting rights in the Constitution to white men with property, judging the restriction of suffrage (in the words of John Dickinson) a “defence against the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property and without principle with which our Country like all others, will in time abound.” But it was Dickinson’s home state of Pennsylvania that alone had extended voting to white men without a property requirement in its first state constitution.

Luthin’s first American demagogue was Dr. Michael Leib of Philadelphia, an Antifederalist who was “selfish and ambitious . . . [with] a spitfire eloquence that ‘produced effect rather by the velocity of his missiles than the weight of his metal’” (p. 23). And like many who were to follow, while expressing concern for the welfare of the masses, Leib “lived luxuriously, powdered his hair, wore ultrafashionable dress, and sprayed himself with perfume, just like the hated Federalists.” He nonetheless “convinced the humble” he was “one of them” and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. The idea of universal [white] manhood suffrage spread and as the “era of the common man” took hold in the 1820s, a long parade of American demagogues began. They were, according to Luthin, “confined neither to a single political party nor to a particular social viewpoint nor to one section of the country” (p. 4). Michael Leib was followed by Antimason Thurlow Weed, then by the Jacksonian Democrats Franklin E. Plummer, Richard M. Johnson, and Ely Moore. Anti-Jacksonian Whigs like Tom Corwin were followed by antislavery Republicans like James H. Lane, Nathaniel P. Banks, and Thaddeus Stevens, who in turn railed against proslavery Democrats Albert Gallatin Brown, Henry A. Wise, Louis T. Wigfall, Joseph E. Brown, and William L. Yancey. Later we had the Tammany Democrat Fernando Wood, Anglophobe Republican Richard J. Oglesby, and a host of “bloody-shirt” Republicans like Ben Butler, James G. Blaine, and William A. Wheeler, to name a few. In the South populist-Democrats sprang up in the 1870s with Ben Tillman, followed by Tom Watson and Jim Hogg in the 1890s, and Jim Vardaman, Eugene Talmadge, Jim Ferguson, and Theodore G. Bilbo into the early twentieth century. Together they round out a partial list of demagogues in American history. It should not be overlooked that historian Lutkin was doing his research during the rise of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the early 1950s.

Demagoguery reached new heights in the 1930s. Hitler rose to power in January 1933 and Mussolini consolidated his totalitarian empire. Each promised to right the wrongs—economic as well as nationalistic—that had plagued Germany and Italy after World War I. In the United States, a host of extremists emerged in those grim days. Father James R. Cox led the Jobless Party in 1932 and William H. “Coin” Harvey organized the Liberty Party in the same year. In 1933 William Dudley Pelley founded the Nazi-like Silver Shirts Legion in America and another admirer of Hitler, “General” Art J. Smith, organized the Khaki Shirts. Philip Johnson and Alan Blackburn, also fascists, began their National Party in 1934. There were also Alexander Lincoln and his Sentinels of the Republic, George E. Deatherage and the Knights of the White Camellia, and self-styled fascists Seward Collins and Gerald Winròd (Bennett, p. 4).

The four demagogues who formed the Union Party in the summer of 1936 were another story. Each had reached national prominence in his own right and together they—and their many followers—believed they stood a chance against Franklin Roosevelt: Father Charles E. Coughlin, the “radio priest” from Royal Oak, Michigan; Dr. Francis E. Townsend of Long Beach, California, creator of the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan; Gerald L. K. Smith of Louisiana, who inherited the mantle of Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth plan after Long’s assassination; and Congressman William Lemke of North Dakota, a long-time activist on behalf of farmers of the northern Great Plains. They were unlikely political bedfellows, but they had two things in common: each believed in Robin Hood-like panaceas to the Great Depression that would take money from those who had it and give it to the poor; and each, for his own reason, hated Franklin Roosevelt.


Father Coughlin

[N]o candidate who is endorsed for Congress can campaign, go electioneering for, or support the great betrayer and liar, Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . . I ask you to purge the man who claims to be a democrat from the Democratic Party—I mean Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.

Father Charles Coughlin, Townsend Plan Convention, Cleveland, July 1936

Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest.”

The Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, the “radio priest,” built a radio following in the late 1920s from his pulpit at a small parish church in Royal Oak, Michigan. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, to Irish Catholic parents, Coughlin began his religious life in Canada but moved to the U.S., where he was assigned to lead the Shrine of the Little Flower of Jesus—a newly established temple to St. Thérèse, a recently canonized French Carmelite nun. Located in a poor industrial suburb of Detroit with few Catholics, the Ku Klux Klan harassed the parish with burning crosses. Anxious to expand and build support for his church, Coughlin began delivering sermons on the radio in 1926 and organized the Radio League of the Little Flower to solicit contributions. With radio in its infancy, and Coughlin’s extraordinarily mellifluous voice, the fundraising was enormously successful. He raised more than enough money to support and expand the shrine, along with his growing staff and radio expenses, and became a celebrity.

After the stock market crash in October 1929, Coughlin added politics and economics to his radio sermons, railing against big banks, bankers, and “Godless Communism” as responsible for the woes of his working-class listeners. He purchased radio time in Chicago and Cincinnati, in addition to Detroit, and by 1930 was reaching a national audience. He attacked Herbert Hoover as “the banker’s friend, the Holy Ghost of the rich, the protective angel of Wall Street.” His popularity soared. “Hoover Prosperity Breeds Another War,” brought him 1.2 million letters (Bennett, p. 34). Before long Coughlin was receiving an average of 80,000 letters a week and employing 96 mail clerks. (Early in his presidency Roosevelt received about 50,000 letters a week.) Reflecting his own Irish Catholic heritage and that of his substantially Irish and German Catholic audience, Coughlin was an Anglophobe and highly influential among Roman Catholics in New England, the Northeast and Midwest—a constituency important to Roosevelt. Coughlin supported FDR as a candidate and early in his presidency, calling the New Deal “Christ’s Deal,” until the president moved to distance himself when Coughlin’s attentions became too effusive and the priest began to see himself an economic advisor.

In the middle of his fiery speech at the Townsend Plan convention in Cleveland, 1936, Father Coughlin dramatically stripped off his clerical collar and black coat before a crowd of 10,000.

The break between Coughlin and Roosevelt came after late 1934 when Coughlin declared the old political parties “all but dead” and should “relinquish the skeletons of their putrefying carcasses to the halls of a historical museum” and announced formation of his political organization, the National Union for Social Justice. Large numbers of local units, organized by congressional district, were to be the “lobby of the people” to pass legislation consistent with his Sixteen Principles, which abolished the Federal Reserve and replaced it with a central bank and called for the nationalization of key industries and protecting the rights of labor. By April 1935 Coughlin claimed 8.5 million people had expressed support for the Sixteen Principles. By the following January, he announced “at least” 5,267,000 new members in 26 states and 302 of 435 congressional districts.

A vocal isolationist, at the end of January 1935 Coughlin preached against the “menace of the World Court” as well as “international bankers” who, as David Kennedy explains in his book Freedom From Fear, were the alleged beneficiaries of Roosevelt’s nefarious plan to involve the United States in overseas affairs (pp. 232-34). (Roosevelt himself misread the peoples’ temper and thought it an opportune time to reintroduce the country to internationalism.) Prodded also by the Hearst newspapers, hundreds of thousands of telegrams filled the Senate mailroom and the World Court treaty was defeated by a narrow margin. As Kennedy reports, Louisiana Senator Huey Long declared, “I do not intend to have these gentlemen whose names I cannot even pronounce, let alone spell, passing on the rights of the American people” (p. 233). After the 1936 election, Coughlin became a vocal anti-Semite, blaming Jewish bankers for the Russian Revolution as well as world financial crises. To oppose Communism he increasingly expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini. Coughlin’s broadcasts were substantially silenced after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 when he was forced off the air. He continued to push his anti-intervention views in his magazine Social Justice until after Pearl Harbor when, threatened with revocation of his mailing privileges and a likely sedition trial, the Roman Catholic Church finally silenced him.

Gerald L. K. Smith (and Huey Long)

I’ll show you the most historic and contemptible betrayal put over on the American people. . . . Our people were starving and they burned the wheat . . . hungry, and they killed the pigs . . . led by Mr. Henry Wallace, Secretary of Swine Assassination . . . and by a slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with a friendly gaze fixed on Russia . . . beginning with Frankfurter and all the little frankfurters. . . . They told the workers to organize under section 7a, and the U.S. government became the biggest employer of scab labor in the world . . . and they had the face to recognize Russia, where two million Christians had been butchered and the churches were still burning. . . . This election to me is only an incident. . . . My real mission is to see that the red flag of bloody Russia is not hoisted in place of the Stars and Strips—Give me a hand!

Gerald L. K. Smith, Cleveland, 1936

Gerald L. K. Smith
“I’ll teach ‘em how to hate.”

Gerald L. K. Smith’s Cleveland speech took place at Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice convention in August 1936, one of two meetings that summer that forged the alliance of protest movements into the Union Party. Smith was heir to Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Plan and Huey Long was the one demagogue who seriously worried Franklin Roosevelt. FDR called him “one of the two most dangerous men in America.” The other, he later added, was General Douglas MacArthur (Brinkley, p. 57). Long was governor, then senator, from Louisiana where his powerful machine won popular support by implementing long-overdue improvements in public health, education, road-building, and public works. He was from the poor hill country of northern Louisiana (although his family was reasonably prosperous) and built his power base on the disaffected, populist sentiments of that region’s tenant farmers. Known as the Kingfisher, he had become the virtual dictator of Louisiana when he resigned as governor in 1932 to become senator.

Long’s Share Our Wealth Plan called for deeply graduated, confiscatory income and inheritance taxes designed to redistribute large fortunes to the citizenry at large. Every American family would be guaranteed a “household estate” of $5,000, “enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences,” and a government guaranteed annual income of from $2,000 to $2,500 (Brinkley, p. 72). Share Our Wealth clubs proliferated throughout the South and by mid-1935 were in many other regions as well.

Huey Long for President lapel button.

At first Long supported Roosevelt, but later he became an opponent as his own aspirations for the presidency became clear. Roosevelt sought to undermine Long’s influence by denying him patronage and launching an investigation into alleged tax fraud in the Long organization. Democratic politicians warned Roosevelt that Long was a threat to the New Deal coalition and that he was planning a third party run. Roosevelt was sufficiently worried that in 1935 he had the Democratic National Committee prepare a statistical report on the two most prominent demagogues—Father Coughlin and Huey Long (Bennett, p. 80). But the threat from the latter came to an end when Long was assassinated in September 1935.

Gerald L. K. Smith, a clergyman who was national organizer of the Share Our Wealth Society, continued Long’s national political plans; but where Long had been largely noncommittal on race, Smith took the Share Our Wealth Society in new racist (and anti-Semitic) directions. Like Long and Coughlin, Smith was a bombastic orator, memorable for some of the most sensational (and frightening) rhetoric of the era:

I’m not a teacher. I’m a symbol—a symbol of a state of mind. When the politicians overplay their hand, certain nerve centers of the population will begin to twitch. The people will start fomenting and fermenting, and then a fellow like myself, someone with courage enough to capture the people, will get on the radio, make three or four speeches, and have them in his hand. I’ll teach ‘em how to hate. The people are beginning to trust true leadership. (Bennett, p. 142)

Smith formed the American First Party in 1943 and ran for president as an isolationist in 1944. He was a member of William Dudley Pelley’s pro-Nazi Silver Shirts organization, patterned after Hitler’s brown shirts. After the war he advocated for the release of Nazi war criminals convicted at the Nuremburg Trials and continued as an activist in far right politics.

Francis E. Townsend

We dare not fail. Our plan is the sole and only hope of a confused and distracted nation. . . . We have become an avalanche of political power that no derision, no ridicule, no conspiracy of silence can stem. . . . Where Christianity numbered its hundreds in its beginning years, our cause numbers in its millions. And without sacrilege we can say that we believe that the effects of our movement will make as deep and mighty changes in civilization as did Christianity itself.

Francis E. Townsend, Time, November 4, 1935

Dr. Francis Townsend in 1935.

The third mass movement of the 1930s was the Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan founded in 1933 by an elderly and mild-mannered medical doctor from Long Beach, California. By spring 1936 it had between 2 and 3.5 million paying members (dues were 25¢) organized into more than 4,500 local Townsend Clubs. Its members were the elderly, people for whom the Depression struck particularly hard as their life’s savings were lost in the bank crises—and jobs, even for the young and able-bodied, were hard to come by. Social changes played a role, too. With multigenerational families dispersed by the demands of the new industrial economy, the traditional social safety net was stretched thin. It is not surprising, then, that the movement started in southern California, which was already a retirement mecca with the elderly living far from their families. Frightened and desperate, they were ready for a savior.

Dr. Townsend seemed an unlikely demagogue, but possessed of an idea and a cause he nevertheless became one. His fanatic followers were devoted to him as a savior and he did not disabuse them of the notion.

Born in 1867 into a poor but religious farm family in rural Illinois, Townsend tried farming and school teaching before enrolling in medical school, receiving his degree at age 36. He practiced medicine in the Black Hills of South Dakota for 15 years, served as a medical officer in World War I, and moved to Long Beach in 1919. To supplement his medical income in California, he speculated in real estate sales, and was appointed a county public health officer in 1930. Then he too lost his job and was thrown back on dwindling savings. Appalled by the poverty of the elderly, he determined to take action. He was 66 years old when he wrote an opinion piece for his local newspaper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, setting forth his plan to provide a “revolving” pension for the elderly.

It is estimated that the population of the age of 60 and above in the United States is somewhere between nine and twelve millions. I suggest that the national government retire all who reach that age on a monthly pension of $200 a month or more, on condition that they spend the money as they get it. This will insure an even distribution throughout the nation of two or three billions of fresh money each month. Thereby assuring a healthy and brisk state of business, comparable to that we enjoyed during war times.

Townsend Plan billboard.

To Townsend and his followers, it was simple and perfect: the original plan was to be funded by a “transaction” or sales tax on all business transactions—wholesale and retail—that would stimulate the economy. He called it the “velocity of money” and it would sweep away the Depression. With the aged withdrawn from the workforce, Townsend predicted that “millions” of jobs would be created, and state and local governments would save on the costs of almshouses, prisons, and policing as poverty was eliminated. He worked with his old boss Earl Clements, a real estate marketer, who masterminded the publicity machine and membership program that turned the Townsend Plan into a national movement in a matter of months. It was phenomenally popular. At one point club members conducted a letter-writing and petition-signing campaign to secure congressional approval of a bill to institute the plan. In a matter of three months, twenty million signatures (one-fifth of the adult population) were collected, a demonstration of public support “unmatched in history”—exceeding support for the soldiers’ Bonus Bill or opposition to the World Court, which were “mere rivulets compared with this torrent.” But even with this massive support, and subsequent revisions, the measure did not pass (Bennett, p. 174).

When Roosevelt refused to meet with him, Townsend was miffed. A more serious problem was the Social Security Act with its $30 a month old age insurance, which Townsend and his followers thought a devious distraction designed to take support away from the Townsend Plan. The Townsend movement grew in strength after passage of Social Security in 1935 and many historians credit the Townsend Plan with helping to speed passage of Social Security (Bennett, p. 177).

William Lemke and Dr. Francis Townsend, Washington, D.C., 1939. Library of Congress.

Townsend and his supporters were scornful of economists who found the plan unworkable, assailing the “brain trust professors . . . who don’t care a tinker’s damn how the old folks live or die.” Townsend himself proclaimed on more than one occasion, “God deliver us from the professional economists.” The plan, of course, was unworkable. An economist’s nightmare, the yearly costs were estimated at one and one-half times the amount spent on government at all levels—federal, state, and local. And that did not take into account the huge inflationary (and highly regressive) cost of the transaction tax, the tremendous bureaucracy required to administer the program, and the fact that the 2% fee would be likely to drive low-profit-margin businesses—such as the securities exchanges—out of the country. It was derided as “believing in Santa Claus all over again.” But Townsend’s followers were zealously committed. Some boycotted merchants who would not extend them credit based on the certainty of income to come after the plan’s passage (Bennett, pp. 160, 155).

Congressional Democrats, worried that Townsend was becoming another demagogue, opened hostile hearings on his program in May 1936. Embarrassed by his lack of knowledge of economics, and under fire for the financial management of his organization, Townsend stormed out of the hearings, and the following month joined Smith and Coughlin in their plans for the Union Party.

William Lemke

William H. Lemke on the campaign trail, 1936.

Congressman William H. Lemke, the standard bearer for the Union Party, was the only elected official among the party leaders. Elected to Congress in 1932 as a Republican from North Dakota, he had the strong support of the Non-Partisan League—an agrarian reform organization that opposed the monopolistic practices of the railroads, financiers, and grain elevator operators in the northern Plains. The eldest son of a German-American farm family that had settled in the rugged Dakotas in 1883, by the time Lemke was of age his family was prosperous enough that he could attend the University of North Dakota, Georgetown, and ultimately Yale Law School. He became a lawyer, worked for farmers and farm organizations, and became active with the Non-Partisan League.

Lemke supported FDR in 1932 and campaigned avidly for him while also seeking his own congressional seat. He had met with Roosevelt early in 1932 and secured what he believed was a pledge on farm policy that involved stimulating inflation and guaranteeing high prices by “dumping” farm surpluses abroad; Lemke also expected to be a close advisor to the president on farm policy. A staunch supporter of the New Deal at first, when Roosevelt changed his ideas on farm relief to crop reductions coupled with parity payments to the farmers (policies advocated by Brain Truster Rexford Guy Tugwell and Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace), Lemke felt betrayed. He denounced the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the “brainless trust” as a farce and by 1935 was calling the New Deal a “new shuffle with the cards stacked.” Bravado and anti-(East Coast) intellectualism peppered his rhetoric. “Roosevelt will have to get rid of the ‘brain trust’ or he will be in fact as well as in the newspapers a real Kerensky and not a leader of men.” He railed against “Wall Street racketeers” and “international bankers” and the failure to pass inflationary measures such as the Bonus Army Bill, the remonetization of silver, and the issuance of greenbacks. He denounced the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as an effort to prop up failed private banks, instead of establishing a central bank (Bennett, p. 95).

But Lemke’s real focus was on farm legislation. With his Senate colleague (and old friend) Lynn J. Frazier of North Dakota, he co-sponsored a series of farm bills designed to provide mortgage relief to farmers facing foreclosure. When the first of these was declared unconstitutional, he refashioned it and moved on to craft an even more sweeping program: the Frazier–Lemke Farm Refinance bill, which provided for the Farm Credit Administration to supply the cash necessary for farmers to pay off their mortgages or buy back their farms. In return, the government would offer new very low-interest mortgages, which would be issued as a bond issue. If the low interest rate precluded bond sales, the Federal Reserve would be ordered to issue $3 billion of “printing press” money for the farmers. Lemke became an agrarian hero.

Roosevelt opposed, but did not veto, the first two measures. Not only FDR, but most of official Washington, opposed the third measure. But to Lemke it was the solution, the panacea, to relieve not only the farmers, but also the entire economy—by putting new money in circulation to stimulate business. Roosevelt sought to have the bill killed, believing it would unbalance the entire economy. Lemke worked tirelessly to counter the administration’s effort to tie the bill up in committee and miraculously secured 218 signatures on a petition that defied the president and brought the vote to the floor. The administration counter-attacked and the final straw came when the Speaker of the House read a letter from William Green—president of the American Federation of Labor—claiming that “labor would suffer” because the bill would lead to a “reduction in living standards, reduced buying power and a more acute unemployment problem” (Bennett, p. 100). In the end 58 of the members who had signed the petition did not vote for the bill and the measure lost 235–142. Lemke was crushed and was ready to join with Roosevelt’s fiercest enemies in the ill-fated campaign of the Union Party.

The Union Party Challenge

Dr. Francis Townsend, Gerald L. K. Smith, and Father Charles Coughlin after delivering speeches at Townsend Plan convention, Cleveland, July, 1936. United Press International.

They lost, of course. The 1936 election was a landslide for FDR. Despite their name, the four demagogues of the Union Party were hardly united and the campaign was plagued by all the problems you might expect when four megalomaniacs pledge cooperation. Too late to get Lemke on the ballot in crucial states, with little organization, short of funds, and plagued by internal squabbles, Lemke garnered only 892,378 votes—less than 2% of the popular vote. Roosevelt won 60.8% of the popular vote and 523 electoral votes to the Republican challenger Alfred Landon’s 8—the most lopsided electoral victory in American presidential history.

Lemke remained in Congress and continued to advocate for farmers until his death in 1950, but his reputation as a courageous agrarian reformer was tarnished by his association with the anti-Semitic far-right fringe of the Union Party.


But is this the end of the story? Lemke, Townsend, Coughlin, and Long/Smith posed a real challenge to the major parties. At their height they may have had as many as thirteen million followers, perhaps 10% of the population. As the Union Party they presented a formidable coalition of northeastern and Midwestern Roman Catholic urban voters, poor white southern cotton farmers, and financially strapped German and Scandinavian wheat farmers on the northern Plains, combined with a national movement of angry (formerly middle-class) white Protestant senior citizens. It was an unlikely mixture—riven by sectional, class, labor-agrarian, and religious differences—but still a potentially powerful voting bloc that the Democratic Party took very seriously.

What damage could have been done? An economy wrecked under the burden of the unsupportable payments to pensioners or farmers? Would confiscatory tax schemes and inflationary fiscal policies have killed American capitalism? Or would we have moved directly to Coughlin’s strange mixture of fascism and a centralized economy, taking with it his paranoid anti-Semitism? All of this and more was in the air. Earl Browder (Communist), Norman Thomas (Socialist), and John W. Aiken (Socialist Labor) were also on the ticket that year. And the Silver Shirts and other fascists were waiting in the wings. But all of these voices were in the “fringe” and none was able to capture the nomination of a major party. That would have to wait until 2016.

By today’s standards the voices of dissent in the 1930s were muffled: radio was new and powerful and everyone, Roosevelt included, used it to great benefit. But newspapers, the U.S. mail, telegrams, in-house print publications, even the polls and political science of the 1930s, were slow and imprecise tools compared with the power of today’s 24-hour news cycle, Internet newsfeeds, sophisticated polling and statistical models, and social media.

Many of today’s political leaders, like the radio priest and Dr. Townsend, trade on their celebrity and authority as anti-establishment “outsiders” to secure political power. This has a dangerous appeal. Coughlin was only stopped by his Canadian birth. Huey Long was cut down by an assassin. Truth and sound economics could not stop Dr. Townsend’s believers.

If demagoguery is an enduring part of democracy, can we take comfort in the fact that it has always been with us but has not prevailed—at least not in this country? But what if the conditions of 1936 had been different? What if Coughlin, Townsend, Smith, and Lemke had better party discipline or the power of modern communications?

The populace enthralled to demagogues has not changed. Their willingness to believe in easy solutions to intractable problems is still with us. People still relish the tough talk, name calling, and scapegoating. They love to be entertained by the bombast, to hear the demagogue shout the things no “gentleman” would say. Most of all, people today are just as willing as they always have been to follow a charismatic leader who promises to solve their problems and deliver the American dream.

Huey Long on the cover of Time magazine, April 1, 1935.

But can people be blamed for seeking the American dream? Alan Brinkley in Voices of Protest makes the point that Long’s Share Our Wealth Plan could not be easily dismissed as sheer demagoguery. Yes, it was simple and “seriously, perhaps fatally, flawed.” But by other measures of demagoguery it fell short. “It was not an attempt to divert attention away from real problems; it did not focus resentment on irrelevant scapegoats or phony villains. It pointed, instead, to an issue of genuine importance; for the concentration of wealth was . . . a fundamental dilemma of the American economy” (p. 74). And, of course, it still is.

The panaceas of the demagogues of 1930s spoke to the essential economic inequality and exploited xenophobia, both of which still plague us today. Fortunately, in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt was able to counter their worst invective and most outlandish schemes with a message that reinvigorated the democratic process and envisioned an American Dream of inclusivity as well as prosperity. Not self-centered, it demanded common effort toward shared goals for a better future.

“It is your problem, my friend, your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail, ” he said in his First Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933. This message of joint effort and joint responsibility leading to a bright future was a message he delivered throughout his long presidency. He was never more eloquent than in this, the final speech of the 1940 campaign.

I see an America where factory workers are not discarded after they reach their prime, where there is no endless chain of poverty from generation to generation, where impoverished farmers and farm hands do not become homeless wanderers, where monopoly does not make youth a beggar for a job.
I see an America whose rivers and valleys and lakes—hills and streams and plains—the mountains over our land and nature‘s wealth deep under the earth—are protected as the rightful heritage of all the people.
I see an America where small business really has a chance to flourish and grow.
I see an America of great cultural and educational opportunity for all its people.
I see an America where the income from the land shall be implemented and protected by a Government determined to guarantee to those who hoe it a fair share in the national income. . . .
I see an America with peace in the ranks of labor. . . .
I see an America devoted to our freedom—unified by tolerance and by religious faith—a people consecrated to peace, a people confident in strength because their body and their spirit are secure and unafraid.
(Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cleveland, November 2, 1940)

And Roosevelt codified the dream in the Economic Bill of Rights that he included in his Annual Message to Congress on January 11, 1944, making explicit a concrete connection between individual freedom and economic security. To Roosevelt economic security was a second Bill of Rights “under which a new basis of . . . prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

Roosevelt’s record of accomplishment effectively silenced the demagogues and created a template for liberal democracy that endured for forty years. It is important that we look back to this perilous era in American history because liberal democracy is not complete and its unfinished business is the truth behind today’s demagoguery.

To counter the demagogue, our leaders must take seriously the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the white middle- and working-class calls for protection from joblessness. Income inequality is as much a threat to our democracy as it was in the 1930s. And the xenophobic fears that would shut our doors to immigration pose threats to individual liberty. As FDR warned in his Economic Bill of Rights speech, “Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Today’s problems are echoes of the unfinished business of the Roosevelt era. Today’s democratic leaders must challenge those who use demagoguery to offer unworkable and simplistic solutions to our truly pressing problems.

Roosevelt did not hesitate to use the power of his office—both as inspirational leader and in the exercise of raw political power—but most importantly, by his policies he gave the lie to those who claimed he was deaf to the needs of ordinary Americans. People could honestly answer with a resounding “Yes” the question of whether they were better off in 1936 or 1940 or 1944 than they were in 1933.

Yes, it is harder today. The issues are not so starkly drawn and today’s political climate encourages demagoguery in ways unknown in Roosevelt’s time. The old allegiances that channeled many voters are weaker now. Labor unions, party loyalty, religious affiliation, race and ethnicity, and even political machines once helped voters choose candidates that represented their interests. Instead, today sophisticated political campaigns with their legions of spokespersons and the ever-growing ranks of the punditry spin political discourse for months, even years. More often than not the debate devolves to character assassination and bogus scapegoating with the media and campaign surrogates offering a succession of excuses, explanations, and scorecards on truthfulness instead of discussion of relative policy positions.

In this political climate, people must decide for themselves amid a welter of nonstop political banter, which is an unhappy by-product of our twenty-first century revolution in mass communications. The result is often more stultifying and stupefying than energizing for those who participate in democracy.

These realities make the ability to distinguish between candor and cant more difficult than ever. Individual judgment is more important than ever. Instead a bored, fragmented, polarized, and poorly educated electorate relies on newsfeeds and media that as often as not report what the voter already believes or wants to hear. More than was ever possible in the 1930s, today’s demagogue is empowered to tell the most gullible among us exactly what we want to hear. And as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt warned, we are in danger of losing our liberties along the way.





Bennett, David H. Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932–1936. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969. I am indebted to this work for much of the historical narrative in this article.

Brinkley, Alan. Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Churchill, Winston. “Soapbox Messiahs.” Collier’s, June 20, 1936.

Kennedy, David M. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Luthin, Reinhard H. “Some Demagogues in American History.” American Historical Review 57 (1951): 22–46.

American Story

The American Story: From Washington to Roosevelt, Reagan and Beyond


Parson Weems’ Fable, Grant Wood – 1939

[The following is an illustrated version of the lecture given by Dr. Cynthia M. Koch at the FDR Foundation’s Telling Our Story conference November 10, 2015]

Defining the identity of the new United States, what we might call the “master narrative,” was one of the many tasks facing our founding fathers and mothers in the 1790s.

The new nation lacked all the usual markers for nationhood: no established religion, no dominant ethnicity, no monarchy or aristocracy. No folklore and—most important—no shared history.

Most Americans had a common language, but of course it was English—and distinguishing the new United States from England was essential if the nation was to achieve the full measure of its independence. The thirteen different colonies with their different religions, economies, traditions, and racial and ethnic make-up had one thing in common: the experience of the Revolutionary War.

And the American Revolution was indeed unique: a republic founded on the Enlightenment principles of universal human rights of liberty, equality, and freedom. Moreover, it was a New World republic, existing far from the metropolitan centers of Europe on the edge of a continent, much of which was still considered “wilderness,” and inhabited by indigenous people.

Many were concerned with defining the new nation and its identity, but it fell to a group of history-writers to craft the most enduring narrative.

Mercy Otis Warren

They were six men and one woman, all witnesses to the American Revolution: John Marshall, the first Supreme Court chief justice had served under Washington at Valley Forge; David Ramsey and Hugh Williamson were surgeons in the Continental Army; Edmund Randolph accompanied Washington to Boston as an aide-de-camp before he became a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress. Jeremy Belknap, Benjamin Trumbull, and William Gordon were Congregational clergymen who ministered to the troops in the field. Mercy Otis Warren, whose brother and husband were famous Boston patriots, wielded her pen, she said, in part because her gender denied her the opportunity to take up “manly arms.”

“Deeply moved by what they had witnessed during the momentous 1770s, they wrote their country’s first narrative, filled with stories of heroism and virtue generated by the war.”1

Theirs was a history of “fresh beginnings and founders’ intentions,” which interpreted the Declaration of Independence as the “culmination of a long colonial gestation period.”

According to historian Joyce Appleby, from whom I am borrowing liberally, “These original efforts served as a template for successive reworkings of the story of American nation-building.”2

And, as we shall see, the essential outlines of the narrative endured well into the 20th century.

The first historians stressed not only that America was the rightful inheritor of the Enlightenment principles, but that it was “the last best hope of mankind” in the struggle for freedom in the face of the corrupt institutions of old-regime Europe. George Washington and the leaders of the Revolution came to represent civilization’s irrepressible quest for democratic nationalism.3

As these early formulations were popularized in the 19th century, the Revolution was made to seem the inevitable end of a long sequence of foreshadowings from colonial history—the Mayflower Compact, John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, surviving the “starving time” at Jamestown, Washington’s “Father, I cannot tell a lie,” Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, the Pocahontas-John Smith story, and the first Thanksgiving.

All of these and many more fed into the founding narrative of a nation that would be an exemplar to the world.

But “[t]here was no place in this narrative for examining the variety of complex reasons that had brought Europeans to the North American continent, much less for taking stock of the enslavement and expulsion of peoples whose cultural values called into question the claimed universality of American ideals.”4

George Bancroft

George Bancroft’s History of the United States, the first complete history of the nation, was written during the middle decades of the 19th century. He added ideas of a democratic spirit, which with divine guidance, drove American expansion across the continent.5 Bancroft made the settler families of the land west of the Appalachians the carriers of a new and vibrantly democratic civilization.

These “pioneers” were never depicted as invaders, even though blood was always spilled before any land was opened up for settler occupation. Instead [Appleby again] “the iconography and literature of the westward movement invoked a peaceful tableau in which the sunburned and hardy pioneer father walked beside his Conestoga wagon, Bible in his hand, his rifle at the ready should any hostile force attempt to repel his ‘castle on wheels.’”

This narrative served both American democracy and nationalism by celebrating the courage and fortitude of ordinary white citizens and by justifying the seizure of territory long occupied by Native Americans.6

The pioneers were a brave, resilient, and industrious people, continually renewing themselves and the nation by their expansion of the frontier.

This story of new beginnings included only white Americans, not those still held in slavery or driven from their ancestral lands. The Mexican War, Civil War and Reconstruction, the Indian Wars, and the social dislocations brought about by industrialization and immigration did little to change the master narrative.

In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the frontier “closed” and defined the nation in terms of an American type that suited equally well the “pioneer” and the ethos of the titans shaping the new industrial economy: “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind . . . that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism with the buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.7

This was the American and his narrative: Inheritor of the Revolutionary principles of the rights of man, he was hardy and bold. He was brave and virtuous. He had little patience for “book-learning,” the arts, or the niceties of polite society. He was the do-er, the maker, the problem-solver, endowed by God with a special purpose to spread democracy to those less fortunate—except (in a stunning omission that damns them to hypocrisy today) to those who were believed at the time to lack capacity for self-government—African Americans, Native Americans and women. And, through him (it was always him), the nation prospered. Abundant farms, canals, and railroads turned the wilderness into a land of plenty.

Historians in the 20th century made it their business to challenge and refine this narrative, but it endured in schoolbooks, art, literature, popular culture—and presidential rhetoric.

Let us look now at how Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the two great communicators of the 20th century, used the familiar national story in shaping their presidencies.

Neither of them offered an empirically correct story of the American past; they used myth, exaggeration, and distortion as it suited their purposes. But in each case, the president depended on his audience’s acceptance of a national narrative that was believed to be true.

Franklin Roosevelt used American history in many ways, but was particularly fond of drawing upon heroic figures: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, John Paul Jones, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin, and early American pioneers were his favorites.

He used them to tell stories that would unite people and provide comfort, courage, reassurance, and inspiration to Americans facing fear, hardship, uncertainty, and war.

Most useful were historic figures, who were exemplars of his own governing priorities. Ironically, he used them to introduce new ideas and new approaches.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, “applied the culture of the past to the needs and the life of the America of his day. His knowledge of history spurred him to inquire into the reason and justice of laws, habits and institutions. His passion for liberty led him to interpret and adapt them in order to better the lot of mankind.”8

Benjamin Franklin “realized . . . it is the whole duty of the philosopher and the educator to apply the eternal ideals of truth and goodness and justice in terms of the present and not terms of the past. Growth and change are the law of all life. Yesterday’s answers are inadequate for today’s problems—just as the solutions of today will not fill the needs of tomorrow. . . .”9


FDR often spoke at historic locations—all the better to cloak his messages of change with comforting images of continuity. He visited Mount Vernon twelve times, the most visits by any president before or since.10 Most famously, he escorted the King and Queen of England there during their 1939 state visit.

It was the first time that reigning British monarchs had set foot on American soil. Metaphorically it was the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Anglo-American alliance that would be needed to defeat Hitler.

Roosevelt often invoked historic figures to remind people that leaders have to take on problems that can be unpopular. He called this taking on the “big jobs” of the day.

Alexander Hamilton “did the job which then had to be done—to bring stability out of the chaos of currency and banking difficulties.”

Jefferson established the new republic as a “real democracy based on universal suffrage and the inalienable rights of man.”

Jackson’s big job was to “save the economic democracy of the Union for its westward expansion . . . strengthened in the ideals and practice of popular Government.”

Lincoln’s was to “preserve the Union and make possible … the united country that we all live in today.”11

Explaining the need for banking and security laws enacted to curb Wall Street speculation, he turned to America’s most famous self-made man:

“Only a very small minority of the people of this country believe in gambling as a substitute for the old philosophy of Benjamin Franklin that the way to wealth is through work.”

George Washington personified FDR’s most revered leadership skill: timing.

“We know that it was Washington’s simple, steadfast faith that kept him to the essential principles of first things first. His sturdy sense of proportion brought to him and his followers the ability to discount the smaller difficulties and concentrate on the larger objectives.”12

Roosevelt used the phrase “first things first,” beginning with his first inaugural and frequently throughout his presidency.

In 1943, more than a year before his famous D-Day prayer, he used Washington’s birthday as an opportunity to rally the war-weary nation. Skillfully invoking religious and civil iconography, he tied the legendary Prayer at Valley Forge to his own international goals for a permanent peace:

“The skeptics and the cynics of Washington’s day did not believe that ordinary men and women have the capacity for freedom and self-government.

They said that liberty and equality were idle dreams that could not come true—just as today there are many Americans who sneer at the determination to attain freedom from want and freedom from fear, on the ground that these are ideals which can never be realized. They say it is ordained that we must always have poverty, and that we must always have war.”13

Forty years later Ronald Reagan’s use of the American master narrative was very different. He used it to look backward to an earlier time to promote ideas of self-reliance and free enterprise. But, like FDR, he was a great storyteller. As one scholar puts it, “Reagan’s version of the course and direction of American history pervades all of his rhetoric.”14

He famously used John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to inspire a return to greatness for an America battered by the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggles, Watergate, inflation, gasoline shortages, and the Iran hostage crisis.15 Reagan “repeatedly [told] his audiences that if they choose to participate in the story” of American exceptionalism, it will return, and they will become part of America’s greatness.

As he described it in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1980:

“Three hundred and sixty years ago, in 1620, a group of families dared to cross a mighty ocean to build a future for themselves in a new world. When they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, they formed what they called a “compact”; an agreement among themselves to build a community and abide by its laws. . . .

Isn’t it once again time to renew our compact of freedom; to pledge to each other all that is best in our lives; all that gives meaning to them—for the sake of this, our beloved and blessed land?”16 In his First Inaugural, he invoked the American Revolution, to foster not united action, but individual responsibility: “On the eve of our struggle for independence . . . Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of . . . . On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”17

In his Farewell Address, Reagan used the American narrative one final time to advance his philosophy of limited government:

“Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: ‘We the People.’ ‘We the People’ tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us.

‘We the People’ are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. . . .

He could also see how the American narrative that he had used so deftly was losing its potency.

“An informed patriotism is what we want. . . Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American.” . . .

Conservative that he was, he urged a return to the past:

. . . [W]e’re about to enter the ’90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an un-ambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t re-institutionalized it.

We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. . . .

Ronald Reagan was right about the 1990s. And telling the American story was changing.

The heroic master narrative was indeed very much “out of fashion” among professional historians and had been for nearly a century. In fact, Reagan’s un-ambivalent view of America’s unblemished past could no longer be sustained.

During the 1990s a new, more complex—and inclusive—narrative burst into public consciousness.

After the Second World War, the study and production of history (and all other fields of learning) was expanded by Roosevelt’s G.I. Bill [this and following links are to wikipedia, unless noted], which vastly increased the number of college-educated Americans.

Among them were new generations of historians who opened new fields of study in areas that reflected their own origins—immigration, ethnic and labor history. By the last decades of the century a new and even more diverse generation of scholars emerged with perspectives and interpretations drawn from the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, and the American Indian Movement.

These new social and cultural historians introduced fundamental changes to the master narrative and their influence began to be seen not only in scholarly work, but also in museum exhibits, popular culture, and eventually, K-12 history education.

This expansion and deepening of the pool of historians complicated the master narrative of American history.

To the old verities were added new facts, evidence, and interpretations. The clash between traditional historical memory and the new scholarship played out in series of public controversies during the 1990s.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way [or Westward Ho!], by Emanuel Leutze (1862)

In 1991 The West as America, an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art presented 19th century artists’ images of the Old West in the context of new historical interpretations. Westward expansion was presented in terms that challenged the master narrative of the frontier and called attention to the conquest and removal of Native Americans.

A media frenzy and public outcry ensued, followed by threatened cuts to the budget of the Smithsonian Institution by Republican members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who charged the museum with “politicizing” history. In 1995 another Smithsonian exhibit, this one at the National Air and Space Museum, highlighted deep differences between historical scholarship and popular collective memory about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, was to be the centerpiece of an exhibit rather ponderously entitled “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War.” [link to the Smithsonian Institution]

In an acrimonious public debate that continued for more than a year, veterans’ organizations objected to the museum’s central storyline, which they called “revisionist history.”

In the end, the exhibit was cancelled, but not before congressional funding for the Smithsonian was again threated and the director of the museum was forced to resign. A third major battleground involved National Standards in History for K-12 education. Very much in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s plea for increased historical literacy, President George H.W. Bush advocated National Education Goals in history, along with new standards in English, math, science, and geography, which had broad bi-partisan and public support.18

So it took many by surprise when in January 1995 the Senate voted 99 – 1, in a “sense of the Senate resolution,” to oppose the National History Standards.

They were voluntary guidelines that had been developed over an inclusive three-year effort funded and co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Nevertheless, shortly before the standards were released, Lynne Cheney, past chair of the NEH and an early champion of them, published a blistering attack in the Wall Street Journal. [link to the University of Michigan]

She charged that the U.S. History Standards presented a “grim and gloomy” portrayal of American history. Why so much attention, she asked, to topics such as the Klu Klux Klan and McCarthyism? Why did this curricular framework save its “unqualified admiration” for “people, places and events” that are politically correct?19

In an op-ed for the New York Times, she declared, “The American history standards make it seem that Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism (mentioned 19 times) are far more important than George Washington (mentioned twice) or Thomas Edison (mentioned not at all).”20

Cheney’s criticism doomed the effort to establish even voluntary standards for the study of American history. Today’s effort, the Common Core, does not even include history as a stand-alone subject. History/social studies are a subset of “English Language Arts Standards.”

There have been other assaults on the master narrative. And rightly so. The disputes over the Columbian Quincentenary, DNA confirmation that Thomas Jefferson had indeed fathered at least one of the children of his slave, Sally Hemings. The on-going Confederate flag controversy.

Have these new understandings of America’s past negated America’s story? Do we still have a recognizable national narrative sufficient to support a cohesive national identity?

FDR delivering the Four Freedoms Speech

In his Four Freedoms Address in 1941, FDR declared that people must have an “unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending.”21

In the aftermath of 9/11, the nation experienced a sense of unity born of tragedy. But recent mass shootings, assaults on African Americans, and the threat of climate change do not produce a sense of urgency needed for united action. Our Congress and our people are torn by division and dissent. Is it because we’ve undone our national story, our national identity?

It could be said that no, we no longer need a national narrative, that the old verities are hopelessly corrupted, proven false by the revealed truth of a hypocritical history. Yet, there is ample evidence that important aspects of the original narrative are still in place, framing our national identity—and thus our public policy both at home and abroad. We debate whether or not the nation is a beacon of freedom and opportunity for the world’s troubled masses. Or whether the working poor and a shrinking middle class undermine the American dream. Indeed, whether in this land of freedom and equality for all, “black lives matter.” Yet these debates occur in an a historical present, divorced from the motivating power of shared historical memory; the kind of memory that was shared and believed to be true by many Americans, a shared history that Roosevelt and Reagan relied on to advance their ideas for a better America.

If that very history is now politically contested, what is our national narrative? On what is it based? Can we or should we be writing a new historical narrative that represents our history truthfully to today’s sophisticated and diverse America?

It must honestly acknowledge our national failings—and use that as a starting point for a new inclusive narrative that situates our high ideals in the energizing diversity of the peoples of the United States. Only then can we expect a united citizenry and effective international leadership.

Cynthia Koch is the former Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, and is now Public Historian in Residence at Bard College.


1. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton), p. 101.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 104

4. Ibid, 105.

5. Ibid, 112.

6. Ibid., 115.

7. Ibid., 117.

8. Address at the Home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia, July 4, 1936, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936 Volume: The People Approve, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (New York: Random House, 1938), p. 241.

9. Address at the University of Pennsylvania, September 20, 1940, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume: War – And Aid to Democracies, Samuel Rosenman, ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1941), p. 441.

10. Telephone conversation, Karen Anson, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, with Jennifer Kittraus, George Washington-Mount Vernon Historic Site, January 20, 2006.

11. Address at the Jackson Day Dinner, January 8, 1940, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940 Volume: War – And Aid to Democracies, Samuel Rosenman, ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1941), p. 30.

12. Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1943 Volume: The Tide Turns, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), p. 112-13.

13. Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943, Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1943 Volume: The Tide Turns, Samuel I. Rosenman, ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), p. 112.

14. William F. Lewis, “Telling America’s Story: Narrative Form and the Reagan Presidency,” Quarterly Journal of Speech (73) 1987, p. 283.

15. Ibid.

16. Ronald Reagan, Republican National Convention Speech, July 17, 1980. Accessed August 15, 2016.

17. Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981. Accessed August 15, 2016.

18. Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 151.

19. Ibid, p. 4.

20. Lynne V. Cheney, “Mocking America at U.S. Expense,” New York Times, 10 March 1995, p. 29.

21. FDR, Annual Address to Congress, Jan. 6, 1941, Four Freedoms Speech.

On Democracy and the Election


Franklin Roosevelt famously considered General Douglas MacArthur the most dangerous man in America.  Huey Long was number two.   What would he think of Donald Trump?

That got me thinking about what advice he might give us today.  When Roosevelt wanted the American people to face a difficult challenge, he often asked them to look to the past to find strength in the endurance of our forebears and wisdom in the actions of past leaders.  So, in the wake of our recent election, I turned to Roosevelt himself for some strength and wisdom.

Where, then, are the parallels for today? We face an uncertain future with an unproven president-elect whose campaign has stigmatized great swaths of the American public.

First of all, let us remember FDR’s charge to be wary of the hazards of fear.

Second, let us remember a comment from Woodrow Wilson that Roosevelt often repeated when things looked grim for progressive government. “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time” (as quoted in James MacGregor Burns, The Lion and the Fox, 1956, p. 54). Perhaps progressive government in our generation had its moment with the Obama presidency and the pendulum has swung back to the country’s natural center.

But Roosevelt also said in the aftermath of a conservative backlash in 1938, “You have read that as a result of the balloting last November, the liberal forces in the United States are on their way to the cemetery—yet I ask you to remember that liberal forces in the United States have often been killed and buried, with the inevitable result that in short order they have come to life again with more strength than they had before” (Address at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, December 5, 1938).

We are deeply worried today about our populace, which seems hopelessly divided into separate and antagonistic camps. Roosevelt had something to say about that too, and in the aftermath of this election it is a warning that bears serious attention. In 1940, with Hitler’s conquest of Europe complete but for the elimination of Great Britain, the United States was deeply divided—more divided, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, than he ever again experienced in his long life.

War hovered over all, and the argument between interventionists and isolationists grew each week more savage and despairing. There have been a number of fierce national quarrels in my lifetime—over communism in the later Forties, over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over Vietnam in the Sixties—but none so tore apart families and friendships as the great debate of 1940–41. Though historians have dealt ably with the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact in those angry days
[A Life in the Twentieth Century, p. 241].

While the attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to most national discord a year later, Roosevelt warned in his his 1940 Annual Message to Congress that internal conflict—which pits one group against another—is an open door to totalitarianism:

Doctrines that set group against group, faith against faith, race against race, class against class, fanning the fires of hatred in men too despondent, too desperate to think for themselves, were used as rabble-rousing slogans on which dictators could ride to power. And once in power they could saddle their tyrannies on whole nations and on their weaker neighbors.

Roosevelt was warning Americans to unite in the face of an external threat, but he was also speaking to a nation that was tearing itself apart. His deeper message was to strengthen democracy by uniting behind its values, which in 1940 as in 2016 require us to work together to use the tools of our democracy to preserve it.

Our times are not as desperate as those of 1933 or 1940. We are a nation that enjoys many blessings. We have serious challenges and we must meet them, but now is not the time for fear and dissention. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to strengthen our democracy, for what FDR said in 1940 must be reconfirmed in 2016. President-elect Trump used the tools of a demagogue to gain the presidency, but we must not allow the country to descend into autocracy.











Hillary R[oosevelt] Clinton: Or, Channeling Eleanor and Franklin

When Hillary Clinton was First Lady, critics lampooned her for “talking” to Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been dead for more than thirty years. (Full disclosure: when I was director of the FDR Library, between 1999 and 2010, I regularly did the same thing with both Roosevelts. They give great advice!) The revelation about Hillary and Eleanor caused quite a stir as Hillary Clinton was ridiculed for “talking with ghosts” and other New Age-y things. But Mrs. Clinton was not particularly embarrassed; in fact, she herself wrote in “Talking It Over,” her weekly syndicated newspaper column, “[Eleanor Roosevelt] usually responds by telling me to buck up, or at least to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros.” “Talking It Over,” which ran from 1995 to 2000, was itself an homage to Eleanor Roosevelt—as Mrs. Clinton explained in her first column:

Some people may wonder whether I am looking to Eleanor Roosevelt for my inspiration. In thinking about this article, I re-read the column that Mrs. Roosevelt wrote nearly every day for the better part of three decades. She called her column “My Day” and covered subjects as varied as her annual picnic for disadvantaged boys, the meaning of religion in our lives and the fuss over a new bob in her hair. Sounds familiar!

My hope is that this column, like hers, will prompt all of us to think more about the human dimension of our lives. In some small way, I hope it will help bridge the gaps in our society so that we can reach beyond stereotypes and caricatures—and respect one another for the unique contributions each of us makes to our country.

irst Lady Hillary Clinton at the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, October 5, 1996

irst Lady Hillary Clinton at the dedication of the Eleanor Roosevelt Monument in Riverside Park, New York City, October 5, 1996

My wish too is that it will provide information about problems facing us that people can use to help decide what they think should be done. Mostly, though, this column will give me the chance to talk things over in the hope that some of you will join the conversation.

During my tenure at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, we were well aware of the Clintons’ admiration for the Roosevelts. President Clinton visited three times while he was president (a record) and again after he left office. Senator Clinton visited the Library for an awards ceremony and on another occasion to ascertain the needs of both the National Park Service and the National Archives, the government agencies responsible for maintaining the Roosevelt National Historic Sites and the Roosevelt Presidential Library. Through the special historic preservation program “Save America’s Treasures” (which she started as First Lady) she took a special interest in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill Cottage, a National Park Service site. As senator she was an early supporter of the funding necessary for the much-needed renovation of the Roosevelt Library that was completed in 2013.

And it is clear that Hillary Clinton has not forgotten the Roosevelt legacy in her campaign for the presidency. Her decision to kick off her campaign at the Four Freedoms Park in New York City shone an international spotlight on her commitment to revitalizing the Roosevelt legacy, “To be here in this beautiful park dedicated to Franklin Roosevelt’s enduring vision of America, the nation we want to be.” Located on Roosevelt Island in the shadow of the United Nations, it memorializes FDR’s Four Freedoms speech to a war-torn world to fight for Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want “everywhere in the world.”

In declaring her candidacy for president, Hillary Clinton spoke of the Four Freedoms as “testament to our nation’s unmatched aspirations and a reminder of our unfinished work at home and abroad.” She spoke of her husband and Barack Obama as “two Democrats guided by” Roosevelt’s “fundamental American belief that real and lasting prosperity must be built by all and shared by all.”

President Roosevelt called on every American to do his or her part, and every American answered. He said there’s no mystery about what it takes to build a strong and prosperous America: “Equality of opportunity. . . Jobs for those who can work . . . Security for those who need it . . . The ending of special privilege for the few . . . the preservation of civil liberties for all . . .a wider and constantly rising standard of living.” . . . It’s America’s basic bargain. If you do your part, you ought to be able to get ahead. And when everybody does their part, America gets ahead too.

This past July, as she accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton faced a new challenge—the vitriol and fear mongering of her opponent. Again she turned to Roosevelt.“[A] great Democratic President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came up with the perfect rebuke to Trump more than eighty years ago, during a much more perilous time. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt believed that hope—paired with a sense of civic responsibility—gave people the courage they needed to counter fear in the midst of the Great Depression and against fascism and totalitarianism a decade later. And as Eleanor Roosevelt described it in her final book Tomorrow is Now, that hope was always linked to a practical appreciation of the worth and obligations of every individual in a democracy.  “We have to work with the people as they are in this country, with all their shortcomings. . . . I remember clearly my husband’s words in his last State of the Union address in 1945:  ‘[I]n a democratic world, as in a democratic nation, power must be linked with responsibility and obliged to defend and justify itself with the framework of the general good’” . Things are not so very different today. Like the Roosevelts, Hillary Clinton must inspire us to act not only in our own best interest but for the general good, which—and this is the genius of democracy—benefits us individually as well.

Dr. Cynthia M. Koch is the Historian in Residence and Director of History Programming at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation. She is also the Past Director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park.