On Tuesday, January 11, 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his unprecedented twelfth State of the Union address to the nation. On the advice of his doctors, the president, for the first time, delivered his address from the comfort of the White House rather than in front of a joint session of Congress. Considering how difficult it was for him to stand and deliver remarks at all, it marked another softening of his stance toward the public knowledge of his disability. He had been a paraplegic for over two decades now, and in a little over a year he would publicly speak on the fact that he “walked” with the help of two steel braces that supported his full frame.
In his prepared remarks the president spoke of the successes the United States and its “United Nations” (UN) had delivered against the Axis Powers in the theaters of North Africa, Italy, and the South Pacific. He spoke of the need for continued US involvement in world affairs after the war was won, noting the terrible consequences that isolationism had brought during the interwar years. He also turned his remarks to domestic affairs and the abrupt change that peace would bring to the nation and its people. There were already fears of explosive inflation once favorable wartime spending was gone. Unions, women, and many minorities feared that their hard-fought rights and wages in wartime America would be dismantled or taken away once the 20 million GIs came back home.
Then, nearing the conclusion of his half-hour speech, the president began to speak about his vision for a postwar America once the war was over. He began,
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure.
Harkening back to the beginning of the nation, Roosevelt spoke of how the country’s founding fathers had—for the first time—established a nation based on certain political rights and liberties such as the freedom of worship, speech, press, and so forth. Then came the crescendo he was famously known for:
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.
The president then outlined to the nation—and, indeed, the world at large—eight proposed economic rights that he believed would spell the foundation of economic and human well-being in the United States and around the world.
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
He then climaxed his remarks with an exclamation point, saying,
All of these rights spell security, and after this war is won, we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home, there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
This, coming from a sitting president of the United States while in the middle of the largest global conflict the world has ever known. Today these words may seem so foreign to us in their implications, considering the Pax-Americana that followed. Some might be discouraged by how little of the president’s splendid goals have seen fruition since 1945.
To me, however, I am always struck by how much of the Roosevelt’s vision lives on in the programs he either helped originate or inspire.
Today, while the right to associate has been under constant threat here in the United States, the world has seen the greatest increase in the human standard of living due to increased wages and benefits, thanks in no small part to unions and collective bargaining.
When Roosevelt first became president in 1933, over two-thirds of all seniors lived in poverty. Today, thanks to such government programs as Medicare and Social Security, less than 10 percent of all seniors now live below the poverty line, and in the most recent economic recession, that number fell instead of rising, as it did in all other groups.
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights today embodies many of the rights that President Roosevelt considered essential to maintaining human betterment and peace. All nations should abide by its tenants or face the collective impunity of the nations of the world.
Today, thanks to such government programs such as the Rural Utilities Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Homeowners Loan Corporation, and the Federal Labor Standards Act, all the citizens of our country can have electricity in rural areas, refinance their home mortgage to a more favorable contract, and organize in their shops and companies to receive fair contacts and benefits.
This is the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and his grand vision of “a lasting peace.” Although we may not be at that point in our society as yet, nothing should deter us from reaching for this vision. In doing so, we will pick up the mantle of our forebears in helping to maintain and strive for “a more perfect union.”