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Copyright © 2002 Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine.
All rights reserved.
I never saw him —
You have spoken to me in your fireside chats about matters which are too important to leave settled by a one way conversation; hence I am now addressing you in the only way I have of replying.
IN 1934 THE HUMORIST James Thurber attempted to convince his readers that Walt Disney was the person to make Homer's Odyssey popular. "I'm sure Mr. Disney will do the 'Odyssey' if we all ask him please.... Let's all write to him about it, or to Roosevelt." Thurber may have had his tongue partly — though only partly — in his cheek when he suggested Walt Disney as the modern interpreter of Homer's epic poem. But he was doubtless serious in his suggestion that one way to achieve that end — or any end — was to write to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Millions of Americans had already hit upon this strategy and millions more would follow them throughout FDR's presidency.
During the twelve years and five weeks he served as President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt received an unprecedented number of letters from the American people, some fifteen million of which were preserved in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and millions more in the National Archives. The American people wrote these letters to the President during years of extraordinary national and international trauma. Franklin Roosevelt's presidency — the longest one in American history — opened in the depths of the nation's gravest economic crisis and closed during the final days of its most prolonged and widespread foreign war. The years of FDR's tenure proved to be a watershed in American economic, social, and political history. Before 1929 it might have been possible for large numbers of Americans to close their eyes to the realities of an increasingly organized and bureaucratic society and cling to long-standing American myths of autonomous individuals pursuing their independent destinies, but the sixteen years of depression and war that followed the stock market crash of 1929 profoundly eroded those certainties. Though millions of Americans — then and since — were to remain deeply ambivalent about their dependence upon institutions, Franklin Roosevelt accustomed them to look to Washington, D.C., and the federal government both as a protector from forces they could not control, and often could not even identify, and as a provider in moments of dire need.
Believing that it was the government's responsibility to assure the well-being of its citizens, Roosevelt proclaimed "a New Deal for the American people" and moved the national government decisively into area after area: insuring people's bank deposits; reforming the stock market; providing relief and jobs for the unemployed; building dams that controlled floods and electrified rural areas; establishing minimum wages and maximum hours for workers and assuring their right to organize; enabling both businesspeople and farmers to organize to control their output and their prices; providing unemployment and old age insurance; enabling marginal farmers to move to more productive land; helping home owners refinance their mortgages and save their homes; organizing and regulating the wartime economy on a scale so massive it created the production "miracle" that helped to win the war; aiding the fifteen million war veterans to find jobs, go to college, and buy homes.
In moving into these and many other areas between 1933 and 1945, FDR transformed the role of the federal government and the nature of the presidency. He was more exposed to and better known by the American people than any of his predecessors. As this book will demonstrate, among the many profound changes he presided over was what constituted a revolution in the pattern of communication between Americans and their Chief Executive. He and his staff not only understood what was taking place, they profoundly appreciated and encouraged it, as was manifest in the ways in which they treated the vast correspondence FDR received. "I have often heard it said," a Chicagoan wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, "that if a common citizen writes a letter to the President it is read by his secretary and then thrown in the waste basket." Happily, she was wrong; the millions upon millions of letters from "common" citizens were opened and read, and while they were not always answered or heeded, it is one of the distinctions of the Roosevelt Administration that they were decidedly not "thrown in the waste basket."
Although an indeterminate number of these letters have been lost or destroyed, the bulk remain and constitute our only direct, unmediated contemporary record of the consciousness of substantial numbers of people who lived through the crises of depression and war. They are an invaluable source for understanding the American people during these trying years — keys to the lives of millions of men and women who, until very recently, have been ignored and thus have been simply excised from our history.
While historians gradually have come to comprehend the significance of the letters FDR received during his tenure, their very number renders them a formidable source to use. It is obviously impossible to read the vast archive of testimony from somewhere between fifteen and thirty million Americans. Our concern in this volume was to find a way of exploring as wide a range of these letters as possible without becoming overwhelmed by their sheer bulk. We decided that one approach would be to read the letters people wrote in response to a discrete body of FDR's speeches. We chose the Fireside Chats he delivered over the radio because they were broadcast throughout his presidency (the first Chat was delivered eight days after he assumed office, and the last Chat was given three months and six days before his death); they dealt with almost every major domestic and international issue; they attempted to address the entire population; and they were widely accessible to a nation in which 62 percent of all households owned radios at the beginning of FDR's presidency and almost 90 percent owned radios at its close. Not only were they accessible, they were accessed and attracted huge radio audiences, such as the 79 percent of all American households that tuned in to his Fireside Chat of December 9, 1941, and the 80 percent of all adult Americans who either heard or read his Fireside Chat of February 23, 1942.
We have read the letters FDR received after each one of these thirty-one radio addresses and have selected examples that will convey a sense of American attitudes during two of the major events of the twentieth century. But these letters do more: they help to re-create the conversation between FDR and the American people from 1933 to 1945 and demonstrate the ways in which radio functioned as a primary medium of communication.
Unless otherwise noted, all of the letters in this volume are housed in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, and can be found in the President's Personal File 200 (PPF 200), Public Response. Those lacking a specific date are headed by asterisks. In order to present as many and as wide a variety of letters as possible, we have made editorial cuts — indicated by ellipses — of excessively long, detailed, or redundant portions of the letters. In all other respects, we are printing these letters as we found them in terms of their spelling, punctuation, and style and in terms too of their spirit, tone, and contents. Their principles and prejudices, their strengths and foibles, their manner of referring to people in the center and on the margins of the society are those of the 1930s and 1940s and not of our own day, which is precisely their value to us.
You have no fireplace? How do you listen to the President's speeches?
THE ADVENT OF RADIO in the 1920s and especially the 1930s changed things indelibly. It was what the novelist Margaret Atwood has called one of those "definitive moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity, they change the direction of time. We can look at these events and we can say that after them things were never the same again." Radio, of course, was the first form of mass media that had the quality of simultaneity, creating what Hadley Cantril called "the largest grouping of people ever known." In a series of articles she wrote on radio for the New York Times Magazine in the spring of 1932, the political correspondent Anne O'Hare McCormick spoke of "this incredible audience," "millions of ears contracted into one ear and cocked at the same moment to the same sound." In their 1935 book, The Psychology of Radio, Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport estimated that "our countrymen spend approximately 150,000,000 hours a week before the [movie] screen, but nearly 1,000,000,000 hours before the [radio] loud-speaker." Radio, they maintained, is "the greatest single democratizing agent since the invention of printing." Lew Sarett and William Trufant Foster compared radio to the ancient Greek Acropolis: "a place from which the Elders might speak to all the citizens at once."
Contemporaries grasped the force and significance of radio very early. Though they often made the mistake of equating the populist potential of radio with democracy — a parallel the career of Adolf Hitler alone should have disabused them of— they nevertheless comprehended radio's enormous capacity to reach and affect people in numbers and ways formerly inconceivable. The memories of those who experienced the Great Depression and the war that followed it were commonly and often inextricably bound to the radio. Thus the poet Maxine Kumin remembering Pearl Harbor:
Though listening to radio quickly became a common experience, for many it remained somehow magical. V. T. Chastain recalled that his father had the first radio in Holly Springs, South Carolina: "Neighbors from all around congregated at our house to see and hear the amazing radio! One man I remember in particular really enjoyed a certain musical rendition, and he told Dad, 'Make 'em play that one again, Wade'. Nothing Dad could say would convince him that the musicians were in Greenville and not somewhere, somehow, inside that box!" Evelyn Tomason remembered her grandfather in the early 1930s listening to local election returns and suddenly holding his hand up high, asking the radio: "Repeat that please!" In 1934 Gus Wentz looked "into the back of the radio to try to see the 'little people' in there," and Trina Nochisaki couldn't remember "how many times I tried to sneak up on the real little people I just knew lived in the radio — if only I could catch them unawares."
The millions of Americans who heard the first Fireside Chat on March 12, 1933, certainly didn't think FDR was one of those tiny people nestled within their radios, but radio was still such a new force that they did feel his presence in a manner so novel and extraordinary to them that we — to whom the wonders of radio, television, and the computer have become so familiar — have to make a leap of empathy to appreciate what they experienced. Myra King Whitson of Houston, who described herself as a mother "with young mouths to feed, young minds to educate, young fears to quiet," who had been living through what she called a "long nightmare" thanked FDR for "your talk last night, when our radio seemed to bring you to us in person — there is a deep happiness — a feeling that we have a real share in our government, and that our government is making our welfare its chief concern." The mayor of Richland Center, Wisconsin, informed Roosevelt, "An old friend said to me this morning 'I almost wept during the President's talk last night, it seemed he was sitting by my side talking in plain simple words to me.'"
The mystique of the Chats lasted far beyond the initial one. "Listening to you," Nathan Weldon wrote in 1935, "I could feel the prescence of your honest sincerity in the room. I found myself answering you, nodding to you, chatting to you, and agreeing with you." Five years later, Florence Gunnar Nelson wrote: "With only the lighted dial of our radio for illumination, a feeling of deep gratitude came over me. With no lites to disclose my surroundings I might imagine myself in the same room — at the same fireside as our great President Roosevelt, listening to his stirring words."
FDR received these letters from a wide spectrum of the American people — farmers, businessmen, salesmen, housewives, doctors, nurses, teachers, entertainers, ministers, priests, and rabbis, retired people, the unemployed, students, lawyers, workers, union leaders and members, local and state government officials of all kinds, members of a wide variety of ethnic organizations and clubs, residents of large urban centers, small towns, and villages, Democrats as well as large numbers of Republicans, and not a few Socialists and Communists, people from all sections of the country — responding to their President in a period of deep domestic, and ultimately international, crisis.
They jotted their thoughts down on every imaginable kind of paper, from formal stationery to lined notebook pages, from three-by-five-inch filing cards to the backs of business cards, from scraps of paper to gaudy greeting cards. They enclosed editorials, articles, cartoons, and pamphlets they thought the President should see, as well as poems, drawings, photos, stories, jokes, and recipes they wanted to share with him. Their letters allow us to approach FDR and the New Deal through the eyes of contemporaries who viewed what was transpiring in Washington from outside the centers of power, to be sure, but who felt its effects at first hand and who responded to their President with gratitude and censure, criticism and advice. Here is the other, less known and less understood side of radio: the audience.
Radio inspired and encouraged this correspondence; it was one of the prime modern forces that helped to circumvent the structural barriers the Founders had erected to insulate the federal government from direct popular influence. By the Great Depression, and especially during the Great Depression, communication between the public and its national leaders had become a much more immediate process. As a number of scholars have observed, the written word was increasingly replaced by the spoken word. Radio certainly stimulated the rise of what has been called the "rhetorical presidency," in which FDR used his speeches as "events" in and of themselves in an attempt to communicate with the public over the heads of the legislature and the newspapers.
But while radio undeniably elevated the centrality of the spoken word, it also greatly stimulated the importance of the written word in the form of the growing stream of letters from listeners. "The mail room in a big broadcasting station is the most amazing exhibit in the whole radio show," Anne O'Hare McCormick observed. "It is a human document in endless volumes, an orgy of the kind of old-fashioned letter writing the social historian saw vanish with the horse and the darning egg." Radio stations, which in their formative years had no other means to measure the size and attitudes of their audiences, literally trained their listeners to write letters by constantly urging them to send in their opinions and responses to programs. In the early 1930s, about two-thirds of NBC programs requested listeners to write in. The success of these appeals is clear. NBC received 383,000 letters in 1926; 775,000 in 1928; 1 million in 1929; 2 million in 1930; 7 million in 1931. CBS was even more successful, receiving 12.6 million letters from its listeners in 1931 alone. When, in January 1931, the Catholic priest Father Coughlin, who was to build his extremely popular Sunday radio talks into a national dissident movement, asked his listeners to endorse his speeches by writing to the broadcasting stations, there was a deluge of 485,252 letters. "Listening-in for a decade" a Times reporter observed in 1932, "has created a habit of letter-writing."
Excerpted from The People and the President by Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine. Copyright © 2002 by Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Pt. 1||The Nadir: 1933-1936|
|Closing the Banks||29|
|A New Deal||60|
|The First Hundred Days||78|
|"Relief, Recovery, Reform and Reconstruction"||93|
|Order out of Chaos||108|
|Protecting the Weak||128|
|"An Orderly Economic Democracy"||147|
|Pt. 2||The Continuing Crisis: 1937-1938|
|"Packing" the Supreme Court||163|
|Balancing the "Human Budget"||201|
|Combatting Renewed Depression||219|
|"Purging" the Democratic Party||247|
|Pt. 3||Looking Abroad: 1939-1941|
|"The Approaching Storm"||285|
|"The Great Arsenal of Democracy"||308|
|An Unlimited National Emergency||340|
|The Attack on the USS Greer||374|
|Pt. 4||America at War: 1942-1945|
|"The Battle Ground of Civilization"||413|
|"Hard Work and Sorrow and Blood"||432|
|"The Folks Back Home"||451|
|The Coal Strike||476|
|The GI Bill||490|
|An Economic Bill of Rights||515|
|Planning for Peace||539|
|App||A Note on the Fireside Chats||571|
|Index of Letter Writers||597|
Posted October 30, 2008
I bought this book a few years ago when I was going through a phase of reading presidential biographies. I think it was probably a bargain book at that time. Recently, I pulled it off the shelf and started reading it. At the same time, I've been more interested in and passionate about the current election that ever before in my life. What I find very fascinating is how much events of today (mortgage crisis, banking collapse, war, and high concentrations of wealth) parallel those of the 1930's. It leaves me with the impression that the country failed to learn the valuable lessons of that time. Surprising, the book is a real "page-turner"; it seems as if the subject would be boring, but it isn't. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.