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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The First National Fireside Chat, March 12, 1933

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Today in 1933, US President Franklin Roosevelt delivered the first of his national “fireside chats”, nighttime radio speeches in which he expounded on an issue important to the nation. These speeches defined Roosevelt and the Presidency for a generation living through one of the darkest times in American history.

Roosevelt had used fireside chats while he was governor of New York from 1929 through 1932. Sometimes, he asked the listening public to contact their state representative and ask him to support one of Roosevelt’s proposals. Since the governor was a Democrat with a Republican legislature, these direct appeals met with some criticism in the statehouse. They were, however, highly effective.

President Roosevelt had been in office for barely a week at the time of his first broadcast. The United States was hard in the grip of the Great Depression, the most devastating economic crisis the nation had ever faced. Unemployment hovered at 25%. In addition to a western drought, crop prices were down 50%. Thousands of banking institutions failed because of bad debt; many more would fail as the decade wore on. While the reason for the depression is still debated, it made little difference to the men and women who struggled to put food on the table and make the house payment or rent. Many lost faith in their nation.

Roosevelt knew this. During his first fireside chat, Roosevelt laid out his New Deal measures, programs designed to employ those who otherwise might not be able to find a job. He compared the New Deal to giving a helping hand to a neighbor and asked the citizens of the country to support the measures. They were supported in the most visible way: millions of people applied for jobs like building the Hoover Dam. He also urged his fellow citizens to trust the banking industry, a hard pill to swallow for those who had lost everything.

The Great Depression was ended by another calamity---the Second World War. Two days after Germany invaded Poland, Roosevelt was in front of the microphone, telling the American people “Let no man or woman thoughtlessly or falsely talk of America sending its armies to European fields.” He discussed in detail America’s neutrality, but never promised that it would last. In the end, it took an attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor to bring the United States officially into the war.

Roosevelt conducted 12 fireside chats during the war. He talked of the Declaration of War against Japan, progress in the war both overseas and on the Home Front, loan drives and the conferences he attended with Allied leaders. On June 5th, 1944, the President addressed a specific event: the fall of Rome. It was the first Axis capital to be liberated by the Allies, but its significance would soon be lost thanks to the events of the following day, the landings in Normandy of hundreds of thousands of American, British, Australian, Canadian and Free Polish and French troops. Roosevelt would broadcast only one more chat, that being on June 12th, 1944. It was on the subject of the fifth War Bond Drive, and he used the D-Day landings and advances in Italy and the Soviet Union as proof that the war was being won.

By the end of 1944, President Roosevelt’s health was in steady decline. He traveled to Yalta to meet Churchill and Stalin, despite the fact that his worsening condition led him to lose the political battles fought there. He struggled through that first year of his fourth term and saw the new year of 1945, a year that would see the end of the war in both Europe and the Pacific. On April 12th of that year, while at his Warm Springs, Georgia retreat, Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

At that time in the United States, the President’s health and personal life were kept from the public eye. Thus, the American public was shocked by Roosevelt’s death. He had led the nation for twelve years, longer than any other President before or since. Many of the men serving on battlefields worldwide could not remember a time when FDR was not in the White House. Millions of them, and millions of people at home, had come to know him through his fireside chats. He served as a reassuring voice of leadership in a dark time, encouraging people to carry on through both a mighty depression and a devastating world war.

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