The president said, "The peace-loving nations must make a concerted effort in opposition to those violations of treaties and those ignorings of humane instincts which today are creating a state of international anarchy from which there is no escape through mere isolation or neutrality."
It was Oct. 5, 1937, and the crowd of Chicagoans standing on the brand-new Outer Drive Bridge thought they were going to be hearing Franklin Roosevelt wax poetic about this "important project of civic betterment." They were expecting more rhetoric along the lines they heard from Mayor Edward Kelly ("Chicago — the city of the broad shoulders and big heart — has finished another job.") as the gathered officials dedicated the newest and longest of the city's famous bascule bridges.
Instead, "he talked of war," the Tribune reported. And it was welcomed by many at that civic celebration 76 years ago no more warmly than President Barack Obama's urging for military intervention in Syria has been this month.
"Mr. Roosevelt announced a new foreign policy for the United States," the Tribune editorial said. It was a policy that after the horror of world war "was overwhelmingly rejected by the American people." But the president, the editorial continued, "believes it is the mission of the United States to maintain the sanctity of international treaties, that it is our duty to side against the nation which our government deems to be the aggressor."
In 1937, the aggressor was not only Japan, which had invaded China, but also Germany and Italy for their meddling in the Spanish Civil War. And just like today, many war-weary Americans were leery of any entanglements that would pull the nation back into foreign troubles.
Isolationists and noninterventionists in Congress, which had passed a series of neutrality acts aimed at keeping the U.S. out of foreign obligations, were furious. Equally outraged was Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick, never one to see anything FDR suggested in a good light, who immediately questioned the Democratic president's motives, wisdom and foreign policy acumen.
In the following days, Page One cartoons and daily editorials reminded readers of Woodrow Wilson's broken promise to keep America out of what came to be called World War I and of the immense loss of life suffered by the U.S. in that conflict. The paper argued that Roosevelt's threats of sanctions against Japan would be no more effective than those levied to force Italian strongman Benito Mussolini out of Ethiopia. It accused FDR of mindlessly doing Great Britain's bidding. And it accused Roosevelt of stoking "war fears" to distract voters from the shocking revelation that recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
But this wasn't the first time Roosevelt had warned the American public about foreign aggressors threatening world peace, and it wasn't the first time the Tribune editorial page had lit into him for doing so. The president said he deliberately chose the center of the Midwest to deliver this message, and he surely took into consideration that he would be throwing down the gauntlet not only for potential enemies across the ocean but also within view of the Tribune Tower, home to one of his staunchest foes domestically as well.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun