FDR'S fireside chats went a long way toward calming fears during dire times

The Baltimore Sun

You hear lots of comparisons between our current economic troubles and the Great Depression.

One big difference: Back then, a worried nation had President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fireside chats.

In these radio broadcasts, Roosevelt explained the crisis of the moment and what steps he and Congress were taking to fix it. He encouraged Americans to play their part, whether it was to have patience or make sacrifices.

Roosevelt's words guided the country through its worst economic days and a war. And their calming effect still works today. Author and history buff Sarah Vowell recently said on The Daily Show that she was so disturbed by today's headlines that she went back and read the fireside chats. "I decided to go back to the '30s to be reassured," she said.

The chats, about 30 in all, ran from 1933 to 1944. FDR didn't sugarcoat problems. He told listeners the country in early 1933 "was dying by inches." He warned upfront that the government might make mistakes along the way.

So why were these chats so comforting?

"His message was to give hope and confidence and don't be afraid," says William J. vanden Heuvel, founder and chairman emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. "He defined the challenge and invited [listeners] to share in resolving it. It wasn't 'us against the government.' "

Vanden Heuvel was 3 years old when Roosevelt gave his first fireside chat. The 78-year-old recalls gathering around the radio with his parents, immigrants from Holland and Belgium who didn't speak English well.

"They understood," vanden Heuvel says. "Roosevelt's voice in its eloquence and confidence conveyed all sorts of things."

FDR also was a hero to the vanden Heuvel family. His moratorium on mortgage foreclosures saved the family's house after vanden Heuvel's father lost his factory job. And as a teenager, vanden Heuvel hitchhiked from his home in upstate New York to attend Roosevelt's funeral in Hyde Park.

Elvin Lim, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says it wasn't the coziness or simplicity of Roosevelt's words that made his chats so effective. In fact, given the length of words and sentences Roosevelt used, he was speaking at a near-college level compared with the eighth-grade level of speech used by modern-day presidents, Lim says.

The chats worked because they were instructive, he says. Lim says he has read thousands of letters to Roosevelt, and the bulk of them thanked FDR for the information he provided and for helping them understand the complexity of the crisis.

Roosevelt served as an instructor and even invited listeners to take out maps as he walked them through progress on the war, Lim notes.

Another reason that the chats succeeded, experts say, was the medium Roosevelt used - radio.

"You got to think of this world without television, without the Internet. ... It is a world in which everyday life revolved around the radio," says Jeffrey Hyson, an assistant professor of history at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "What he did was exploit the intimacy of connection that radio provided, the sense that the person inside that box was speaking to you directly."

When Roosevelt asked listeners to tell him their troubles, millions did just that, Hyson says. The White House today is still digging out from under the mail, he says jokingly.


May 7, 1933 Discussing the New Deal

"I know that the people of this country will understand this and will also understand the spirit in which we are undertaking this policy. I do not deny that we may make mistakes of procedure as we carry out the policy. I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself but for the team."

July 24, 1933, On the recovery

"On the basis of this simple principle of everybody doing things together, we are starting out on this nationwide attack on unemployment. It will succeed if our people understand it - in the big industries, in the little shops, in the great cities and in the small villages. There is nothing complicated about it, and there is nothing particularly new in the principle. It goes back to the basic idea of society and of the nation itself that people acting in a group can accomplish things which no individual acting alone could even hope to bring about."

April 28, 1935 On Works Relief

"This is a great national crusade to destroy enforced idleness, which is an enemy of the human spirit generated by this depression. Our attack upon these enemies must be without stint and without discrimination."

in his words

March 12, 1933 Addressing the bank crisis

"It is possible that when the banks resume, a very few people who have not recovered from their fear may again begin withdrawals. Let me make it clear that the banks will take care of all needs - and it is my belief that hoarding during the past week has become an exceedingly unfashionable pastime. It needs no prophet to tell you that when the people find that they can get their money - that they can get it when they want it for all legitimate purposes - the phantom of fear will soon be laid. People will again be glad to have their money where it will be safely taken care of and where they can use it conveniently at any time. I can assure you that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than under the mattress."

September 30, 1934 On moving forward to greater freedom and greater security

"The second step we have taken in the restoration of normal business enterprise has been to clean up thoroughly unwholesome conditions in the field of investment. In this we have had assistance from many bankers and businessmen, most of whom recognize the past evils in the banking system, in the sale of securities, in the deliberate encouragement of stock gambling, in the sale of unsound mortgages and in many other ways in which the public lost billions of dollars. They saw that without changes in the policies and methods of investment there could be no recovery of public confidence in the security of savings. The country now enjoys the safety of bank savings under the new banking laws, the careful checking of new securities under the Securities Act and the curtailment of rank stock speculation through the Securities Exchange Act."

April 14, 1938 On economic conditions

"In these great problems of government, I try not to forget that what really counts at the bottom of it all is that the men and women willing to work can have a decent job - a decent job to take care of themselves and their homes and their children adequately; that the farmer, the factory worker, the storekeeper, the gas station man, the manufacturer, the merchant - big and small - the banker who takes pride in the help that he can give to the building of his community - that all of these can be sure of a reasonable profit and safety for the earnings that they make - not for today nor tomorrow alone, but as far ahead as they can see. I can hear your unspoken wonder as to where we are headed in this troubled world. I cannot expect all of the people to understand all of the people's problems; but it is my job to try to understand all of the problems."

April 28, 1942 On the national economic policy

"But there is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States - every man, woman, and child - is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, [and] in our daily tasks. Here at home, everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary, not only to supply our fighting men, but to keep the economic structure of our country fortified and secure during the war and after the war. This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries but of many other creature comforts. Every loyal American is aware of his individual responsibility. Whenever I hear anyone saying 'The American people are complacent - they need to be aroused,' I feel like asking him to come to Washington [and] to read the mail that floods into the White House and into all departments of this Government. The one question that recurs through all these thousands of letters and messages is 'What more can I do to help my country in winning this war?' "

Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

More excerpts from Roosevelt's fireside chats PG 4

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