“This is no ordinary time. No time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole, and that responsibility rests on each and every one of us as individuals. No man who is a candidate or who is President can carry this situation alone. This is only carried by a united people who love their country and who will live for it to the fullest of their ability.” So spoke Eleanor Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention in 1940 as her husband Franklin was about to be nominated to a third term as President of the United States.
2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. Americans celebrated V-E Day on May 8, 1945 to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Three months later, on August 6, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and followed it with another bomb three days later, directed at Nagasaki. The formal surrender of Japan came on September 2. 2015 also marks the 70th anniversary of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12. Roosevelt is the only U.S. president to be elected to four terms, although he died just months after his fourth inauguration.
My father, father-in-law and mother-in-law all served in World War 2, yet they rarely initiated conversation about their service until recent years. Wanting to learn more about this most transformative era in U.S. history, I decided to observe the 70th anniversary by reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller, No Ordinary Time; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. My next three blogs will focus on leadership lessons from Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Eleanor Roosevelt and progress made in race relations between 1940 and 1945.
FDR was born in 1882 into a wealthy family and entered politics as a young man, having been elected to the New York State Senate in 1910 and appointed as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913. A defining moment in FDR’s political rise was his diagnosis of polio in 1921 at the age of 39. For several years his main focus shifted from politics to physical recovery, but Roosevelt never regained full use of his legs and was wheelchair-bound the rest of this life.
FDR was first elected president in 1931. As Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and announced his goal of exterminating Jews from Europe, Roosevelt’s focus turned outward of necessity. How did FDR boldly and courageously lead the United States during the Depression and the New Deal and then through isolationism to war with both Japan and Germany?
FDR was a master communicator. He had the unique ability to inspire, touch, encourage and challenge the American people to live up to their destiny to preserve freedom in our world. FDR would deliver stirring speeches, but his most effective way of reaching ordinary citizens was through Fireside Chats. Because of his disability, FDR was not able to travel easily, but he would periodically chat informally with the American people by radio. A huge percentage of the population tuned in late at night, sitting by their radio at the kitchen table.
FDR had the gift of being able to paint a picture of the future, with freedom and the flag as a rallying point. Roosevelt could see what others could not and invited his citizens to join him in the journey. FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech is especially notable for his vision of a country with four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.
FDR led from the front, knowing that his bold decisions would result in the deaths of many soldiers in order for the war to be won. Roosevelt relied on his advisors, but the ultimate decisions were his. It was a lonely place to be, but FDR was never afraid to run risks for the sake of his convictions. He also knew that he would never please everyone and would face intense criticism at times.
FDR had a spiritual maturity that resulted in part because of intense suffering associated with his physical disability. Roosevelt could connect with people. He was cheerful and hopeful and could inspire others to be their best selves as well as have faith and trust in him. One of FDR’s greatest gifts was his confidence that with enough energy and spirit humans could do anything, even overcome the great evil of the Nazi regime.
Don’t mess with ministers!
In early 1942 pleasure driving came to an end because rubber (tires) and gas were needed for the war effort. However, physicians, war workers, public officials and others rendering essential services were allowed to have a new set of tires and were exempt from gas rationing. After an outcry that clergy were not included, Roosevelt immediate granted them an exemption.
FDR was instrumental in leading the U.S. to rapidly and imaginatively retool for war production. Instead of taking eighteen months to build a new airplane, they retooled auto plants and rethought how to make planes more quickly. Between 1940 and 1945, the U.S. produced 300,000 warplanes, 107,351 tanks, 2 million trucks, 87,620 warships, 5,475 cargo ships, 20 million rifles, machine guns and pistols and 44 billion rounds of ammunition.
Embracing his Disability
FDR realized that by staying in his office he would lose track of the world and limit his accessibility to the American people. Eleanor, then, became his hands, feet, heart and presence around the country. FDR insisted on hiding his disability and never appeared in public in a wheelchair until near the end of his life. He was never to be photographed handicapped in public and was always pictured standing behind a podium, seated or leaning on the arm of a colleague. The veil of silence was accepted, and when people did catch glimpses of Roosevelt’s vulnerability, it only increased the power and charm of his personality.
Rest and Renewal
Roosevelt’s health and the intensity of his presidency dictated intentional rest and renewal of his spirit. Even in the worst of times, FDR made it a priority to travel regularly to the healing waters of Warm Springs, Georgia or to his home in Hyde Park, New York, where he slept, swam and enjoyed stamp collecting. During his time away, Roosevelt was able to regain perspective and realize how unimportant the little things were in the face of a war that threatened the entire world. Deep rest and the presence of trusted confidantes, including Winston Churchill, contributed to his good spirits and gave Roosevelt renewed energy for the momentous decisions facing him. Through it all FDR remained “calm and serene, never impatient or irritable,” according to presidential assistant, William Hassett.
How did Roosevelt’s leadership help win the war?
- FDR had an amazing sense of timing and brought an isolationist country along little by little.
- FDR had an extraordinary ability to appraise public feeling, mobilize Americans, and unify the country by insisting that every American had an important role to play in the war.
- FDR solicited different points of view and would even try out ideas on reporters.
- FDR was able to form a coherent pattern from many pieces.
- FDR always remained calm and unmoved.
- Long before the war was over, FDR had a vision of and prepared for the future of America where veterans were cared for, full employment continued, the role of business was nurtured and a new United Nations would work for peace around the world.
Seventy years ago was no ordinary time. But today is no ordinary time, either, in the church and in our world. Boldness and vision, connecting with people, offering hope, a non-anxious presence, taking one step at a time: that’s how we move toward the kingdom of God. What can we learn from Franklin Delano Roosevelt about leadership as we answer God’s call today?