Speeches That Made History: Franklin D. Roosevelt Seeks a Declaration of War

by Derrick G. Jeter

Franklin Delano Roosevelt accomplished what no president before him attempted or president after him could repeat—he was elected to four consecutive terms. Mirroring his political career on his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, whom he idolized, FDR became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, and then President of the United States.
What made Roosevelt’s presidency so extraordinary, aside from the length of service, were his physical challenges and the events surrounding his presidency. FDR suffered from polio. Correctly fearing, if news of his disease reached the electorate, he probably would have been unelectable, FDR with tremendous fortitude, some cleaver image making, and the complicity of the press was able to hide his disability from the majority of Americans. Demonstrating his strength, press photos of the day show him standing and walking—often with the use of a cane, or the support of the strong arm of one of his sons or trusted aids. Braces, which clung to his legs and wrapped around the heels of his shoes, were painted black, so as not to reflect light. Trouser legs were cut long and baggy, to hide the braces as much as possible.
But Roosevelt’s crippled legs couldn’t compare to the crippled country he stepped into when he came to the presidency. The nation was in the throws of a national economic crisis—the Great Depression. Beginning under the administration of Herbert Hoover, when the stock market crashed in October 1929, the Depression reached its low water mark in 1932—an election year—when 13 to 16 million Americans were unemployed. This represented about one-third of the available work force. In urban areas, bread and soup lines snaked themselves down and around street corners. Businessmen sold pencils and apples on the street. Men roamed the country looking for food, shelter, and employment. A line from a popular song captured the depths of the Depression: “Brother, can you spare a dime?” Out on the farm things were no better, and sometimes worse. Thousands of family farms failed and had to be sold. If the poor economic situation for the average farmer were not depressing enough, a severe drought in the heartland—the “Dust Bowl”—drove many families to abandon their farms, pack their belongings and more to other parts of the country, which was dramatically captured in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
Once economic tensions began to ease, however, another ominous storm was blowing over the horizon across the seas. Sitting in the White House, Roosevelt grew increasingly alarmed, through the mid- and late thirties, over events transpiring in Europe and Asia. On September 3, 1939, the same day England and France declared war on Nazi Germany, FDR, in a fireside chat, told the American people of his concerns. But politically and militarily he knew we could not seek a declaration of war against Germany—much to the consternation and pleading of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
The bitterness of World War I continued to linger in the mouths of many Americans, and they were just now beginning to put their lives back together after the Great Depression. They were not ready to embroil themselves into another European war. But even if FDR could have won a declaration of war from Congress, and the support of the American public, to have sought one would have been foolhardy. The U. S. Army and Navy were ill-equipped, ill-manned, and ill-trained in 1939. What Roosevelt could do was prepare America for the inevitable and lend support where he could to our allies.
On December 6, 1941, FDR stood on the rostrum in the House of Representatives to deliver his State of the Union Address. In that message, Roosevelt readied the American people for the eventuality of war by declaring “that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our boarders.” In what ways America was involved is articulated in the speech, but the pathos of the message is found in the four principles held sacred by every American—our four freedoms: freedom of speech, of religion, from want, and from fear.
Unknowing how history would turn, these four freedoms would be the stakes in a winner take all contest between liberty and despotism eleven short months from that speech. Almost to the day, from FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech, American’s views about neutrality changed.
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan,” President Roosevelt said to a join session of Congress. Seeking a declaration of war against Japan—the last such declaration Congress ever passed, despite our many wars since—President Roosevelt called on God to grant us “the inevitable triumph.”
And so He did, after four bloody years. Let’s pray that God continues to grant us victory in our battles to preserve freedom.