FDR’s last speech

FDR’s extraordinarily articulate plea for peace stands out as a beacon for all time.

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“The work, my friends, is peace. More than an end of this war—an end to the beginnings of all wars. Yes, an end, forever, to this impractical, unrealistic settlement of the differences between governments by the mass killing of peoples.”

Those were the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the speech he would never give. It was scheduled to be made on the radio to a Jefferson Day Dinner on April 13, 1945. But he died on April 12th, a day after reviewing and making several changes in the final draft. 

The speech comprised the last words that FDR wrote for public utterance. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/undelivered-address-prepared-for-jefferson-day

And they are meaningful as much now as they were 75 years ago—indeed, even more so in now the era of nuclear weaponry that used in war today would destroy life on earth on a more massive scale than has ever been known. 

“Even as I speak these words, I can hear, in my mind’s ear, an old, old chorus,” Roosevelt continued. “You have heard it too. You will hear more of it as we go forward with the work a hand.

“It is the chorus coming from the defeatists, the cynics, the perfectionists—all the world’s sad aggregation of timid souls who tell us, for one reason or another, it can’t be done.

“They have been afraid to come along with us as we approached this task of destiny. And they will shrink, they will pull back and try to pull us back with them, as we get further into it.

“Oh yes, they will agree, war is horrible. War is hell.

“And yet, in their pale, anemic minds there is a kind of worship of this same horror of war. They tell us there can be no end to it. They endow it with immortality. They certify it to us as the ultimate fare of mankind on earth.

“Now, you and I don’t stand in such awe and adoration. We don’t think war deserves it.

“You and I are not willing to concede that we were put here on earth for no better purpose. And from here on, the wars that would come if we let them would leave precious few of us to argue to the contrary!

“You and I call war stupidity—not plain stupidity, but enormous, brutal stupidity, a crime that makes no more sense to its perpetrator than it does to its victim.

“Well, today that cult of the faint-hearted, the credo of those cringing adorers of a criminal precedent, is on its way out,” FDR went on with the United Nations soon to be established and a vision of peace, after the horrors of World War II, before the world. “And in a span of time as far back as history goes, that is something new under the sun.

“To me there is no greater hope for humanity, there is no better sign in the world of our time, than this abject worship of war has become—for the first time—a minority belief. We have struck boldly forward in the inner world of our thinking, in the world that we project for our kind, and we have discovered that that world is not flat.

“True,” he continued, “if there are new corporals who will want to become rulers of the earth, we cannot legislate wild fancies out of their minds,” FDR said, referring to Hitler, a German Army corporal in World War I. “And if there are other impractical dreamers who must indulge themselves in their private nightmares—the pipedream that war is inevitable—we cannot pass laws abridging the freedom to dream.

“But we can and will stop these murderous hallucinations from reaching us. We can and we will keep them confined to the dream-world of would-be conquerors and defeatists who are their accessories before the fact. We can stop them from wrecking the lives of sane, sound, peace-loving, practical humanity. This we can do. And this we will do.

“I say ‘we’, for I know that I am only one in many millions who share this belief and are so resolved. We had it proved abundantly to us in America that our people, whether Democrats or Republicans, want to strike boldly against the threat of war. They have demanded a sane, practical end to it. And they have their feet on the ground.

“To this I can add—for I have seen it just as abundantly in my recent travels—that the other people of the world will be with us every step of the way. The thin-blooded timid souls who are now in a minority in our country are also a minority in the world.

“I remember saying, once upon a time in the long, long ago when I was a freshman, that the only thing our people had to fear was fear itself,” FDR said referring to his declaration in his first inaugural speech in 1934. “We were in fear then of economic collapse. We struck back boldly against that fear, and we overcame it.

“Today, as we move against the terrible scourge of war, as we go forward towards the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world—the contribution of lasting peace.

“I ask you to keep your faith. I measure the sound, solid achievement that can be made at this time by the straight-edge of your own confidence and your resolve. And to you, and to all Americans who dedicate themselves with us to the making of an abiding peace, I say: The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our”—at this point in the typed manuscript he added in pencil—”doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”

The speech “was a collaborative effort; the Democratic National Committee suggested a few lines, and his speechwriters Jonathan Daniels and Robert Sherwood contributed some language. But the speech was really Roosevelt’s: his ideas, his words,” related David Welky, history professor at the University of Central Arkansas, in The Washington Post earlier this year. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/13/fdrs-final-speech-has-lessons-managing-covid-19-crisis/

“The president knew his health was fading. He arrived in Warm Springs on March 30 underweight and exhausted from 12 years in office, suffering from an enlarged heart, chronic digestive ailments and other medical problems,” Welky wrote. “In contrast, in his own decline, he recognized that the world was on the cusp of a new era. Nazi Germany was near collapse, and the crucial Pacific island of Iwo Jima was in American hands. One of Roosevelt’s pet projects, the United nations, was about to convene its first session…”

“By the evening, the president’s color had faded,” said Welky. “His hands shook so badly that he could not hold a cocktail glass steady. The next day, he was gone, felled by a cerebral hemorrhage.’

“Roosevelt’s inspirational, aspirational final vision remains only partially fulfilled,” said Welky. “Today’s world is a violent place, yet international bodies and economic interdependence have given us generations of relative military peace among the great powers…”

FDR’s extraordinarily articulate plea for peace stands out as a beacon for all time. 

We must strive—working hard—to make them live today and for all time.

Karl Grossman was a member of the Commission on Disarmament Education, Conflict Resolution and Peace sponsored by the United Nations and the International Association of University Presidents for 20 years.

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