Last Saturday, I listened to FDR’s Fireside Chat number 20 on Steve Darnall’s Those Were the Days radio program on WDCB, a local college station. It’s an Old Time Radio (OTR) extravaganza, and for thirty-nine years they have declared February “Jack Benny Month.” Jack Benny is too good to miss, so I snuck away from the sf convention I was attending, sat in my car, listening to the radio.
This year, Darnall has also been observing the seventy-fifth anniversary of our entrance into the Second World War, therefore the playing of the Fireside Chat, broadcast February 22 – seventy-five years and a day from today.
The news wasn’t all that bright. We were having our butts kicked in the Pacific. Rumors abounded about our unpreparedness for this struggle. The isolationists had quieted down, but some of the most adamant were still suggesting some sort of negotiated settlement that didn’t sound much better than capitulation or appeasement.
FDR, interestingly, didn’t sugar-coat the circumstances. The situation was dire, but he tried his best to present the facts and dispel the rumors as “honestly” as could be expected in those days. I put “honestly” in quotes because the U.S., after all, was in a war. Nevertheless, it was intriguing to hear how forthcoming he was. He asked American newspapers to print a map of the world in their Sunday editions so that listeners could follow along as he described the battlegrounds and strategic locations where the U.S. and its allies were engaged.
FDR was not an entirely exemplary figure. He made a number of decisions we have lived to regret, not least of which was the internment of most of our Nisei population. And yet, compare his approach to that of the executive who currently resides (at least weekdays) in the White House.
What most impressed me was the way he ended his chat.
He quoted Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls,” then said, “Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much.”
General George Washington, FDR tells us, had this quote from Paine read to his troops (who had been suffering defeat after defeat): “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the sacrifice, the more glorious the triumph.”
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”
Plenty of us need to remember that now.
Any struggle against any tyrant at any time is never easy. Any struggle against any injustice is never short. It can, in fact, be the work of a lifetime.
When we forget that, we risk the loss of all we’ve gained so far. We risk it now, as we have so many times in our history.
Tomorrow can be better, but not by trying to bring back yesterday, especially when it’s a yesterday that never was. Tomorrow can be better, but every advance needs to defended.
FDR ended the chat: “So spoke Americans in the year 1776.
“So speak Americans today!”
And maybe, if we're lucky, today as well.