a walk through history

my mind has been awash with ideas, concepts, thoughts, all jangling around in my head like so much loose change. i switch from thinking about the civil rights movement that reached its apex in the 60s to going back to the 40s and recalling ww2 and america’s delayed reaction until they were forced to join the fight, and then mind my clicks to the concept of allyship and hangs there.

Source: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/594956
WPA Worker Gets Paid c. 1943

i suspect that churchill would’ve appreciated FDR’s allyship in 1939 when hitler invaded poland, or perhaps when our neighbors to the north joined the fight or even two years prior when japan invaded china. there were many points when the united states could’ve taken up arms, but they remained neutral, focused instead on preserving american peace. yes, the economy was in the toilet, herbert hoover was a joke, and FDR was at the helm trying to right the ship, launching the new deal to breathe life into the depressed american economy, creating the works progress administration, and instituting the social security administration. these programs created jobs and established his legacy.

FDR was a solid leader, he used the tools of the time to address the nation, to enter homes and mercantiles, to offer some measure of comfort from the white house. his perspective on “all lives matter” during that era is for another post, but his message was directed to all americans and the programs he created got people back to work.

i imagine FDR speaking into a boom mic in his parlor or from some radio closet late in the evening of september 3, 1939, his voice carried over the airways scratchy and maybe a bit distorted as the american public, tired, broke, and disenchanted, tuned their radios for the fireside chat.

“When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger…every battle that is fought does affect the American future.”[1]

FDR delivered what reads like a heartfelt and impassioned plea to the american citizens (those with access to radios), a message of his commitment to peace to assuage fear about the threat of war. he informed the listening audience that he had:

“…prepared a proclamation of American neutrality.”

mic drop. let me editorialize for bit…my fellow americans, we are neutral in this fight. yes, hitler is marching all over europe, lied to churchill about his intentions, doubled back on his “commitment” not to invade poland, and yes, japan is manifest-destiny-ing across china, but we will remain neutral. hmmm.

in reading the historical record i can only infer that the 32nd president was sharing his heart with the nation. he had seen war, hated war, and was determined to protect american peace and steer clear of what was called “the european war.” but then, toward the end of his chat, he acknowledged that people have agency and freedom of thought:

This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well. Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or close his conscience.

Fireside Chats with Franklin D. Roosevelt “On the European War” Sept. 3, 1939

one week later, canada joined the brits and poland in the fight against hitler.

it’s the last line that chilled me, even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or close his conscience.

when i consider colleagues who claim to stand with me in times of war against my character, my capability, my mere presence in the room, i think of what FDR said, even if you’re neutral and are disaffected by what is happening to me, you cannot close your mind or your conscience.

those who claim to be allies, who in the twilight of the war signed a declaration of neutrality, who decided to take a “wait and see approach” to the plight of black people in this nation may find themselves approaching a watershed moment, a pearl harbor that surprises them and forces them to engage in the battle to defend and protect not just their peace, but that of their neighbors.

the lessons history teaches us are far-reaching. i no more profess to know what was in FDR’s heart, than he professed to know what would happen after he stopped recording his message to the nation. but what i do know, is that he acknowledged the fear the nation felt about going to war, he had seen the effects of war, and he was reticent to engage, but, if engagement meant an interruption of peace, he was willing.

And at this time let me make the simple plea that partisanship and selfishness be adjourned; and that national unity be the thought that underlies all others.

that is my call to action to those who say they are allies but have not stepped onto the battlefield, preferring instead to watch from across the hall, street, aisle as black folks are murdered with impunity: don’t wait to be pushed into battle, unite with me and others and defend our collective peace.

i encourage you to read transcripts from the fireside chats as made available via the FDR library. as a b-school student i would be lit up by my professor for not properly citing the sources, but since this is not a school project, i will leave you with the link to do further research on your own.

[1] Source for all bold and italicized text are from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. Fireside Chats of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “On the European War.” http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/firesi90.html.

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