It was March 1933. The national mood was feverish and yet expectant. In the wake of his sweeping election victory, the country's charismatic new leader addressed a people desperate for change. Millions crowded around their radios to hear him. What they heard was a damning indictment of what had gone before and a stirring call for national revival.
In sombre tones, he began with a survey the country's dire economic predicament:
Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.
Who was to blame? He left his audience in no doubt. It was 'the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods... through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence'. But the 'practices of the unscrupulous money changers' now stood 'indicted in the court of public opinion'; they had been 'rejected by the hearts and minds of men':
Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. [Applause] The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
This was strong language, indeed, but there was more to come. Contrasting 'the falsity of material wealth' with 'the joy and moral stimulation of work', he inveighed against 'the standards of pride of place and personal profit', to say nothing of the 'callous and selfish wrongdoing' that had come to characterize both financial and political life. 'This Nation', he declared to further applause, 'asks for action, and action now.'
The action the new leader had in mind was bold, even revolutionary. Jobs would be created by 'direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war'; men would be put to work on 'greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources'. At the same time, to correct what he called 'the overbalance of population in our industrial centres', there would be a 'redistribution' of the workforce 'to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land'. He would introduce a system of 'national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities' and 'a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments' to bring 'an end to speculation with other people's money'--measures that won enthusiastic cheers from his audience. The country's 'international trade relations' would have to take second place to 'the establishment of a sound national economy'. 'We must move,' he declared, his voice now rising to a climax,
as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife. With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
Not content with this vision of a militarized nation, he concluded with a stark warning to the nation's newly elected legislature: 'An unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from...the normal balance of executive and legislative authority.' If the legislature did not swiftly pass the measures he proposed to deal with the national emergency, he demanded 'the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis--broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe'. This line brought forth the loudest applause of all.
Who was this demagogue who so crudely blamed the Depression on corrupt financiers, who so boldly proposed state intervention as the cure for unemployment, who so brazenly threatened to rule by decree if the legislature did not back him, who so cynically used and re-used the words 'people' and 'Nation' to stoke up the patriotic sentiments of his audience? The answer is Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the speech from which all the above quotations are taken was his inaugural address as he assumed the American presidency on March 4,1933.
from Niall Ferguson's The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West