A Rendezvous with History, Part II

GUEST: Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel
and Dr. Cynthia Koch
VTR: 09/30/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt and the extraordinary heritage they bequeathed Americans, all so evocatively present at FDR’s historic Hudson Valley birthplace in Hyde Park, New York … at the President’s and the First Lady’s gravesite there … at the splendid new Visitors’ Center and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, the first of its kind … and at FDR’s Top Cottage and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val Kill Cottage.

Once again today my guests are intimately associated with these places:

Dr. Cynthia Koch is the Director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel, international lawyer and historian, is the long-time President of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, now Co-Chair of its Board of Directors.

I’m so glad that you were willing to stay and talk about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, too. The 60th anniversary of the President’s death is coming up. What do you think is the real heritage for Americans today … discounting your desires and your wishes and thinking of where we really are now. Mr. Ambassador?

VANDEN HEUVEL: The world we live in is the world that Franklin Roosevelt envisioned. He caused America to … he saved the free market system in America. He then … building on our economic strength … lead us through the problems of the Second World War and built an international coalition that destroyed the most barbaric, insidious threat to Western civilization that we had ever known, and while all of that was going on, his vision of what had to come afterward was paramount in his thinking and in his work.

And he understood that America should not be the policeman of the world, but that we should be the leader of the collective strength that the democracies and those who were willing to stand with us represented. And so he created the United Nations and the United Nations was the instrument by which we were to help govern a very chaotic world and where the nations of the world would come together collectively and resist aggression and make that impossible.

And meanwhile address themselves to the needs of so many other nations and people. He had left in place, after all, a nation that had a system of Social Security, of better education, of military strength, of all kinds of possibilities in the terms of environmental strength and national parks. He had left us a nation that was greatly enriched.

And where the government of the United States understood that it was partner with the people in preserving and protecting it. Now that has been attacked and, over the years … as it was attacked then … but it’s prevailed and in the 60 years since his death, the image of Franklin Roosevelt, I think as Bill Luchtenberg has said, “the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt has been cast over every administration that followed and every President who has followed has paid great obeisance to him.”

HEFFNER: Well, I, I want to ask you more about that, but first I’d like to ask Dr. Koch whether the people who come to Hyde Park, whether they express those thoughts about FDR? Or are they there because it’s an historical monument?

KOCH: You know, by coming there, they are embodying what FDR wanted them to do, and they are embodying how he changed America. The America before FDR was a society that was widely divided between workers and a wealthy elite.

The society after FDR is a middle class society; people were empowered not only to own their own homes, to have Social Security, but also these fundamental social changes, such as the G.I. Bill that lead, for the first time, to an educated middle class. Coming out of that educated middle class, people began to have the power to assert their, their individual rights, whether they be African Americans, women, people of different ethnic backgrounds. I think that it is this new idea of what it is to be an American, that we have certain rights, we also have responsibilities and that we, together, are engaged in this, in this grand adventure.

HEFFNER: Now, you …

KOCH: So people come and they, they feel that.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, that’s so very well said by Cynthia, and I … her point to the GI Bill of Rights I think should be emphasized.

KOCH: MmmHmm

VANDEN HEUVEL: That was in June 1944, as the D-Day invasions were beginning, Franklin Roosevelt was also announcing the GI Bill of Rights. It’s one of the most dramatic, revolutionary programs in American educational history. And it enabled generations … I meet them all the time … the leaders of the business world, the academic world, who had their first great chance because of the GI Bill of Rights. And it should be a lesson to all of us, that that investment in education is really the greatest investment we can make in our nation.

HEFFNER: You know, in the early 1950s I wrote a little book A Documentary History of the United States and in it, with great pride and devotion to FDR I wrote about the permanent Roosevelt Revolution. I’m not so sure I could write that today. I’m not so sure that there hasn’t been a counter-revolution to some extent and whether the enthusiasm and the hopefulness and the optimism you both express aren’t to be admired, but questioned.

KOCH: But you know, but you know that was all … America … American history always has these, these polar opposites. People pulling in one direction, people pulling in another direction.

From the late 19th century to the first decades of this century we had what was called the “progressive era;” that’s when people like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt cut their teeth on settlement house work, on labor reform. Those were the, the … these were the causes of Teddy Roosevelt and the Republicans of that era.

And they were fighting against a Conservative group … at that time which were the business elite, which were undercutting everything they had to do. It wasn’t until this nation fell on its knees that progressive reform actually had an opportunity to rise …

HEFFNER: In the Depression.

KOCH: … in the Depression and during the New Deal. And, you know, it has been the task of Liberals and Progressives ever since to secure that revolution and to keep it going. It’s not unusual that we’re always going to have people fighting over that exact same topic.

VANDEN HEUVEL: My sense of it though is that it’s more virulent.

KOCH: It is.

VANDEN HEUVEL: In the last 60 years we’ve had the structure that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt created and there was sort of a bi-partisan acceptance of a very important part of the … of that structure, both internationally and domestically. I think in the last four years we’ve seen a rise in America of a Right Wing radical group … small group, in my judgment … but who have been, who have manipulated the political Constitutional process in such a way so that the progress of those 60 years is for the first time in true jeopardy.

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about people over 60 in 1932. One of … the most impoverished class in America, as the thirties began, were the senior citizens. They were unemployed, in large measure, because unemployment was so staggering in the country … they were the first ones to lose their jobs. There was no pension system; they had no means … they had to live with their families; they’re families couldn’t sustain them. If they were in ill health, there were no medical services to … it was really, dramatically, the most impoverished sector of American life.

The Social Security program that Franklin Roosevelt initiated and was adopted was a hard fought program. It was not unanimously accepted. And I like to remind people that it was finally rendered Constitutional in 937 by a vote of five to four.

HEFFNER: The switch in time that saved nine.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, which shows you the importance of the Supreme Court. And those who appoint the members of the Supreme Court and how, even if there is a major progressive movement in the nation, that the court can be a major obstacle … that it had ruled unconstitutional, or was about to, the Wagner Act, the Unemployment Act, the Child Labor Act, the Liberation of Women Act, the Social Security Act … Roosevelt confronted the Court at a dramatic time in history and, and … not going into the politics of it, won the battle; so that the Court … the older judges retired and he had an opportunity to appoint judges to save the New Deal.

But those progressive moments of the New Deal are always in jeopardy from forces that … and the whole question of taxation … a whole sense of the family, that the community that you try to create is Americans. Do those who have much have a larger responsibility than those who have little or nothing?

I think Roosevelt said in his Second Inaugural … “judge me not by how much I do for those who have much, judge me by how much I have helped those who have need.” And that was a theme, I think, of his government that has disappeared in American life, so to speak, as people have become wealthier and as wealth has accumulated.

KOCH: And I think that that is the irony of, of Roosevelt’s success …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah.

KOCH: … because as more and more people have felt the comforts of middle class security, as they have had their pensions in some way taken care of … health insurance, of course, was part of the original vision for Social Security, which we still have not been able to enact in this country. The people feel a sense of comfort and a sense of success … we’re not on the edge like we were in the Depression, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his policies.

So we have to keep, and that’s really part of the work at the library, it’s the work of the Roosevelt Institute …

VANDEN HEUVEL: MmmHmm.

KOCH: … is to have people understand how hard fought and hard won these battles were and not to become complacent.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Arthur Schlesinger, preeminent American historian and the Chairman Emeritus of our enterprise, has often said, “History is to a nation what memory is to a person.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. It’s so important for young people to know the history of our country and these struggles that have been won and lost and to have a sense of those who have advanced us and to have a sense of our values. Because if we operate as a nation with Alzheimer’s and pretend there is no history, then the significance of what those struggles represent will be lost and the values that we represent to the world will be diminished.

HEFFNER: But, of course, you don’t want to talk only about the importance to young people …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well …

HEFFNER: I visit Hyde Park once a year at least …

KOCH: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and I find … again … you spoke about hope and optimism … I don’t want to be blinded though by a pleasant dip in the pool of the past. I don’t want only for us to think that what he did, what that great man did and has been done … as you suggest, it hasn’t been done for ever …

VANDEN HEUVEL: I know it … every generation …

HEFFNER: … it needs to be nourished … in a Jeffersonian way … every generation.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Every generation.

KOCH: I’d love to quote, if I may, from the speech which he used to dedicate the Roosevelt Library, because it speaks not about creating a memorial or a legacy or even something that is for history … it talks about, and I quote, “A nation must believe in the past. It must believe in the present, but most of all it must believe in the capacity of its people, so to learn from the past, that they may gain in judgment for the creation of their future.” That’s what he did here in Hyde Park in creating the Roosevelt Archive … 17 million pages of documents representing his years in public service, Mrs. Roosevelt’s years in public service and that of 385 of their associates, their family members, organizations that were important …

HEFFNER: How did it come to pass?

VANDEN HEUVEL: That belonged to the people of the United States.

KOCH: That’s right.

VANDEN HEUVEL: That’s what … the important thing that Franklin Roosevelt said … “this is the property of the people of the United States” …

KOCH: Come here and learn from it.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And now, look … your point is well taken, I mean, obviously each generation has to look at the values of our country or what the Roosevelts represented and decide for themselves whether to renew them, to enhance them, to deny them. And each generation, I think, is in that process. But, we try to say, remember his speech on the Four Freedoms. Freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear. That is the charter of the world that we fought for … Second World War. Margaret Thatcher called it, maybe one of the great speeches of the twentieth century.

You look at his speech for the economic Bill of Rights in 1944. We’re still far from achieving what he was talking about then. And I often think of how Franklin Roosevelt would have responded to September 11, 2001.

HEFFNER: And what have you thought?

VANDEN HEUVEL: He never would have allowed this nation to be fearful.

KOCH: Never.

VANDEN HEUVEL: He would not have allowed us to be afraid. He would have accepted that terrible tragedy, understood it to be a crime of historical proportion and those who perpetrated it would have been punished. But he would have not allowed America to weep for itself, to whine, he would have insisted that we be strong and reminded us again, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. That’s the greatness and strength of our country.

KOCH: And he would have gotten every American involved in direct action that they could contribute to fighting terrorism. It would not be that people would feel they had to submit to things, that they would have to give up rights. It would be that they want to willingly do things that would help to advance this cause and he would be out there teaching people how that, how that helps.

HEFFNER: Well certainly the lessons of the Second World War in terms of each individual sacrifice …

KOCH: That’s right.

HEFFNER: Whether financial, economic in the form of the incredible taxes of the time …

KOCH: MmmHmm.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Or in the form of the draft, more importantly.

KOCH: That’s right.

VANDEN HEUVEL: That’s right.

KOCH: That’s right.

VANDEN HEUVEL: 16 million Americans in the armed forces of the United States …

KOCH: All four …

VANDEN HEUVEL: And the tax point you made …

KOCH: … all four Roosevelt sons …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes. Nobody. No President has taken us to war and lowered taxes. The one thing a President said, “If war has to come and I have to lead it, let this generation pay its costs. This is not a burden to leave to our children and their children.”

And I think … when you think of the financing of the Second World War, it’s really quite astonishing … how …without inflation and with, with great participation by the American people, we paid the costs of that enormous struggle.

KOCH: MmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: What captures the attention … most … of people who come to Hyde Park, the visitors?

KOCH: I think it’s … I mean I obviously have my own personal (laughter) views of it. I think it’s the amazing group of Roosevelt-related things all in one place. You have, you have his home, where you can understand so much about Franklin Roosevelt from visiting the place where he grew up, the place where his, his mother held sway. The first president … just as he was the first to start a Presidential Library and give his papers to the American people … the first president who gave his home to the American people. Gave it to the Park Service and opened the doors … it’s symbolic, I think, of access …

VANDEN HEUVEL: I just want to add one point to Cynthia and she should go back and describe the rest of it. When Bill Clinton came to Hyde Park, he was amazed by the dumb waiter …

HEFFNER: Ah, yes.

KOCH: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Right

VANDEN HEUVEL: That the President used to hoist himself up to his second floor. People have no idea how disabled Franklin Roosevelt was, because he gave this extraordinary appearance of strength and energy. Never talked about his disability whatsoever. So Bill Clinton was astonished by that.

KOCH: Yeah. And he came three times.

KOCH: He came three times.

HEFFNER: You know what fascinates me most is that sculpture outside the Visitor’s Center. I mean it is the picture, the last frames of your film.

KOCH: Of our new film, that’s right.

HEFFNER: Showing Eleanor and Franklin sitting there together.

KOCH: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And, I was told, when my wife and I were there this past summer … I was told, “Watch and see as a family came out of the Center” and of course they did exactly what I gather so many others did … went to the statue, the kids climbed up …

KOCH: MmmHmm.

VANDEN HEUVEL: (laughter}

HEFFNER: … on Eleanor or Franklin’s lap …

KOCH: That’s right. People love to … they really love to put their arms around FDR, too. I mean, it’s fun to see …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Get their picture taken.

HEFFNER: The house, the home … is it in jeopardy because of the numbers of visitors who go through it?

KOCH: Well, I think the Parks Service … of course, it’s, it’s part of the Parks Service, so I’m speaking for Sarah Olson and the folks who run the national park there. But I think they’re very careful to limit the number of visitors per hour and they have, you know, have policies and procedures in place that make sure that it, that it’s well protected.

HEFFNER: What do you assume … I mean I remember before the great fire there …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … the tragic fire, having much more freedom to go through the home, but I, I say to myself, “That’s progress, there are more of us …

KOCH: Yeah.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. In the museum … I think Cynthia you should say about the museum, the extraordinary exhibits …

KOCH: I should, Bill, thank you (laughter). In the museum because we are, we are designed to host hundreds of thousands of people with concrete floors, you know, it’s unlimited the amount of …the amount of people that can come to the museum and the museum has permanent exhibits which tell the life and work of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The story of the New Deal, the story of World War II … two very important historic spaces … the study that was used by President Roosevelt …

VANDEN HEUVEL: It’s the only Presidential library that was used by a sitting President of the United States, so it has that historic dimension and so you see his office.

KOCH: And his Oval Office desk, which …

HEFFNER: Right in front there.

KOCH: … is right in front and it’s loaded with all of the little …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Things that he loves.

KOCH: … knickknacks that he loved. And we’ve recently installed some interpretive information there and it shows him sitting there behind that desk with Winston Churchill next to him just before Christmas 1941, when Churchill came to stretch out his hand to the American people and together the alliance was built. You see the two of them leaning back, conducting a press interview. Some of the reporters are using a corner of the Oval Office desk to take notes; they’re all crowded around. And suddenly that desk space comes to life for me as the, the place that symbolized a presidency for people.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes.

KOCH: They, they saw that photographed … all of the great, you know, the great pieces of legislation were signed there, and that’s there.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I think one other thing that should be said, Richard, and you know this, is that the site, itself …the Hudson River, which Franklin Roosevelt loved so much, is in all seasons, a place for people to come. I mean in the spring and the summer and the fall, the wonderful picnic areas …

KOCH: That’s right.

VANDEN HEUVEL: … the wonderful walking around the grounds, hundreds of acres. The beautiful trees and of course, in the winter … the winter landscapes … it’s a town for all seasons. And people would enjoy it at any time.

KOCH: We gather in the winter in the Rose Garden where Franklin and Eleanor are buried on January 30th every year …

VANDEN HEUVEL: As we do on this day … his birthday … and this day we celebrate and recall his birthday.

KOCH: Invariably the, the, you know, the sun breaks through the clouds and we have a glimpse …

HEFFNER: Now, now, now.

KOCH: It does. It does.

VANDEN HEUVEL: It does. And of course, they’re buried there. You know the fact that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried there, and Fala …

HEFFNER: I was going to ask whether …

KOCH: Yes, Fala is there.

VANDEN HEUVEL: The President’s Scottish dog that he loved so much.

HEFFNER: You know, my wife and I went there on our honeymoon …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Is that right?

KOCH: Oh, my.

HEFFNER: … the morning after we were married, we went and stopped at Hyde Park on the way to the Adirondacks and have been going back, as I said, ever since. Nothing changes, as far as I’m concerned. But I began broadcasting with a radio program on the 8th anniversary of FDR’s death in 1953 and was able to do an interview with Mrs. Roosevelt at the cottage at Val Kill, with the fire crackling in the background and the chimes of the clock ringing. And it was wonderful.

Something happened to that tape at the radio station, where it was edited. Mrs. Roosevelt, if I remember correctly, her secretary had died a couple of days later, she was not seeing anyone, but she allowed me to do the interview again, though in her hotel in New York and what you heard, instead of the chimes of the clock and the crackling of the fire were cars going from first into second into third, 25 stories below.

But one part of that interview remained exactly the same …word for word and that had to do with, what she didn’t label as such … but what were her negative feelings about Sarah Delano Roosevelt. And, of course, in the regard, why did Sara Delano, the President’s mother oppose the idea of the, of the library there at Hyde Park?

KOCH: Oh, I think almost anybody would when you really think about it. You’ve got a beautiful country estate that you have preserved … it’s been your, you know, your life’s work to have this private enclave and to have a public facility built there …

HEFFNER: Oh, you’re kind. You’re kind.

KOCH: (Laughter) Maybe she was opposed to the fact that that meant Franklin was going to be leaving the … leaving the little study that was right beyond her door, so he’d be …you know, he’d be a little ways away. I, I think she opposed it because it was an invasion of the family’s privacy and he wouldn’t be as close to her.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, Sarah Delano Roosevelt I think is maligned by current historians.

HEFFNER: You do?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. I mean, she’s a matriarchal figure; she was a woman of her times. But she was a person, you know, who … she raised a great son.

KOCH: Yes.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And that is …

HEFFNER: And that is a tribute.

VANDEN HEUVEL: And that is a tribute to be sure. And … if you read the letters between Eleanor and Sarah, the letters are filled with affection. So, I mean how memories change after that, and I have no doubt that mothers-in-laws and daughters- in-laws … that, that is a struggle that is beyond anyone’s historical definition.

And Eleanor Roosevelt was such an important woman in her own right. I mean, when you go to the United Nations and you see what she accomplished with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights … there probably wasn’t a single person in the world who could have presided over the negotiation as she did for two years that resulted in the first universal document that defined human rights. And to have it adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. And so she’s a much revered person in this country, the role she played in racial relations, which the great progress of that came from a court that Roosevelt had appointed really in 1954 … but the African American population had been denied its rights for a hundred years after the Civil War. And that struggle continues to go on. As you pointed out, every one of these struggles continue to go on because they’re always subject to challenge from … Cynthia described, the polarity of American society.

HEFFNER: I think we have almost no time left …

KOCH: Oh.

HEFFNER: But I do want to ask about Eleanor … is she as revered by the people who come to Hyde Park?

KOCH: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. Sometimes more.

HEFFNER: They come up to see both.

VANDEN HEUVEL: She lived 17 years longer, you know. So there are a lot of people who remember her very vividly and very personally. I do, for example. I’m sure you do.

KOCH: Coming there you hear … I’d like to just say, there is one thing that has changed. You said nothing has changed. But we have a new gallery that has just opened and it’s named for Ambassador vanden Heuvel because he was so instrumental in all of the new improvements, the Visitors’ Center, the gallery itself and ultimately the refurbishment of our museum and it is in that gallery that the photos of the Great Depression …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Forget the name of it … but come to see the exhibits ..

KOCH: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

KOCH: The exhibit is …

VANDEN HEUVEL: The exhibit is astonishing.

KOCH: Yeah. And that’s a good reason…

VANDEN HEUVEL: “This nation shall endure”, that’s the name of it and when you come out of there, you have no doubt.

HEFFNER: I must say I envy the two of you so much for spending so much of your time giving so much of your efforts to that wonderful, wonderful memory of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. Thank you so much for joining me today.

KOCH: Thank you.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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