William J. vanden Heuvel discusses Roosevelt Island's Four Freedoms Park.
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GUEST: Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel
AIR DATE: 10/13/2012
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program celebrates the dedication on Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, designed by Louis Kahn as a Memorial to the extraordinary life and legacy of the 32nd President of the United States, and to honor the United Nations, its founding, its hopes, its achievements.
First, though, a brief but touching tribute to the great American statesman honored here and to the famed architect whose work here will also be long remembered…a tribute actually first narrated by Orson Welles several decades ago.
ORSON WELLES: From carvings on walls to towering sculptures … each generation of humankind leaves glimpses of its experiences, its values for the generations to follow. The great leaders of our first two centuries have been honored with monuments. In our own era, there is one whose life and work have shaped the experiences of the country, of the world … Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Let me assert my firm belief that only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
When a statue was proposed for London … five shilling subscriptions were opened one morning. By that night, the goal was oversubscribed. The statute now stands in Grosvenor’s Square.
His was a dramatic presence. His voice stirred millions …”This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. I pledge myself to a New Deal for the American people.”
Roosevelt’s vision was one of community, the renaming of Welfare Island for him is one form of tribute. As part of the planning of the island, the southern tip was designated as a site for a memorial to Roosevelt.
The person selected to design it was Louis Kahn, the internationally acclaimed architect. One aspect of the Roosevelt philosophy seemed especially powerful to Kahn … his conviction that any problem between individuals, or nations, could be solved by their sitting together to discuss things, peaceably, as around the family dining room table.
Kahn’s memorial to Roosevelt is, perhaps an architectural interpretation of this philosophy … it’s a room, a place where people can sit alone or together … to meditate or hold a concert or a poetry reading. It honors the man. And his belief in the community of humankind.
Throughout the memorial will be carved notable quotations from Roosevelt’s speeches and writings … to remind visitors of the moments of his life which shape the destiny of the country …and of the world.
To the west, the buildings of the United Nations stand prominent in the spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline. It is especially appropriate that his memorial be here in New York.
This is the state of his birth and of his early political career as Governor and of his permanent home. Roosevelt’s last speech offers us a challenge … “Today,” he said, “we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships, the ability of all peoples, of all kinds to live together and work together in the same world and at peace.”
Let us move forward with strong and active faith …
HEFFNER: “Let us move forward with strong and active faith.” … and note that my guest today: Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel — diplomat, historian, attorney, counselor and friend to so many great Americans – has indeed done just that as the Founder and Chair Emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute…and, of course, as Chairman of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, along with Sally Minard, its intrepid President, as together they have fought the good fight that now so importantly and handsomely graces New York with this impressive memorial to FDR.
And I would ask the Ambassador first if he believes that his “strong and active faith”… and Sally Minard’s…and that of the many others who have contributed so much over the years to this magnificent Memorial Park … have all now been fulfilled?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Not fulfilled. Fulfilled in the sense that this great and beautiful art work has been created after 40 long years of discussion … all the other. I mean that’s a miracle in itself. And so, in that sense it is certainly a remarkable fulfillment.
But we have other dimensions to the project because it is built for today, but it’s really built for tomorrow. It’s really designed and dedicated to the generations to come and, and that certainly was my purpose and I’m sure of all of those who’ve worked so hard to make this come to pass, is to create something that is not just a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt, but take his legacy and translate it into living, vibrant, exciting, remarkable challenges to every generation. That’s what he said in his “Four Freedoms” speech in 1941.
This is something for our time and generation and each generation has to take that challenge of the Four Freedoms, the challenge of American democracy, the challenge of Franklin and Eleanor’s great contributions to American life and renew it and transform it and merge it into their own lives and their own generation.
HEFFNER: But you know, Mr. Ambassador, last time we spoke together, we talked about FDR’s great speeches and … in the Four Freedoms speeches … speech … he said, he listed the things, the basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems … he said, “they’re simple”.
But I want to ask you whether you’re quite so optimistic that in our time we have sufficiently understood what he put before us when he talked about “Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all. The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”
“Specifically,” he continued, “we should bring more citizens under the coverage of old age pensions and unemployment insurance. We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care. We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.” And to achieve these objectives, the President called for “personal sacrifice”, which … quote … “means the payment of more money in taxes”. So, we’re in 2012 …
VANDEN HEUVEL: A magnificent speech, Richard, if you would give that, you could have been nominated …
HEFFNER: Well, he was nominated and elected four times. Where are we today, in your estimation, in terms of those demands he made upon us?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I think we’ve made progress. In some places considerable progress.
I mean the Social Security system, for example, is intact and it very, very much broadened over the introduction of it in 1935.
HEFFNER: Hardly unchallenged, though.
VANDEN HEUVEL: No unchallenged, but survived. And I think it’s one of those third rails of American politics … where if anyone gets close to it, they realize the wrath of the people from whom they’re trying to take it away.
Social Security is probably the most effective social program … and Roosevelt was very careful to make it an insurance program, not a dole. He said, “We’re not giving anybody here … people have earned it. This is what they have done with their lives, they’ve earned it”. And he allowed the seniors of America, senior citizens, which were the most harshly treated by the great Depression … he brought them a basic subsistence and a basic quality of life that survives to today and has been largely improved, too.
Look at our medical care. He mentioned in 1935 the possibility. He could not get that through the Congress then. We had Lyndon Johnson make a notable advance, he was a disciple of Roosevelt … Roosevelt was his great hero.
He made a major advance with the Medicaid, Medicare program. And now President Obama has done that in, in this time and generation. Now, those are all very harshly fought measures of progress. Social Security was fought just as deeply and as harshly in 1935, as the Medicare programs are in 19 … in 2012.
So these things don’t come easily. And when you just look at how long it’s taken us to realize a program of medical care for our people and the very real ideas from many to take it away … you realize that you’ve got to fight for it. The statement that the … you read is a superb statement. Not only of goals and not only of a vision, but a very practical strategic outline of what those who are in the tradition of progressive politics in America should follow.
In the international scene, the United Nations has not been used as it was intended to be used, it’s been abused, rather than used. But what Roosevelt was talking about was that the nations who had the power of the world, those nations had to come together and they had to act together to preserve peace and to prevent violence.
It certainly hasn’t happened often, and we have not, altogether, been faithful as a nation to the purposes of the United Nations and the use of it.
But at least the United Nations is there. It’s the first time in the history of mankind that an organization has been formed in which every nation is a member … 192 member states in the U.N.
Now some generations have worked more effectively than others … a lot of it depends upon how a President sees it, or how the Congress sees it. But it’s there and it’s going to continue to play a major role.
And in terms of our own quality of life in America I think every significant advance we make in terms of social justice, we can relate back to the Roosevelt era.
HEFFNER: You know, you’re in a very upbeat …
VANDEN HEUVEL: (Laugh)
HEFFNER: … mood today and I’m so grateful for that …
VANDEN HEUVEL: (Laughter)
HEFFNER: … because … you know I … I took my little book, my Documentary History of the United States, when I wrote it in 1952, I wrote a chapter about the “permanent Roosevelt revolution”. And I wasn’t out of keeping with my times …
VANDEN HEUVEL: No.
HEFFNER: I think that’s what most historians thought. When my grandson and I went back to add more documents the other year … I found it necessary to go into my copy and to say … with an asterisk … “I was wrong, there has been no permanent revolution … it is challenged too deeply and profoundly today to say that”. You don’t feel that way I gather?
VANDEN HEUVEL: No. I, I, I agree with you that the challenge is there. Permanent is not the right word because there is nothing permanent in American politics. Every generation, every election can change things rather fundamentally.
And it’s ironic, for example, that Ronald Reagan who was one of the great admirers of Franklin Roosevelt, who once said to me, “You know, I voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt, he was certainly the greatest President of the 20th century” … that he would have been the leader of the movement that is seen today as hostile to the achievements of the Roosevelt era.
But they still prevail. I mean, for example, Dwight Eisenhower was a conservative man. But he accepted the very basic tenets of the New Deal and did not try to change them and added his own value structure in his own time.
I am an optimist. I think you have to be an optimist in terms of progressive politics in our country. You just don’t have the opportunity … I think Woodrow Wilson once told Franklin Roosevelt that maybe only once every three generations is there an opportunity to talk about something that’s going to really change the, the nature of society.
People are, are very … this is a conservative country in many ways. Change does not come easily. Our Constitutional system is often cited as a means by which it’s stalled … are … which obstacles are placed in its path.
You can have a very Progressive President and a very reactionary Supreme Court. You can have a Conservative President and a Liberal Congress. When those forces all come together as ultimately they did under Franklin Roosevelt then you have the opportunity for a major and significant advance.
And that’s what we’re saying … remember it … we did it. There was a vision of our country once that made us all stand tall and proud as Americans. And that can happen again if you … the children of today … undertake to do it.
HEFFNER: I …the children of today. That’s very funny. I say that to my students. I say it to my grandchildren. I’m not as “up” as you are in feeling, but I guess your success and the success of the people you brought around you in terms of the Conservancy, in terms of the Park, in terms of the monument to FDR … you must be riding so high now and having overcome so many obstacles …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, there were an extraordinary number of obstacles … you’ve mentioned Sally Minard … there Gina Pollara, who’s been our Executive Director … there’s Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., who played a significant role. There’s wonderful architects like Jim Pulshek and Eugene Kohn. There’s Jock Reynolds whose the head of the Art Gallery at Yale which is a Kahn building.
All those people came together in a convergence of, of idea that it worth doing. That Kahn was a great architect, that to remind the world of his achievements was a noble thing to do and in the process … in honoring Kahn and his architecture we’ve made it possible now for generations to come to know Franklin Roosevelt. One other thing we’ve done is, is to digitize this Park.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “digitize” … a park?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, what we’ve done is to make it possible, through 100 chapters of videos, etc., so that someone can come with their iPad or with their iPhone or even on the Internet and you will be able to get a history of the Roosevelt era told in 100 different chapters. You’ll see Pear Harbor, you’ll see the 100 Days of Achievement. You’ll hear the Inaugural Address of 1933. You’ll hear the Four Freedoms speech. And you’ll see what World War II meant to America.
Roosevelt was President of the United States in the two greatest crises of the 20th century. We had never undergone anything like the Great Depression. And there was a possibility there that the Democratic structure of our country could have been lost. There was marching in the streets. There was revolution in the air. And the dictators everywhere around the world were getting stronger and stronger.
As Roosevelt came to power, Adolph Hitler came to power. Practically at the same time. And they … that 12 years for each of them spelled the future and the destiny of a nation and of the world.
The fact that Franklin Roosevelt, who recognized Hitler as one of the great barbaric threats to civilization right from the very beginning of his administration as President, was able finally to subdue the forces of the Nazis, and to destroy them is … saved Western civilization. Now could we lose it …some day? Sure. Yeah, we can lose. If America allows its strength to be dissipated, if it gets caught up in the crass materialism of, of thinking that money is the only measure of value in a society … if we lose our sense of America’s vision, our Founding Fathers … yes, we could lose a lot. And that threat was very much apparent when Roosevelt came to office.
And when it comes again, who knows. We have fought wars that were unnecessary, we have fought wars that were cruel, we have not always protected the possibilities of peace in the world. But on the whole America is still the great citadel of freedom. And what Roosevelt was talking about in the Four Freedoms … freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear … those he said are not only available to Americans, but everywhere in the world. And America has been, since World War II the leader of the forces of the world. Certainly of the democracies and I think, generally speaking, of the world itself.
And I think history will be generous to us in what we’ve done.
HEFFNER: Bill, when you look overseas now, is the Roosevelt legacy as valued, as held warmly as your expression?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I think, for example, the European Union is an expression of Roosevelt’s ideal, of bringing the world together.
European Union is one of the great political events of modern times. Twenty seven nations have come together, pledged to democracy … it’s brought an end to the civil wars of Europe that World War I and World War II represented, and when you think of the cost of what World War II represented to the world, 67 million killed. Nations, cities, resources destroyed.
What Roosevelt was saying in the Four Freedoms speech is … this was in 1941 before we were even in the war. He was saying “this is a barbaric war, it’s going to just cost so much to the world … the only way we can justify the death of our daughters and sons that will come about is to say that we’re going to create a different world and that world is going to be based upon the Four Freedoms and that is going to be the mission of America to carry forward.
Not alone. All of our citizens together, nations of the world together and I think those words still ring with a special meaning for every audience and we intended through this Four Freedoms Park to make that message available to generations to come … happily as the Kahn structure was realized and built, we suddenly understood that we had a work of art and this work of art now is a sensation in New York. And its, you know, it’s I think Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times in a review of the Park … “It’s, it’s created a new center of peace and happiness in our city”.
I can envisage men and women … young people … going to the Four Freedoms Park and just looking out on this extraordinary view … the world beyond the Atlantic as we look out at our harbor … the world of the United Nations … and somehow gaining a sense of improvement in themselves, of re-dedication of feeling.
It’s a wonderful place to meditate and it’s a wonderful place to find yourself again.
HEFFNER: I remember you were interviewed more than a year ago … or I guess it was the story about … when you and Sally and Paul Goldberger went out there and you said, “This is … your sense was a sense of religion …
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. I mean almost everyone who’s come out there has talked about the dimension of spirituality that this park has. And I think people will feel that very deeply in the years to come.
HEFFNER: How long was it in the making?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Perhaps you were there … I was there in 1973 when Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsey … our Governor and Mayor … announced the re-naming of this island …
VANDEN HEUVEL: … which had been Welfare Island … and re-named it for Roosevelt … Franklin Roosevelt Island. And they then dedicated the lower southern most five acres to this Four Freedoms Park and they selected Louis Kahn. That was 1973 … it was a beautiful day out on the Roosevelt Island.
And then Nelson Rockefeller became Vice President, then Louis Kahn, having finished his work with the drawings … had a heart attack in Penn Station and died in 1974. Then New York City went virtually bankrupt.
So this was put on the shelves for many, many years until essentially 2005 when I organized a national committee to see if we couldn’t do it.
I think that, you know, the fact that we’ve raised over $50 million dollars, over 70% of it coming from the private sector. The fact that we had a foundation like Alphawood Foundation in Chicago that because of their commitment to the values of Roosevelt and their appreciation of Kahn … made the single largest gift to us from the foundation in Chicago and the fact that Governor Patterson identified with Franklin Roosevelt in terms of disability …
VANDEN HEUVEL: … and the fact that Mayor Bloomberg was building a series of waterfront parks in the city which will be one of his great achievements as Mayor … all of that came together to bring the forces and the resources together than enabled us to build the Park.
And we’ve had … you know … it, it’s been very touching to watch the construction workers who are touched by being part of this process. On several occasions when I’ve been out there, construction workers have come up to say “thank you” for making it possible to have this. And they have felt that they were part of something much bigger than the normal projects that they might be called upon to build.
HEFFNER: This was their sense of FDR?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: That’s, that’s good news.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah.
HEFFNER: Because my assumptions … pessimistically have run in the other direction … that’s why I’m so thrilled with the opportunity that you’re going to present us next week with the dedication.
VANDEN HEUVEL: President Clinton will be speaking and Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg will be there. Tom Brokaw will be presiding. I think it will be a day to remember. All we have to count on is the weather … right? If we have good weather …
HEFFNER: You can handle that, Bill …
VANDEN HEUVEL: (Laughter)
HEFFNER: … come on, you’ve handled so many things …
VANDEN HEUVEL: (Laughter)
HEFFNER: … you can do that, too. Expect it to be bright and sunny?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I do. I do. And certainly the frame … the attitude … mental framework of those who come out will be bright and sunny. Because getting out there is so easy trick early in the morning … so we expect that people will enjoy the morning very much because it’s something very unusual in New York … to take a tram, for example, over to the island and then to see it … in the midst of it … to see this great city in all of its glory.
HEFFNER: We’re going to do just that. Ambassador vanden Heuvel for joining me today.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.