William vanden Heuvel

Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms

VTR Date: November 19, 2011

Ambassador William vanden Heuvel discusses Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.


GUEST: Ambassador William vanden Heuvel
AIR DATE: 11/19/2011
VTR: 10/12/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And last month I journeyed to Hyde Park here in New York State to visit once again the magnificent Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum and to attend the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s bestowal of its prestigious Four Freedoms Awards.

This year’s awards mark the 70th Anniversary of FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech, in which the President noted first that “There is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy…

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple”, FDR said in 1941, listing:

“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, the President 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] means the payment of more money in taxes….

That was 70 years ago, mind you!

Then FDR went on to summon the moral strength of our entire nation in announcing as America’s goal a world founded upon four essential human freedoms…

Film clip from FDR’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech

Today my guest is the Founder as well as the President and Chair Emeritus of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute that has done so much to remind Americans of FDR’s Four Freedoms legacy.

And now Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel crowns his long career as Diplomat, Historian, Attorney, Assistant and Counsel to and confidant of Bobby Kennedy; of General “Wild Bill” Donovan, founder of World War II’s OSS, precursor of the CIA; of American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin; of New York Governor Averell Harriman; and of so many, many other American leaders … he now crowns this illustrious career with his role as the devoted Chair of the soon-to-be completed Louis J. Kahn-designed Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park so appropriately located here in New York on Roosevelt Island right off from the United Nations.

Now last summer the New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger went with my guest and Sally Minard, the intrepid President of the FDR Four Freedoms Park Corporation, to see their and Louis Kahn’s handiwork … and perhaps I was most impressed with Bill vanden Heuvel’s reported comment that “This is like a religious experience…This is really a temple of freedom.”

And today I would begin by asking the Ambassador … how so, why so?

VANDEN HEUVEL: The Louis Kahn … Richard, let say first of all how pleased I am to be here with you the Dean of broadcasters and whose personal Archive is the best history …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

VANDEN HEUVEL: … of the last 60 years that anyone could look for …

HEFFNER: Thanks, Bill.

VANDEN HEUVEL: … but … Louis Kahn, when he designed in 1973/74 … this was his last work and he died shortly afterward … he is known for the extraordinary spirituality of the things that he has created.

And Paul Goldberger and I, as we stood out on the room at the very tip of the island, that is the room of the Four Freedoms and you looked out at the sea and you looked out at the United Nations that Roosevelt had done so much to found and you read the words of the Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship as one wants to worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear … you just had the sense that if every American could come to that island and walk through that park and stand in that place and see that sight, that you would be reminded of the great vision of this country.

Roosevelt gave that speech in January, 1941 … we weren’t yet in the war, the war had begun. But he knew what the cost of World War II was going to be … the devastation of countries and of cities and of resources, the terrible death of 67 million people in a, in a war.

And he said the one thing we owe to everyone out of this is to create a different world. Not the world of the totalitarian leaders, not the world of Winston Churchill, which was an imperial world. But the world of America, the world of a vision of freedom where people could come, start their lives, be who they are, speak what they want to say and have a democratic government that they can influence.

So that speech I think has survived because it was so important in terms of creating the vision of the world and the country that we want America to be.

HEFFNER: Do you think that we today represent a people who understand and embrace that almost religious quality of vision?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I hope so. I mean certainly there’s a great … still a great feeling in America of commitment to what basically are these freedoms. They’re incorporated in the charter of the United Nations, they’re in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I think America with all the frailties, with all the faults, with all the failures, is still the greatest protector and defender of the concept of democracy.

Democracy is a very difficult government to organize. As Winston Churchill said, “The most difficult of all forms of government except for all the rest”.

So, Americans have been true to the faith. I see it … there’s a lot of dangers today. That are strangely reflections from the Roosevelt era …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

VANDEN HEUVEL: The same kind of forces that he had to confront … take, for example, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has made … in my judgment … a series of decisions that have had a very powerful political influence and have been decided almost on political grounds.

Not least of which is the Citizens United case. Which gives corporations the persona of the 14th Amendment protections and permits the unlimited contribution of money by the corporate interests in America to democracy.

Now corporations obviously should be heard and participate in American democracy, they’re crucial to it in job creation.

But the … that kind of, of money is, I think, devastating in terms of what America’s larger interests should be. And, you know, here we are involved in endless war … we’ve been now in Afghanistan for ten years and more. We’re struggling to come out of Iraq … we want to stay and the Iraqi’s don’t want us to stay.

And I think it’s a time where we have to look into our own soul and see the country we want to be. You and I are essentially products of the Depression … we saw our fathers unemployed, we saw our houses subject to possible mortgage foreclosures. We still have a feeling for what was devastating in America in those days. But today those … the reason America’s different, it seems to me, today is because Roosevelt and the New Deal brought in a network of things that saved us.

Social Security, unemployment insurance. The beginnings of medical concern. The government had a different role. Not to interfere in our lives, but to make our lives better. And to save us from the devastating consequences of economic recession and depression. Well, we’ve …. I think sort of lost our way.

I mean when President Bush began the war in Afghanistan and at the same time reduced taxes, that’s not right. America should pay for its wars. If we’re going to go to war, we should pay for them. That’s not the burden we want to leave to our children.

So, we’re confronting a lot of our financial policies today, but we should do it in the spirit, it seems to me, of the democracy that, that Roosevelt and Lincoln and Washington and Theodore Roosevelt spoke about and fought for.

HEFFNER: But, Mr. Ambassador, what, what happened? The, the … that cry comes so naturally to me as a historian, I wrote, back in the fifties about the permanent New Deal revolution, the permanent Roosevelt revolution. What happened to it? You say you’re reminded so much of Roosevelt’s battle with the Supreme Court … today …


HEFFNER: … we’re dealing with the same problems, only seemingly dealing with them very differently.


HEFFNER: … what happened?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, Roosevelt was prepared to fight. These aren’t battles that can be won by being quiet and standing on the sidelines. For a President to confront the Supreme Court is a very, very dangerous thing. And Roosevelt paid a high political price for it. But had he not done it, Social Security would have been ruled unconstitutional, by the same court that had ruled the Railway Act unconstitutional. The Agricultural … he saved the New Deal by challenging the court.

And I think we’re now in a … we now are in a process of stalemate. We’re no longer a majority democracy. You cannot pass anything in the Senate of the United States without sixty votes. That’s, that’s an amendment to the Constitution that nobody ever voted on or passed. But that is, in fact, the case.

So that the majority of Senators who want to exercise they’re point of view, can’t do it because you can break that filibuster routine. I think we should do it. I think we should challenge them. I think we should challenge that rule and let the filibuster thing see whether it can survive. In the House of Representatives now you have a political dynamic that is determined to destroy the President. Well, very hard for democracy to work in that kind of context.

And we’re going to have an election and perhaps this will clear the air. But it’s a, it’s a dangerous and tricky time for American democracy.

HEFFNER: You say “perhaps it will clear the air” … the election of November 2012 …


HEFFNER: Which way?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, one way or the other. It could … I mean you’re going to have, have a President … maybe you’ll have a Congress of the same party. Or maybe you’ll have a Congress that’s prepared to work with whoever is elected President. That’s what we’ve had.

I mean the fighting in Washington is always intense. And the interests and special interests are always in great conflict. But there’s always been a larger concern that we are a country. That we’re a nation, that we are Americans and that we can find a way together by compromise and understanding each other’s point of view.

Now the civility of government is almost absent and the conflict of government is so intense and so personal that the things that have to be done to preserve America as our great nation and our great vision of our country I’m afraid are being pushed aside.

And the Four Freedoms Park is designed to remind Americans of what we can be and what we should be and I think that in addition to being an extraordinary contribution to the city of New York as a beautiful, artistic creation … there’s no other work by Louis Kahn in New York and, and that he has a universal audience of people who will come just to see that.

And you’ll see, I think open space preserved … the greatest, beautiful sight in New York preserved and you’ll see the very simple words of the Four Freedoms and we are digitizing the park …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

VANDEN HEUVEL: … so that as you go through it with your phone …


VANDEN HEUVEL: … you’ll be able to have the history of the Roosevelt area from the beginning of the Great Depression, from his history as Governor of New York right through the Second World War and to his death.

This is a pioneering experiment and I think it’s going to change the use of public space. So I think the visitors who come there and the school children who come there … people from all over the world, you’ll be able to get the Roosevelt history at your finger tips and available to you.

HEFFNER: This is …

VANDEN HEUVEL: … sit quiet … you can sit quietly and just look at the trees, but you’ll have the other part available to you.

HEFFNER: This is an extension of your long, long, long time involvement with things Rooseveltian …


HEFFNER: … up at Hyde Park …


HEFFNER: And you, I know, invested so much of your own resources up there …

VANDEN HEUVEL: But, Richard, I think you’ll understand when I say I’m not a Haggeographer(CHECK SPELLING) … I’m not someone who’s make Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt saints. I’m interested in reminding Americans that the America that they envisioned and that they helped to create is the America that I embrace and I hope Americans will embrace.

An America that … we’re not … Roosevelt used to say, “I don’t care how rich people get, but I do care how poor people get.” We want a government that’s going to say “I want to be judged by not how much I do for those who have much. I want to have a government that’s judged by those … helping those who have need.” A government that stood up to Hitler from the very beginning and understood the threat of tyranny at, at a time in the thirties when democracy was under assault and many people thought that the totalitarians were going to win.

Roosevelt never doubted that, that fight. So, you know, when I went to see Ronald Reagan once about (laugh) getting money for the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. The first thing he said to me was “I voted four times for Franklin Roosevelt, he was the greatest President in the twentieth century”.

He was a patron himself, Ronald Reagan, of the New Deal. He took exception to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson. But, to his dying day he was faithful to what Roosevelt had tried to do in the country.

I think what we’re witnessing now is the escalation of a political movement that would like to undo the New Deal, that would like to privatize Social Security and in the process, undermine it.

That would like to prevent the possibility of having a medical insurance plan that truly helps everybody in our country. And, and those forces are well financed. They’ve always been there, by the way … Roosevelt, as you know … had plenty of enemies …

HEFFNER: That old cartoon in The New Yorker …


HEFFNER: … the fat cats saying …


HEFFNER: … “Let’s go down to the TransLux and hiss Roosevelt” …

VANDEN HEUVEL: And hiss Roosevelt. But one thing that Roosevelt also had was wonderful was a sense of humor. You know that … when you get a sense that was joyful in the White House, that he, he exercised the power of the Presidency with skill, but also because he enjoyed … he had a vision of himself and of the country and he was grateful for the opportunity to fill them out.

So, we’ve had wonderful people President since Franklin Roosevelt certainly. But, as Bill Leuchtenburg has written all of those Presidents are in the shadow of Roosevelt in terms of what they accomplished for America. And the revolution of the New Deal and the revolution that came about in the world through the Second World War are very much the legacy of our present generation.

HEFFNER: FDR had the support of the people who were so hard pressed.


HEFFNER: He was elected by them, he spoke for them, he acted for them. The question that I keep asking my guests and I have no adequate answer as yet is … where is the voice of those people who are hurting today? Why are they not at the barricades? Is the safety net really still so strong?

VANDEN HEUVEL: It is in many ways. You still have … you know when Roosevelt came to office, the most impoverished sector of our population were the senior citizens. They couldn’t get jobs, there was no Social Security. There was no welfare … organized in any way. They lived with their children or they lived in poor houses which I used to see in Rochester, New York when I grew up.

That safety net, unemployment insurance, the Social Security system, now medical assistance has made life at least tolerable for those who have gone through the anguish of losing their jobs or losing their homes. And that’s a terrible experience. And I’m surprised that Washington … President and the Congress don’t identify more with what that means in terms of the anguish that families have to go through.

But they’ll come to the barricades when the unemployment compensation fades, if the jobs aren’t becoming available. And, as they came to the barricades when … before Roosevelt was elected President. They were marching in the streets.

I mean the concern in the country in 1933 was whether there was going to be revolution in the streets.

HEFFNER: We don’t know that as a people today.

VANDEN HEUVEL: We don’t know that. We don’t know that.

HEFFNER: I talk to my students about that and I draw a blank.


HEFFNER: It’s incomprehensible.


HEFFNER: Even the story and the pictures of the bonus marchers …

VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes. Imagine. And the pictures of General MacArthur as chief of staff crushing the veterans who had come …


VANDEN HEUVEL: … pleading for help from the Congress. No, it’s … but today the Rooseveltian structure of the country, I think, is still strong enough to hold us all together. But, you know, there are, there are things to be concerned about. The special interests, the co-opting of the Congress, the role of money and greed in our society. These are things that have to be brought under management. You’re beginning to see it in young people.

You know I have a 90 year old, a 94 year old friend … who was the French Ambassador to the UN when I was. He’s now 94 … and last September … a great hero with the Resistance … one of the leaders of the French diplomatic world, He, he sat down and wrote an essay. 4,000 word essay … he called it Indignez-Vous! … “Why Aren’t We All Angry?”. That sold 5 million copies in Europe between September and December. To give you a sense that there is a lot of feeling out there that is finding expression.

And he was here recently and I went up to Columbia University with him and he spoke to the students … 94 years old, just as strong and buoyant. He got a standing ovation.

You’ve got to understand … you’ve got to be indignant. You’ve got to be angry with what’s happening. Then you’ve got to have a program, then you’ve believe in something. And then you’ve got to work to execute it. And that’s what the challenge is.

That’s what I hope … when people go to the Four Freedoms … and you say “A Temple of Freedom” … yeah. I hope people will sit there, remember how fortunate we are to be Americans, but what our responsibility is to keep the legacy of the past vibrant and true.

HEFFNER: It seems to me from what I have seen and what I have read, of what you have created there … that it will do just that.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I think so.

HEFFNER: And therefore that comment about religious experience ranks so true. In just the minute or so we have left … do you think the Occupy Wall Street event/happening that’s going on as we tape this program indicates a movement toward the barricades?

VANDEN HEUVEL: It indicates what we’ve seen in the recent Berlin elections, in the French elections, in the Polish elections and in America. That there’s a considerable percentage of people who are losing confidence in government. And they are trying to express it by saying “Where, where are we represented? We’re the 99% of the country that, as opposed to the 1% that controls 70% of the wealth of the nation … how do we find our way to express ourselves? How are our interests pursued?”

And I think there’s a frustration, an anger and I think the movement … that … what we’re witnessing as we tape this program … what we’re witnessing in many cities around the country is a growing expression of that. Americans don’t demonstrate easily. They don’t riot and they don’t … you know … even in Iraq … the demonstrations were very orderly, although there were hundreds of thousands of people. I think it’s possible that unless the government begins to be more responsive to the needs of the people, that that movement will increase in strength.

HEFFNER: Somebody would say, “From your lips to God’s ears”


HEFFNER: Thanks, Mr. Ambassador, for joining me today.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.

Meanwhile, as another 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.