As an orator, Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been intensely aware not just of the content of his speeches, but also the medium of them. His fireside chats provided him a casual, intimate venue in which he could explain his ideas directly to American families. His addresses to joint sessions of Congress throughout his administration trained the news cameras of the world on Washington D.C., providing an air of solemnity that would have been impossible behind a desk in the Oval Office. And his fourth inaugural address provided Roosevelt the opportunity to mark the urgency of the current moment: this was not the time, nor the place, for an expansive, eloquent address on policy and idealism. This was war, and the American people ought to know that their president was aware of that and on the job. The first sentence of this address captures this sentiment.
By now, the war was in its later stages, marked by uprisings against Nazi rule in major cities across the European continent, the D-Day landings, the Battle of the Bulge, and massive surrenders of German troops. In one month, Roosevelt would meet with Stalin and Churchill in Yalta to discuss the post-war world, in which Russia promised its support in the war against Japan, in exchange for greater influence in Manchuria. While the specter of a Cold War with the Soviet Union was not yet a clear threat, global power dynamics were certainly apparent to Roosevelt, who in this address spells out his desire for global cooperation.
Still, these were discussions outside of the public eye, and we can only see traces of them here. On the surface, this address is what Roosevelt meant it to be: a symbolic showing of dedication to the war effort, fitting of a president who viewed himself firstly as a Commander in Chief. The complex geopolitics that would engulf American foreign relations for the rest of the century were still a distant possibility, invisible to a nation holding its breath simply for an end to war.
As for President Roosevelt, this address would mark one of this last speeches. Within three months, the father of modern American liberalism would be dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, which he described at its onset as a “terrible headache.” The reality was much worse: months of intensely poor health, some related to his polio, some not, would end with a severe stroke. Harry Truman, who had not yet even been briefed on the existence of an atomic bomb, now had the power of the greatest military force in the world at his fingertips, and would be left alone to navigate the strange new world of 20th century diplomacy: the United Nations, weapons of mass destruction, the threat of global Communism, and a world looking toward American leadership.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fourth Inaugural Address, January 20, 1945
Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, my friends, you will understand and, I believe, agree with my wish that the form of this inauguration be simple and its words brief.
We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage–of our resolve–of our wisdom–our essential democracy.
If we meet that test–successfully and honorably–we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time.
As I stand here today, having taken the solemn oath of office in the presence of my fellow countrymen–in the presence of our God– I know that it is America’s purpose that we shall not fail.
In the days and in the years that are to come we shall work for a just and honorable peace, a durable peace, as today we work and fight for total victory in war.
We can and we will achieve such a peace.
We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately–but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes–but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.
I remember that my old schoolmaster, Dr. Peabody, said, in days that seemed to us then to be secure and untroubled: “Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights–then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward; that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”
Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of Democracy
And so today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons– at a fearful cost–and we shall profit by them.
We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger.
We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.
We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear.
We can gain it only if we proceed with the understanding, the confidence, and the courage which flow from conviction.
The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world.
So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly–to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men–to the achievement of His will to peace on earth.