Fear. It's not just a cheesy-but-awesome 1996 movie where Reese Witherspoon and Mark Wahlberg get it on on top of a roller coaster.
It's also, according to everyone's favorite cigarette holder-user—FDR—the only thing we really have to be afraid of. Especially during a nationwide financial meltdown.
We completely understand the reason people were freaked out during the Great Depression. Imagine waking up in the morning to find that all of your money has disappeared. Your bank accounts are suddenly empty. Everyone you know is getting fired. Your family has gone from happy and free from want to poor, desperate, and hungry.
And most families in the country are in the same boat.
Yeah; that's pretty much the definition of fear…and here we were thinking that the definition of fear was the sensation of binge-watching Stranger Things at three in the morning.
Enter the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Everyone is looking at him for answers, for an explanation, and for help. What in the world could he say that would calm the frantic, scared families? What could he possibly do to reassure people that everything will be okay? And could he know that everything actually would be okay?
Not only was the economy in a depression, but the American people were depressed—sad, desperate, unsure of where their next meal would come from. Americans needed help, but before that, they needed reassurance. They needed a calm, confident voice of leadership. They needed someone to tell them that they are not going through this fear alone, and that by working together and trusting in each other, this depression would end.
President Roosevelt worked with his speechwriters to create a series of reassuring, confidence-building speeches to give to Americans, which became known as the "Fireside Chats."
Because nothing sounds more reassuring than the idea of snuggling up next to a crackling fire and sipping some cocoa in your bunny slippers and…having a chat with the leader of the free world.
His first chat was given in March of 1933, almost four years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which, although not the direct cause of the Great Depression, is considered the starting point. Formally titled "On the Bank Crisis" (yeah; "First Fireside Chat" is a way better name) FDR spoke to Americans in an informal, conversational tone. He described what was happening in the country, what he and the government were doing to fix it, and what people could expect to see.
The result was immediate. Americans experienced a surge in confidence, and the talks became an endearing and powerful part of Roosevelt's legacy. Because almost nine out of every ten American homes owned a radio, the "First Fireside Chat" was heard by millions of families seeking hope and confidence.
FDR calmly and plainly told the people about the country's banking system, about how it can recover, and what everyone needs to do. He even sneaks a quick economics lesson in…and somehow manages not to bore the pants off of the American listening public.
By using comforting language such as calling Americans his "friends" and assuring them that "we're all in this together," people saw him as more than just a president, but as a human being. Pretty important when you're relying on someone to get you out of poverty and hardship.
Roosevelt's "First Fireside Chat" launched a series of Sunday night radio speeches, with thirty total from March 1933 to June 1944. While the chats didn't directly bring Americans out of the Great Depression, they were integral to making sure the public was informed, confident, and not likely to do anything rash (like make a run on a bank).
FDR is remembered as a well-liked, personable, effective president in United States history, and his Fireside Chats definitely helped him gain that reputation. We can't imagine hearing anything more soothing than FDR if we were stuck in a financial crisis…unless it was some magical combination of Bob Ross and Maya Angelou's voices and a cat purring.
Did Roosevelt's "First Fireside Chat" bring us out of the Great Depression? No, not by a long shot. (What brought the Great Depression to a grinding halt was WWII, which is perhaps the bleakest instance of a "silver lining" in recorded history.)
So what was the point, then? Why did FDR get his Mr. Rogers on so hard on a chilly night in 1933? Was he just showing off?
The achievement of the "First Fireside Chat" is a subtle one. What it did do was bring the people closer to their leader…which, if you're history-heads like we are, is a pretty rare occurrence.
When the French people were starving and asking for bread, Marie Antoinette said something along the lines of "Let them eat cake."
What FDR did was more along the lines of saying, "Hey buds: I know you don't have any bread and that you're worried sick about never having any bread again. Here's the thing: I'm worried too. But here's a plan to get that bread a-baking."
The difference between these two responses is so ridiculously apparent that it might as well be lit up in neon. And here's the thing—FDR was being pretty revolutionary.
When you think of kings, emperors, or presidents, they typically seem distant and ruling from above. FDR's brilliance was to bring his voice and personality into people's living rooms, and to present himself as being a part of their struggles and their woes. By doing so, he brought a depressed, hopeless nation together and created community. And when people feel like they are a part of a community, changes can start to happen.
And if this qualitative talk about "change" and "community" doesn't sound legit to you—don't worry: we have some facts and figures to throw your way.
Herbert Hoover, the prez right before FDR, got 5,000 letters a week. After the "First Fireside Chat," FDR got 50,000. That's a lot of stamps.
To give you a taste of what these letters contained, here's an excerpt from one of them:
"The broadcast brought you so close to us, and you spoke in such clear concise terms, our confidence in the Bank Holiday was greatly strengthened." (Source)
Yeah. That right there is why you should care about the "First Fireside Chat"—because it made the majority of the sixty million people that listened to it feel "close" to their leader.
As FDR concluded, "Together we cannot fail." (Mic drop.)
The Impact of Fireside Chats on Pop Culture
As this site describes, nearly every future president modeled their communication with the public after FDR. There are some fun links here to famous presidential speeches given in a similar fashion.
FDR Gives First Fireside Chat
The History Channel has a "this day in history" series, and for March 12th, the winner is FDR's speech.
How FDR's Radio Voice Solved a Banking Crisis
Time Magazine's anniversary shout-out to the beginning of Roosevelt's legacy speeches.
Miller Center's "This Day in History"
From the University of Virginia, an article on the 80th anniversary of FDR's "First Fireside Chat."
FDR's Fireside Chats Went a Long Way Toward Calming Fears During Dire Times
An article on the calming effect of the fireside chats.
FDR's First Fireside Chat
Television didn't exist in 1933, but this video shows an image of FDR and the audio of the speech, to show what a video may have been like.
Remembering Roosevelt's First "Fireside Chat"
On the 75th anniversary of FDR's chat, NPR looks back at the famous speech.
First Fireside Chat Full Audio
Here is the full audio version of the speech, with a transcript to follow along.
Roosevelt Giving "First Fireside Chat"
Here he is at his desk, reading the speech.
Full Media Coverage
Here's FDR with the multiple radio network microphones as he reads a fireside chat.
It's hard to believe, but when FDR was a kid many boys wore dresses until they were about eight years old. You have to see the picture to believe it.
From the National Museum of American History, the actual microphone FDR used for the speech.