Study Guide

FDR's First Inaugural Address Themes

By Raymond Moley/Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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  • Warfare

    Students of history, given the gift of hindsight, can look back at the boom of the 1920s and depression of the 1930s as little more than a time-out between two brutal global conflicts. But in many ways, it seems obvious that by 1933, the world was well on its way to war.

    At the same time that President Roosevelt was giving his 1933 inaugural address, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were tightening their grip on Germany. Soon enough they would envelop Europe, and everyone would be back at war again.

    The United States was engaged in a different but no less dangerous kind of struggle. Roosevelt had a couple immediate tasks on the top of his list, but number one was getting people back to work.

    Raymond Moley, his longtime speechwriter, came up with the idea of framing the inaugural address as a wartime speech for good reason. It would take the full mobilization of the country's resources to survive the deep depression they were currently in, so FDR's language might as well reflect that. The warfare motif is popular and strong throughout the address, and it reinforces the importance of the battles to come.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. The most important question to ask of an appeal to action like this is: did it work? For the millions of Americans listening across the country, the answer was "heck, yes." But put yourself in their (probably threadbare) shoes: would this line of attack work for you?
    2. Although he was now leader of the armed forces, President Roosevelt had a different sort of army to lead. How do you think his role as leader of an army of workers compares to a leader of soldiers? Are there any similarities?

    Chew on This

    Because warfare is unfortunately a much-too-common state of affairs, societies are well prepared to jump into action at a moment's notice. Roosevelt sought to hack into this preparedness by treating the economic turmoil as a foreign enemy, and like a general before a great battle, he used his inaugural address to motivate the public to victory.

    Framing a fight against an ideal as a war to be waged is nothing new in the United States, from the war on drugs to the war on terror to Roosevelt's war on the economy. Using the language of warfare to motivate is one thing; spending manpower and resources to fix an unfixable problem is quite another.

  • Greed

    There are many culprits to blame for the Great Depression that tanked the global economy in 1929. Some blamed politicians, some themselves. But for the broke and hungry and desperate, there was really only one target: the bankers.

    FDR latched onto the populist sentiments and used his 1933 inaugural address to deliver a scathing indictment of the entire system. He used biblical language to cast judgment on the "unscrupulous money changers" (19) and a society greedy enough to favor money and power over morality.

    Questions About Greed

    1. Economists and historians are still arguing over the exact cause(s) of the Great Depression. Do you think bankers and their greed deserve as much of the blame as they receive? Why or why not?
    2. While FDR points a finger squarely at the "unscrupulous money changers" (19) as a reason for the economic collapse, he also pins the blame on the rest of the American people by calling out the systemic belief that money makes right. Does the public deserve some blame for the Great Depression, too?

    Chew on This

    Greed is always on people's minds when times are tough. The Great Depression hit people especially hard because of the Roaring Twenties that had preceded it. For years people had been able to live beyond their means, fueling a golden era in arts and culture. Then the crash brought many down into poverty.

    There were surely those whose individual greed helped cause the economic tumult in 1929. But as Roosevelt brought up in his inaugural address, it was also the greed of the American people at large who were most to blame.

  • American Exceptionalism

    For years, our foreign policy has been built on the premise of American exceptionalism—that by our very principles and beliefs, we deserve to shape the world as we see fit. This was as true in Roosevelt's time as it is today.

    The United States had kept up an unwavering influence over the Western Hemisphere since the Monroe Doctrine, and by the 1930s, this meant the forced occupation of several Central American nations, primarily to protect business interests.

    In order to deal with the crisis at home, Roosevelt states in his 1933 inaugural address that he has decided to pull back troops and devote resources internally. But the incoming president paints this as an example of how chill America is. This is the new American way, at least until the country is back on its feet.

    Questions About American Exceptionalism

    1. Why do you think the United States adopted this aggressive attitude toward foreign relations early in its history?
    2. What does American exceptionalism mean to you?
    3. What ideals do you think serve as the basis of American exceptionalism?

    Chew on This

    American exceptionalism means never having to say you're sorry. Roosevelt's policy as outlined in the inaugural address, while sensible ("we need all hands on deck at home!"), also serves as a means of slipping out of a decades-long entanglement with little fanfare.

    American exceptionalism truly does give the United States a deserved sense of superiority: where else could a freely elected leader enact an unprecedented turnaround?

  • Man and the Natural World

    In the years after Thomas Jefferson made his killer real-estate deal and people played the Oregon Trail IRL, the United States had tons of resources at its disposal.

    And while railroads crisscrossed the nation and parts of the West were industrialized, for the most part, the natural bounty of the country remained untouched. Roosevelt saw these resources as ripe for development; in his 1933 inaugural address, he stressed just how much humanity benefited from using and adapting the natural resources of the surrounding countryside. By mobilizing millions of workers to create infrastructure, he was in truth unlocking the nation's full potential.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Does man have a right to exploit the natural resources of a given nation, or should these precious gifts be protected? Can a balance be achieved? Why or why not?
    2. What types of resources are found in the United States that could be used and shaped by people?

    Chew on This

    The America that Franklin Delano Roosevelt grew up in gave the world airplanes, telephones, radio, refrigeration, and a million more scientific achievements. These wonders are only possible by harnessing the bountiful natural resources that America has at its disposal.

    Even in the early 20th century, the country was just coming to fully discover the natural beauty and bounty found within its borders. FDR's presidency stood at a crossroads between investing in the future or protecting our natural past, and given all the problems facing the nation, Roosevelt looked to the future.

  • Fear

    The atmosphere surrounding Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address was clouded by fear. The banking industry had been drained by panicked people, and state by state the system began to shut down completely. Fear swept through the streets as more people were out of work and living in Hoovervilles than ever before.

    President Roosevelt saw that people were desperate and afraid of what tomorrow had in store. So right at the opening of his inaugural address, he confronts this nationwide funk head-on with the immortal words, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

    Questions About Fear

    1. What exactly does being afraid of fear look like?
    2. What are you most afraid of? Do you think others share this fear? Why or why not?
    3. Why do FDR's words resonate even today?

    Chew on This

    People often fear uncertainty. Despite not sharing any concrete plans for his reconstruction efforts, Roosevelt won by a landslide. But he knew that this fear remained. That's why he immediately sets about during his inaugural address to establish that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." (5)

    Roosevelt seems to have feared most of all that his bold ideas would be met with shrugs from the American public; his entire speech intends to shake people out of the paralyzed state pure terror can bring about.

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