From Warm Springs, Ga., where he died, the funeral train moved
slowly through the rural South to a service in Washington, then
past the now thriving cities of the North, and finally to Hyde
Park, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, where he was born.
Wherever it passed, Americans by the hundreds of thousands stood
vigil, those who had loved him and those who came to witness a
momentous passage in the life of the nation. Men stood with
their arms around the shoulders of their wives and mothers.
They stood in clusters, heads bowed, openly weeping. They
clasped their hands in prayer. A father lifted his son to see
the last car, which carried the flag-draped coffin. "I saw
everything," the boy said. "That's good," the father said. "Now
make sure you remember."
He had been President of the United States for 12 of the most
tumultuous years in the life of the nation. For many, an America
without Roosevelt seemed almost inconceivable. He had guided the
nation through democracy's two monumental crises--the Great
Depression and World War II. Those who watched the coffin pass
were the beneficiaries of his nation's victory. Their children
would live to see the causes for which he stood--prosperity and
freedom, economic justice and political democracy--gather strength
throughout the century, come to dominate life in America and in
much of the world.
It is tempting to view these triumphs as the consequence of
irresistible historical forces. But inevitability is merely an
illusory label we impose on that which has already happened. It
does not tell us what might have happened. For that, we need to
view events through the eyes of those who lived them. Looked at
that way, we understand that twice in mid-century, capitalism and
democracy were in the gravest peril, rescued by the enormous
efforts of countless people summoned to struggle by their
peerless leader--Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"Men will thank God on their knees a hundred years from now that
Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House," the New York Times
editorialized at the time of his death. "It was his hand, more
than that of any other single man, that built the great coalition
of the United Nations. It was his leadership which inspired free
men in every part of the world to fight with greater hope and
courage. Gone is the fresh and spontaneous interest which this
man took, as naturally as he breathed air, in the troubles and
the hardships and the disappointments and the hopes of little men
and humble people."
Even through the grainy newsreels, we can see what the people at
the time saw: the radiant smile, the eyes flashing with good
humor, the cigarette holder held at a jaunty angle, the
good-natured toss of the head, the buoyant optimism, the serene
confidence with which he met economic catastrophe and
When Roosevelt assumed the presidency, America was in its third
year of depression. No other decline in American history had
been so deep, so lasting, so far reaching. Factories that had
once produced steel, automobiles, furniture and textiles stood
eerily silent. One out of every four Americans was unemployed,
and in the cities the number reached nearly 50%. In the
countryside, crops that could not be sold at market rotted in
the fields. More than half a million homeowners, unable to pay
their mortgages, had lost their homes and their farms; thousands
of banks had failed, destroying the life savings of millions.
The Federal Government had virtually no mechanisms in place to