|This Week in History
September 17 23, 1944.
Franklin Roosevelt Opens His 1944 Presidential Campaign with Devastating Humor
Even in the midst of major Allied victories in Europe and the Pacific Theater, the assault against President Roosevelt's policies continued unabated. With the opening of the 1944 presidential campaign, and Roosevelt's decision that he must run again in order to ensure a lasting peace and a program of postwar economic development, the whispering campaigns and direct attacks from Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey were sharply escalated.
Dewey, who was the current Governor of New York, had made his name as a district attorney who prosecuted Legs Diamond and Lucky Luciano. He started his campaign for the presidency early, and was soon hip-deep in appealing to racial and religious prejudices. In addition, he took on the role of Red-baiter, claiming that the Communists were seizing control of the New Deal, the better to take over the government. According to Dewey, a Communist was anyone "who supported the fourth term so our form of government may be more easily changed."
Roosevelt commented to one of his speechwriters that Dewey "plays the part of the heroic racket-buster in one of those gangster movies. He talks to the people as if they were the jury and I were the villain on trial for his life." In the sheer virulence of their attacks, Dewey's backers exposed not only their actual ideology, but also the extent to which they were willing to lie. The Republican campaign attempted to re-write what was then recent American history, a fifteen-year history which almost everyone of voting age knew something about.
Roosevelt let them dig themselves in deeper and deeper until he had a good opportunity to answer them. It came in the form of a long-planned September 23 speech to a Teamsters Union banquet in Washington, D.C., which was also carried on nationwide radio. There was a very large radio audience for the speech, as rumors had been circulating about the poor state of the president's health, eagerly fanned by the Dewey campaign.
The weapon Roosevelt chose to wield against his opponent was humor. He was greeted with a six-minute ovation even before the radio broadcast began, but as the speech progressed, the applause was almost drowned out by the audience's laughter.
Roosevelt opened with: "Well, here we are together again - after four years - and what years they have been! You know, I am actually four years older, which is a fact that seems to annoy some people. In fact, in the mathematical field there are millions of Americans who are more than eleven years older than when we started in to clear up the mess that was dumped in our laps in 1933.
"We all know that certain people who make it a practice to depreciate the accomplishments of labor - who even attack labor as unpatriotic - they keep this up usually for three years and six months in a row. But then, for some strange reason they change their tune - every four years - just before election day. When votes are at stake, they suddenly discover that they really love labor and that they are anxious to protect labor from its old friends...."
"I need not recount to you the centuries of history which have been crowded into these four years since I saw you last.
"There were some - in the Congress and out - who raised their voices against our preparations for defense - before and after 1939 - objected to them, raised their voices against them as hysterical war mongering, who cried out against our help to the Allies as provocative and dangerous. [Dewey had straddled the fence on aid to the Allies in 1940-41.] We remember the voices. They would like to have us forget them now. But in 1940 and 1941 - my, it seems a long time ago - they were loud voices. Happily they were a minority and - fortunately for ourselves, and for the world - they could not stop America.
"There are some politicians who kept their heads buried deep in the sand while the storms of Europe and Asia were headed our way, who said that the lend-lease bill 'would bring an end to free government in the United States,' and who said, 'only hysteria entertains the idea that Germany, Italy, or Japan contemplates war on us.' These very men are now asking the American people to intrust to them the conduct of our foreign policy and our military policy.
"What the Republican leaders are now saying in effect is this: 'Oh, just forget what we used to say, we have changed our minds now - we have been reading the public opinion polls about these things and now we know what the American people want.' And they say: 'Don't leave the task of making the peace to those old men who first urged it and who have already laid the foundations for it, and who have had to fight all of us inch by inch during the last five years to do it. Why, just turn it all over to us. We'll do it so skillfully - that we won't lose a single isolationist vote or a single isolationist campaign contribution...."
"But, you know, even those candidates who burst out in election-year affection for social legislation and for labor in general, still think that you ought to be good boys and stay out of politics. And above all, they hate to see any working man or woman contribute a dollar bill to any wicked political party. Of course, it is all right for large financiers and industrialists and monopolists to contribute tens of thousands of dollars - but their solicitude for that dollar which the men and women in the ranks of labor contribute is always very touching.
"They are, of course, perfectly willing to let you vote - unless you happen to be a soldier or a sailor overseas, or a merchant seaman carrying the munitions of war. In that case they have made it pretty hard for you to vote at all - for there are some political candidates who think that they may have a chance of election, if only the total vote is small enough...."
"Words come easily, but they do not change the record. You are, most of you, old enough to remember what things were like for labor in 1932.
"You remember the closed banks and the breadlines and the starvation wages; the foreclosures of homes and farms, and the bankruptcies of business; the 'Hoovervilles,' and the young men and women of the Nation facing a hopeless, jobless future; the closed factories and mines and mills; the ruined and abandoned farms; the stalled railroads and the empty docks; the blank despair of a whole Nation - and the utter impotence of the Federal Government...."
"Now there are some politicians who do not remember that far back, and there are some who remember but find it convenient to forget. No, the record is not to be washed away that easily.
"The opposition in this year has already imported into this campaign a very interesting thing, because it is foreign. They have imported the propaganda technique invented by the dictators abroad. Remember, a number of years ago, there was a book, 'Mein Kampf,' written by Hitler himself. The technique was all set out in Hitler's book - and it was copied by the aggressors of Italy and Japan. According to that technique, you should never use a small falsehood; always a big one, for its very fantastic nature would make it more credible - if only you keep repeating it over and over and over again.
"Well, let us take some simple illustrations that come to mind. For example, although I rubbed my eyes when I read it, we have been told that it was not a Republican depression, but a Democratic depression from which this Nation was saved in 1933 - that this Administration - this one - today - is responsible for all the suffering and misery that the history books and the American people have always thought had been brought about during the twelve pill-fated years when the Republican party was in power.
"Now, there is an old and somewhat lugubrious adage which says: 'Never speak of rope in the house of a man who has been hanged.' In the same way, if I were a Republican leader speaking to a mixed audience, the last word in the whole dictionary that I think I would use is that word 'depression'...."
President Roosevelt then cited two other falsifications which had been charged against him: that his policy was "to keep men in the Army when the war was over, because there might be no jobs for them in civil life," and that his administration "failed to prepare for the war that was coming." On the second charge, Roosevelt said that he doubted "whether even Goebbels would have tried that one."
Then FDR came to a third charge, which had been made by Harold Knutson, a Republican Congressman from Minnesota, that the U.S. Government had been forced to spend millions of dollars to retrieve Roosevelt's dog, Fala, from the Aleutian Islands when he was supposedly left behind on a Presidential trip. Admiral Leahy, representing the U.S. Navy, had reported to the House leadership that the charges were completely unfounded.
Roosevelt's reply led to his Teamster address being dubbed the "Fala Speech."
Donning a mock-serious expression, and speaking in a quiet, sad tone of voice, Roosevelt answered the ridiculous charge. "These Republican leaders," said Roosevelt, "have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala DOES resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him - at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars - his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself - such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."
Having left Dewey to run against Fala, Roosevelt closed his speech by assuring his audience that "The fruits of victory this time will not be apples sold on street corners," and that the keynote to his post-war policy could be found in the one word - JOBS.