Franklin D. Roosevelt

Address to the Delegates of the American Youth Congress. Washington, D.C.

February 10, 1940

Fellow Citizens:

You who are attending this institute, whose primary aim is to obtain further knowledge of the democratic processes of American Government, are very welcome at the White House today. The same welcome is open to all citizens, or prospective citizens, or junior citizens, all who believe in the form of Government under which the United States has been living with reasonable success for more than a century and a half.

I think that some of us realize that if we had a different form of Government this kind of a meeting on the White House lawn could not take place. In saying this I am not denying to you or anybody else the rights of free assemblage, of free petition and of free speech—nor am I precluding the right of any Americans, old people or young people, to advocate improvements and change in the operations of the Government of the United States on one very simple condition: that all of you conform to the constitutional processes of change and improvement by the Constitution of the United States itself.

It is a grand thing that you young people are interested enough in Government to come to Washington for a Youth Citizenship Institute—because one of the hardest problems today is the indifference of so many people to the details and the facts of the functioning of their own Government.

I have said on many occasions that the greatest achievement of the past seven years in the United States has been not the saving of the nation from economic chaos, not the great series of laws to avert destitution and to improve our social standards, but that it has been the awakening of many millions of American men and women to an understanding of their own Governments, local, State and Federal. It is a fact that in every community, large and small, people are taking a greater interest in de. cent Government, in forward-looking Government, than ever be. fore, and that the words of Lincoln in regard to fooling people are infinitely more true today than they were in the eighteen sixties.

These past ten years have proven certain obvious facts some negative and some positive.

We know that the prosperity of the twenties can properly be compared to the prosperity of the Mississippi Bubble days before the bubble burst, when everybody was money-mad, when the money changers owned the temple, when the nation as a whole forgot the restraint of decent ethics and simple morals, and when the Government in Washington gave completely free rein to what they called individual liberty and the virtual ownership of Government itself by the so-called best minds which wholly controlled our finances and our economics and forgot our social problems. During those ten years you cannot find a single statute enacted for the restraint of excesses or for the betterment of the permanent security of the individual. That is a straight from the shoulder fact which the American public fortunately has not forgotten.

It is also a simple straight fact that 1930, 1931 and 1932 saw the collapse and disintegration of the philosophy of the twenties, followed in February and the first three days of March, 1933, by an acknowledgment on the part of those who had been the leaders that they could no longer carry on.

By way of further illustration of the fact that we have been making progress since those dark days, let me repeat certain comparisons between 1932 and 1939 that I gave the other day at a Press Conference. These facts were misstated and twisted by many newspapers and by some politicians seeking office. Because of this and because I am on a national hook-up, I repeat the figures.

The national income from all sources has increased from forty billion dollars in 1932 to sixty-eight and one-half billion dollars in 1939—in other words, plus 71 per cent.

Wages and salaries have increased from two billion four hundred million dollars in December, 1932, to three billion eight hundred and eighty-eight million dollars in December, 1939-plus 62 per cent.

Weekly payrolls increased from eighty million dollars in December 1932 to one hundred and ninety-seven million dollars in December 1939—plus 145 per cent.

Cash farm income increased from four billion seven hundred million dollars in 1932 to seven billion seven hundred million dollars in the year 1939. And with the addition of farm benefit payments of over eight hundred million dollars, to a total of eight and a half billion dollars—plus 82 per cent.

Dividends of corporations that were received by individuals increased from two billion seven hundred and fifty million dollars in 1932 to four billion two hundred and fifty million dollars in 1939—plus 55 per cent.

It is true that our population has gone up since that time six or seven per cent, but where twenty-seven million people were employed in non-agricultural pursuits in December, 1932, thirty-five million people were similarly employed in 1939—a gain of 28 per cent.

You have heard of certain local or special opposition to our foreign trade policy. Listen to this: Our exports for the year 1932 were worth one billion six hundred million. In 1939 they had gone up to nearly three billion two hundred million—an increase of 97 per cent.

I am repeating these figures on the air because not one citizen in a hundred read them in the papers last Tuesday morning.

Furthermore, as I remarked last Monday, interest received by individuals was 9 per cent less than it had been in 1932. I am proud of that—because it means that the exorbitant interest rates on mortgages and on loans of all kinds in 1932 have, because of Federal action, been reduced to a lower and more humane rate for people who had to borrow money for themselves individually or for themselves as participants in many varieties of business; and that is a great achievement.

And, finally, I said last Monday—and this was the part that was most seriously mangled and garbled by certain types of papers and certain types of politicians—I said that the total debt of all the people of the United States-private debt, State debt, local Government debt, and the Federal Government debt—was less in 1939 than it was in 1932. That is a simple fact—somewhere around two billion dollars less—and that in the face of an increase of our population of six or seven million people.

Why am I giving you all these figures? First, to remove fears, fears which are subtly instilled in your minds by a propaganda of which you are well aware. The other day I saw an old friend, born, if you like, with a silver spoon in his mouth; moving, if you like, in so-called social circles, but a decent citizen who, while he has never held public office, has tried with some success, to understand the tendencies of the times. He said: "I have come to the conclusion that there is no use in my trying to argue with certain types of the older generation because all they do is to hope that some miracle will restore the period of thirty years ago when they did not have to think about social problems; when taxes on the very rich were comparatively low; a period when nobody was worrying about social security, or the getting of jobs, or organized labor, or wages and hours, or the supervision of security offerings, or the regulation of the management of banks." And he went on to say: "I am past fifty but I recognize full well that those days, thank God, will never come again and furthermore, that a great majority of the people today who want to see a liberal administration of Government turned out and replaced by a conservative administration are really wishing deep down in their hearts for a return of the old social and economic philosophy of 1910."

And now some words of warning or perhaps I should say of suggestion.

But first let me say this: You good people, I am afraid, are getting pretty wet in this rain and I hope that before your afternoon session you will have a chance to go back to your rooms and change to dry clothes because there is one thing we do not want out of this fine conference and that is any cases of pneumonia.

Here are some suggestions to you who are voters and you who will soon be voters:

Do not seek or expect Utopia overnight. Do not seek or expect a panacea—some wonderful new law that will give to everybody who needs it a handout—or a guarantee of permanent remunerative occupation of your own choosing. I told one of your members a couple of weeks ago, somewhat to his surprise, that ever since I became Governor of New York in 1929, I have been receiving in every mail some sincere, honest proposal for some panacea. I have been receiving them one, two or three a day ever since. Those plans have not been put in the wastebasket; they have been subjected to the closest scrutiny by honest liberals who have hoped that somebody, somewhere, would hit on something that would save us all a lot of time and a lot of worry. I am afraid that so far, after these twelve years, no such plan has come forth.

Take, for example, the question of the employment of old people and the employment of young people. You young people must remember that the problem of the older workers in America is just as difficult as yours— that when people slow up, when they have reached the age when one can reasonably expect no great improvement, no great new imagination in their work, they find it very difficult to get a job. We have not solved the problem of older people, and yet the solution of that problem is evolutionary and that evolution is progressing. We have made .beginnings with the Social Security Act, but we know that it is only a beginning and that through the next ten or twenty years that system must be greatly extended and improved. Ham and eggs, and other plans will not do it because they are all open to the simple objection that they either print so much paper money that the money would soon be worthless or that the whole burden would be placed on the shoulders of the younger workers.

In the case of jobs for young people, let me make it very clear in the beginning that it is not at all certain that your opportunities for employment are any worse today than they were for young people ten years or twenty years or thirty years ago. There were problems then, just as there are today, but people did not understand them; and under the kind of conservative Government that we had in those days, the problems were never clearly stated to the American people. The problem of jobs for young people is vastly more difficult than it was one hundred years ago, because in 1840 the great open spaces of the West were crying aloud for willing hands—but today the Western frontiers are gone.

Yes, you and I have a very distinct problem. For instance, you and I know that industrial production calls for fewer hands per unit because of the improvement of machinery. I have given you the figures showing that weekly payrolls in this country are 145 per cent bigger today than they were in December, 1932. That does not mean that 145 per cent more people are employed. Obviously not. Fewer people are needed to produce the same volume of goods. And one of the things that disturbs me greatly, just as it disturbs you, is that in the present pickup of industry, it is too often cheaper for factory managers to work people overtime, even at time and a half or double pay, than it is to put on an extra shift.

That is one problem that we have got to tackle in these coming years. This means, in effect, that we have not yet found the method of spreading employment to more people when good times come.

It means, too, that we have not yet eliminated the terrific peaks and valleys of production and consumption. We have made definite gains. We hope and believe that we have found the way to prevent a recurrence of the collapse that took place from the high point of 1929 to the low point of February, 1933. We have not stopped the swing of the pendulum, but we believe we have greatly circumscribed the width of the swing from one extreme to the other. That means more permanence of employment.

Therefore, I suggest again that on social and economic matters you and I are substantially in agreement as to the objective, but that there are some of you who think that objective can be gained overnight. I do not. I do believe, however, that all of us can make definite strides toward that objective, if we retain a Government which believes in the objective wholeheartedly, and which is bent on working toward it as fast as the people of this country as a whole will let us. That in the long run is a reaffirmation of our faith in democracy.

One final word of warning: do not as a group pass resolutions on subjects which you have not thought through and on which you cannot possibly have complete knowledge. This business of passing resolutions at Conventions of Patriotic Societies, of Chambers of Commerce, of Manufacturers' Associations, of Peace Societies, yes, and of Youth Congresses is a perfectly legitimate American habit, just as it is a fact that there are many thousands of organizations for almost every conceivable objective, which are kept going, unwittingly on the part of most of the members, in order that some executive secretary, legislative agent, or other officer may find so-called useful employment. Hence the flood of lobbyists in Washington, of special counsel, drawing big pay for doing nothing at all, of hired writers, people who literally infest the halls of the Congress and the anterooms of all the agencies of the Executive Branch of the Government today. And I am not forgetting some of the visitors who come to see the President himself.

I have in mind the type of organization that passes resolutions on some matter of the utmost complexity-in the field, for example, of national defense or international economics—some situation on which there may be not two opinions but a dozen, some situation on which the policy of the moment must be formed by those who have given deep study to every phase of the problem. Such a decision ought not to be influenced by any gathering of old people or young people, or anybody else, local or national, who get a smattering of the subject from two or three speakers, who themselves have but a smattering of the subject themselves.

One of the big local American Youth Congress Councils, I am told, took a decisive stand against the granting of American loans to Finland not on the ground that we ought to spend the money here among our own needy unemployed, but on the ground that such action was "an attempt to force America into the imperialistic war." My friends, that reasoning was unadulterated twaddle based perhaps on sincerity, but, at the same time, on ninety per cent ignorance of what they were talking about.

I can say this to you with a smile because many of you will recognize the inherent wisdom and truth of what I am saying. Here is a small Republic in northern Europe, which, without any question whatsoever, wishes solely to maintain its own territorial and governmental integrity. Nobody with any pretense at common sense believes that Finland had any ulterior designs on the integrity or the safety of the Soviet Union.

That American sympathy is ninety-eight per cent with the Finns in their effort to stave of[ invasion of their own soil is by now axiomatic. That America wants to help them by lending or giving money to them to save their own lives is also axiomatic today. That the Soviet Union would, because of this, declare war on the United States is about the silliest thought that I have ever heard advanced in the fifty-eight years of my life. That we are going to war ourselves with the Soviet Union is an equally silly thought. Therefore, while I have not the slightest objection in the world to the passing of futile 'resolutions by conventions, I do think there is room for improvement in common-sense thinking, and definite room for improvement in the art of not passing resolutions concerning things one does not know everything about.

So I suggest that all of you can smile with me on this subject, but please do not pass resolutions of that kind again.

More than twenty years ago, while most of you were very young children, I had the utmost sympathy for the Russian people. In the early days of Communism, I recognized that many leaders in Russia were bringing education and better health and, above all, better opportunity to millions who had been kept in ignorance and serfdom under the imperial regime. I disliked the regimentation under Communism. I abhorred the indiscriminate killings of thousands of innocent victims. I heartily deprecated the banishment of religion—though I knew that some day Russia would return to religion for the simple reason that four or five thousand years of recorded history have proven that mankind has always believed in God in spite of many abortive attempts to exile God.

I, with many of you, hoped that Russia would work out its own problems, and that its government would eventually become a peace-loving, popular government with a free ballot, which would not interfere with the integrity of its neighbors.

That hope is today either shattered or put away in storage against some better day. The Soviet Union, as everybody who has the courage to face the fact knows, is run by a dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world. It has allied itself with another dictatorship, and it has invaded a neighbor so infinitesimally small that it could do no conceivable possible harm to the Soviet Union, a neighbor which seeks only to live at peace as a democracy, and a liberal, forward-looking democracy at that.

It has been said that some of you are Communists. That is a very unpopular term these days. As Americans you have a legal and constitutional right to call yourselves Communists, those of you who do. You have a right peacefully and openly to advocate certain ideals of theoretical Communism; but as Americans you have not only a right but a sacred duty to confine your advocacy of changes in law to the methods prescribed by the Constitution of the United States—and you have no American right, by act or deed of any kind, to subvert the Government and the Constitution of this Nation.

That, I am confident, receives the overwhelming support of the great majority of your organization and of every other large organization of American youth. The things you and I represent are essentially the same, and it will be your task, when I am gone from the scene, to carry on the fight for a continuance of liberal Government, an improvement of its methods and the effective. ness of its work. Above all, we must help those who have proved that they will try everlastingly to make things a little better for the people of our Nation with each succeeding year. So I say to you, keep your ideals high, keep both feet on the ground and keep everlastingly at it.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address to the Delegates of the American Youth Congress. Washington, D.C. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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