Voices from the Past: FDR and Lessons Learned on Leadership in Times of Crisis

fdr[1]In March, 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt exhorted the Nation to squarely face adversity and not succumb to fear.

Yet Roosevelt later presided over the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans and succumbed to an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in America by shutting the door on Jews seeking refuge in the U.S. to escape the ravages of the Holocaust.

Both are sad chapters in American history in direct contradiction to ideals of courage and leadership that Roosevelt so famously articulated in his first inaugural address:

This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.

So first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear. . .is fear itself. . .nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.  I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Roosevelt was a great president in many ways: a wartime leader; a champion of working men and women, of economic opportunity and civil rights, and his presidency coincided with some of the most challenging times in our history marked by massive economic depression and world war. In hindsight, Roosevelt’s words can both inspire and disappoint in light of how Japanese-Americans and Jewish refugees were treated on his watch.

The situation we face today may not be nearly as cataclysmic as World War II and the years leading up to it, but there are parallels. Today, as in Roosevelt’s time, we face great economic challenges, global conflict and huge numbers of refugees seeking to escape the ravages of war.

We have an opportunity to learn from our history; to not repeat mistakes of the past, and to extend a hand to those Mideast refugees who lives we helped destroy, and who now desperately need our help.