April 12: an important day for reflection in the U.S.

The anniversaries of FDR's death and the start of the Civil War will both be marked this week, and both still resonate today.

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1933.

The anniversaries of FDR's death and the start of the Civil War will both be marked this week, and both still resonate today.

If you are history-minded, certain dates no doubt stick in your mind. April 12 is one of those, associated in particular with the 1861
Confederate shelling of Fort Sumter, S.C., officially beginning the Civil War, and the 1945 death by stroke in Warm Springs, Ga., of President Franklin Roosevelt.

The date is associated with other events including, in modern times, the 1961 entry into outer space by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the 1999 citation of President Bill Clinton for contempt of court for making "intentionally false statements" in a sexual harassment lawsuit. But, at least for me, the Civil War and Roosevelt anniversaries loom largest.

A kind of phony war existed in late 1860/early 1861 between the United States and seceding and prospectively seceding Southern states. But the first official shot was not fired until Confederate gunners shelled Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, as federal supply ships attempted to reach it. The first shot could have been fired almost anywhere, at any time during that period. But Charleston, early headquarters of the slave trade, was where it happened.

The war began as a struggle between those who wanted to Save the Union, preserving the United States as a single country, and advocates of states' rights, who believed constitutional powers were being usurped unlawfully by the federal government. Beneath the surface, it was a struggle between the industrializing North and the agrarian South, whose economy depended in large part on slave labor.

As the war proceeded, and President Lincoln made his historic Emancipation Proclamation, slavery itself became the central issue. Yet, at the time, many in the North opposed the proclamation; some Union Army units deserted and draftees refused to serve because the war had been transformed from an effort to save the union to one to free the slaves.

Echoes of the original constitutional debate are heard now — all too familiarly — except that race is no longer a central issue. Issues ranging from deficit reduction to health-care-reform to Medicare and Medicaid reform are being fought out on the familiar ground of federal vs. state and local rights and responsibilities. The so-called Ryan Plan for 10-year federal deficit reduction, released last week, addresses frontally the question of where public and private responsibility should lie for a variety of functions now centered at federal-government level. (It is, by the way, a quite healthy and appropriate debate at this juncture in our history).

Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945 came as a shock to the country. He had led the country through the depths of the Depression almost to the end of World War II. For those of us born in the early Depression years, the thought of another president was almost inconceivable. He was elected an unprecedented four times. (Afterward, Republicans spearheaded the change to a two-term limitation. As it turned out, the first president to be affected by it was the popular Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who himself could have been reelected a third or fourth time if the law had allowed it).

The FDR story is well-known. Mainly known as a personally charming but lightweight dilettante, Roosevelt took on depth and seriousness after a 1921 bout with polio rendered him paralyzed below the waist. He spent the rest of his years in a wheelchair or moving painfully with heavy braces on his legs. Despite this burden, his public persona was buoyant and jaunty. It was his spirit, transmitted via national radio Fireside Chats, that helped give the American people hope during the dismal Depression years. It also inspired the country when, after Pearl Harbor, he called for even greater sacrifice.

My own blue-collar family worshipped FDR. My father, an unskilled Bellingham sawmill worker, took me into the voting booth with him in 1940 to pull the lever for Roosevelt and a straight Democratic ticket. On April 12, 1945, on news of FDR's death, he came home and wept at our kitchen table — the only time I saw my father cry. Much of the country had the same reaction. Roosvelt's health had been deteriorating under his heavy burdens; photographs showed him to be gaunt and failing. But, somehow, he had been considered immune from the things that brought the rest of us down. Adolph Hitler, in his bunker, reportedly danced with joy and expected Nazi fortunes to revive on receiving news of Roosevelt's death.

Sen. Dan Inouye of Hawaii tells the story of how he, then a young American soldier in Europe, received the news of FDR's death. He and his fellow Japanese-American troopers had been trying unsuccessfully to take a hill from German soldiers. An officer announced Roosevelt's death. "Let's do it for the chief!" Inouye heard someone shout. "We fixed bayonets, charged up the hill, and took the position."

When historic 1960s Great Society and other legislation was enacted, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Democratic congressional leaders, were inspired by FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, known in particular for her concern for women, minorities, and children. The Roosvelts were mentioned in a huge number of White House and congressional statements of the time.

As I thought of the Fort Sumter and FDR death anniversaries, it occurred to me that Roosevelt had been born only 17 years after the end of the Civil War. In the span of one lifetime he had experienced significant passages in American history and, as president, had contributed mightily to that history. In his time, to fight Depression and war, he had expanded greatly the role and reach of our national government.

Now, in many ways, we are revisiting the ways and means of our governance. We are, however, doing it peaceably and proceeding from bases of law and custom — no shots being fired, as at Fort Sumter, or threats of totalitarian takeover from the Right or Left, as existed when Roosevelt assumed the presidency. May it remain that way.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.