By Paul Sparrow, FDR Library Director
“We Shall Do Everything In Our Power to Crush Hitler and His Nazi Forces” ~FDR
On Labor Day 1941 America was still recovering from the Great Depression and unemployment was still at 10%. The ascendant Axis powers had plunged the world into a life and death struggle between freedom and oppression, and the German Army had penetrated deep into Russia. Nazi Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) had begun murdering Jews in large numbers. Three thousand had been shot near Kovno, Lithuania in July. President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill had just released the Atlantic Charter which laid the foundation for the international coalition that would stand up to fascism and dictatorship. Starting with his “Four Freedoms” speech in January, 1941 FDR had skillfully led the American public away from their isolationist tendencies to a reluctant acceptance of the need to come to the aid of the Allies. Earlier in the year he had convinced a reluctant congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act providing vital military supplies to Great Britain and Russia. He had positioned America as “the arsenal of democracy” and pledged to build hundreds of thousands of planes, tanks and ships. It represents one of the best examples of his extraordinary leadership in transforming public opinion despite overwhelming opposition.
On Sept. 1, 1941 FDR gave a Labor Day radio address. It was his first broadcast from the new Presidential Library he had built next to his ancestral home in Hyde Park, NY. (His study is still on public display exactly as it was when he died.)
It is one of his finest broadcasts, a passionate sermon on the importance of democracy and the threat that dictatorships pose to all free people. He did not mince his words:
“On this day – this American holiday – we are celebrating the rights of free laboring men and women. The preservation of these rights is vitally important now, not only to us who enjoy them – but to the whole future of Christian civilization. American labor now bears a tremendous responsibility in the winning of this most brutal, most terrible of all wars.”
Roosevelt understood that the free world’s only hope for victory over the Axis powers was the application of America’s incredible industrial capacity to the production of war materials. The success of that effort would require an unprecedented level of cooperation between the government, labor and business. He speaks of enemies who believe:
“that they could divide and conquer us from within.” “These enemies know that today the chief American fighters in the battles now raging are those engaged in American industry, employers and employees alike.”
Near the end of the broadcast FDR makes his most powerful statement about his commitment to democracy.
“The task of defeating Hitler may be long and arduous. There are a few appeasers and Nazi sympathizers who say it cannot be done. They even ask me to negotiate with Hitler – to pray for crumbs from his victorious table. They do, in fact, ask me to become the modern Benedict Arnold and betray all that I hold dear – my devotion to our freedom – to our churches – to our country. This course I have rejected – I reject it again. Instead, I know that I speak the conscience and determination of the American people when I say that we shall do everything in our power to crush Hitler and his Nazi forces.”
He ends the speech with a simple but powerful statement of hope.
“May it be said on some future Labor Day by some future President of the United States that we did our work faithfully and well.”
Hear an excerpt from this significant speech:
Download the full address (mp3, 10MB).