Sold – FDR: Crucial to Elect Those “whose fundamental principles lie along progressive…”

He quotes Woodrow Wilson as saying opponents have nothing positive to contribute.

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In 1938, Roosevelt was facing challenges at home and abroad. Domestically, after a period of real improvement, the economy was in a downturn and unemployment up. The international situation was very bleak and worrisome to FDR, as the Japanese war against China and the Spanish Civil War were ongoing. Moreover, in late...

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Sold – FDR: Crucial to Elect Those “whose fundamental principles lie along progressive…”

He quotes Woodrow Wilson as saying opponents have nothing positive to contribute.

In 1938, Roosevelt was facing challenges at home and abroad. Domestically, after a period of real improvement, the economy was in a downturn and unemployment up. The international situation was very bleak and worrisome to FDR, as the Japanese war against China and the Spanish Civil War were ongoing. Moreover, in late September, Britain and France virtually ceded Czechoslovakia to Germany, and in October Hitler marched into the Sudetenland unopposed. At this critical moment, with the 1938 election just a week away, Roosevelt had to put out a brushfire that threatened the unity and success of the Democrats in California, and in doing so, not only exhibited the scope and depth of his substantial political skills, but made important statements about his activist principles, and his views of progressivism and liberalism. He also gave a fascinating glimpse of the political thought of Woodrow Wilson, revealing a quote that Wilson had confided to him when FDR served as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

George Creel headed the government’s Committee on Public Information during World War I, exercising authority over all aspects of the U.S. media, including film, posters, music, paintings and cartoons. After the war, he was involved in California politics, losing a run for governor as a Democrat in 1934, then becoming Commissioner of the U.S. Golden Gate International Exposition. As a top politico in the state and a man with experience dealing with public communications, when F.D.R. composed his message designed to inspire the party faithful in California, he selected Creel to receive it, charging him to disseminate the message as widely as possible.


Typed Letter Signed on White House letterhead, two pages, October 31, 1938, to Creel. “Since our last conversation I have been keeping in close touch with the political situation in your state. Doubtless you have seen my letter to [Congressman] Jerry Voorhis…Apparently an impression is being carefully propagandized through California that since I do not agree with the ‘$30 every Thursday plan,’ I am indifferent to the nominees of the Democratic Party on both the state and National tickets. That is a flat misrepresentation of my position. It is not true. I wish you could make clear to every Democrat, Progressive and Liberal you can reach that it is not true. It is of national importance, in my opinion, that a liberal like Olsen rather than a reactionary speak the voice of California in the Senate of the United States. California is one of the great States of the Union. Its courage in solving its own problems and the way in which the power of its government is employed is of great concern to the whole Union. Like three or four other localities in the United States, it is feeling our most complicated social problems years ahead of the rest of the country. Working out those problems demands the closest cooperation of the State government with the United States government. It requires leadership with vision, patience and tolerance in meeting local conditions – the attributes of a liberal in the fullest sense of the word.

As for the “$30 every Thursday plan,” I have never concealed the fact that I am against it. I hope it will not be tried – because on the one hand I feel quite sure that it will not work and because on the other hand I feel quite sure that we can evolve from the present Social Security statute methods of obtaining security for old age which will work better and better each year. But the plan is wholely a State issue…Sheridan Downey should be judged not by his position on this exclusively State issue but on the temper of mind with which he will meet the really national issues of a totally different kind on which a Senator of the United States has to vote on an average of once a day. And what is important for the people of California, in choosing a Senator, is that the people of California be represented by a man whose fundamental principles lie along progressive and liberal lines rather than by a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary of the vintage of Mark Hanna. I hope too that Culbert Olsen and the other liberal candidates will be elected. As between Olsen and Merriam there can be no doubt as to who is the liberal. As Woodrow Wilson liked to point out, the reactionaries can always present a front because their program is wholely negative. They want to obstruct all action: they are not concerned with a constructive program of any sort.”

It is hard to imagine a more significant political letter of Roosevelt. In it, he explains his philosophy (and the engine behind his creation of the New Deal), saying that leadership requires “vision;” he hopes that social security, his most important program, will be even more perfected through time; he defends (and defines) liberalism and progressivism; he is cognizant of the role of California as a laboratory for the nation; and he relates Wilson’s political axiom about opponents having no positive agenda. The letter seems to have been effective. In the congressional election of November 1938, in California, Democrat Culbert Olson defeated Republican Gov. Frank Merriam, and FDR supporter Sheridan Downey was elected U.S. Senator with a majority of more than 246,000 votes.   

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