Isaiah Berlin on FDR: 'The Only Light in the Darkness'

On what would have been Roosevelt's 132nd birthday, a look back at the philosopher's 1955 Atlantic essay on how Europe viewed the American president.
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Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales in 1941. (U.S. Navy)

When Franklin Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882—132 years ago today—it might reasonably have been assumed that he was destined for success. The child of privilege, Roosevelt would have entree into the best schools and firms of his choosing. But the impact he would have on the 20th century was unimaginable.

In July 1955, a decade after his death, Isaiah Berlin wrote in The Atlantic about what Roosevelt meant to a young man growing up in Britain during the Depression.

When I say that some men occupy one’s imagination for many years, this is literally true of Mr. Roosevelt’s effect on the young men of my own generation in England, and probably in many parts of Europe, and indeed the entire world. If one was young in the thirties and lived in a democracy, then, whatever one’s politics, if one had human feelings at all, or the faintest spark of social idealism, or any love of life, one must have felt very much as young men in Continental Europe probably felt after the defeat of Napoleon during the years of the Restoration: that all was dark and quiet, a great reaction was abroad, and little stirred, and nothing resisted …

The only light in the darkness was the administration of Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal in the United States. At a time of weakness and mounting despair in the democratic world, Mr. Roosevelt radiated confidence and strength. He was the leader of the democratic world, and even today upon him alone, of all the statesmen of the thirties, no cloud has rested—neither on him nor on the New Deal, which to European eyes still looks a bright chapter in the history of mankind …

Ultimately, Berlin wrote, Roosevelt created the post-war model of liberal democracy. Berlin's argument that he'd created a welfare state that had to provide basic services remains as valid today as it was 60 years ago—with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's fervid insistence in 2012 that they wouldn't undermine Medicare, or David Cameron's pledges to protect the British National Health Service, ably show.

It is not too much to say that he altered the fundamental concept of government and its obligations to the governed … The welfare state, so much denounced, has obviously come to stay: the direct moral responsibility for minimum standards of living and social services which it took for granted, are today accepted almost without a murmur by the most conservative politicians …

Mr. Roosevelt’s example strengthened democracy everywhere—that is to say, the view that the promotion of social justice and individual liberty does not necessarily mean the end of all efficient government; that power and order are not identical with a strait jacket of doctrine, whether economic or political; that it is possible to reconcile individual liberty and a loose texture of society with the indispensable minimum of organization and authority. And in this belief lies what Mr. Roosevelt’s greatest predecessor once described as the last best hope on earth.

Read the full piece here:

Roosevelt Through European Eyes (The Atlantic, July 1955)

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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