FDR's Message to Charlottesville—and to Donald Trump

In his speech in Virginia in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt united America; in his remarks in 2017, Donald Trump divided it.

A photograph of Franklin Roosevelt compared with a photograph of Donald Trump
Franklin Roosevelt speaks to a crowd in New York City in 1939 (left). Trump delivers comments about Charlottesville on August 14, 2017 (right). (Bettman / Getty / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Last week, “Charlottesville” became shorthand for racism, violence and a president’s moral blindness. But for a long time, the college town was remembered for a very different moment, when a president facing fascist aggression showed moral clarity.

The last time the world paid so much attention to Charlottesville, it was the summer of 1940, and Europe was on fire. In a few short months Hitler had conquered much of western Europe, and France itself was on the verge of succumbing.

On June 10, the day that Mussolini took Italy into the war on the side of the Nazis, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled by presidential train to Charlottesville to deliver a commencement speech in the University of Virginia’s elegant Memorial Gymnasium, before an audience of faculty, guests, and 500 members of the class of 1940, including his son.

In a stirring address, Roosevelt condemned “the gods of force and hate” that “would endanger the institutions of democracy in the western world.” He rejected the isolationist “delusion” that the United States could be “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”

“In this university founded by the first great American teacher of democracy,” Roosevelt declared to much cheering and stamping of feet, “we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.”

It seems ridiculous to compare Franklin Roosevelt with Donald Trump. Yet the comparison is telling.

The response from the White House to the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched through Charlottesville should have been obvious. Instead President Donald Trump has doggedly maintained his neutrality. In his initial statement, Trump refused to call out the sinister forces present in Charlottesville. He could only bring himself to condemn hatred, bigotry, and violence “on many sides.”

For two long days, he refused to revise his comments. Finally he read out a statement calling white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan “repugnant.” But the following day he reclaimed the moral low ground, equating racists with anti-racists and claiming there was “blame on both sides.”

Naturally, white nationalists were delighted. “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room,” crowed the The Daily Stormer. “Really, really good. God bless him.”

“Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth,” tweeted former Klan leader David Duke.

A week later, in his speech on Afghanistan, Trump again sought to clean up his Charlottesville response, rejecting prejudice, bigotry, and hate and declaring that “love for America requires love for all of its people.” But it was too late.

Trump has said dreadful things about race in the past. He spent years questioning whether the first African American president was born in America. As a presidential candidate he called Mexicans “rapists” and promised a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

And yet the moral relativism of his comments about Charlottesville was still shocking. In Charlottesville, only one “side” counted Nazis among its ranks. We expect the president of the United States to be unambiguously opposed to Nazis.

Franklin Roosevelt was not a perfect human being; he was a man of his time. But in 1940, he knew whom he supported and whom he opposed.

On foreign policy, too, the difference between the two men is stark. For decades, Trump has leaned towards isolationism. He admires strong men such as Vladimir Putin. By contrast Roosevelt was an internationalist. He defined America’s interests broadly. He liked democrats, not dictators.

Roosevelt’s response to the shocking events in Europe in 1940 was not to withdraw into the Western Hemisphere, as urged by many outside and inside his administration, but rather the opposite. In his Charlottesville address, Roosevelt vowed to hasten American rearmament and expedite the flow of aid to “the opponents of force.”

Over the next year and a half, he initiated the Lend-Lease program, expanded U.S. naval operations in the Atlantic, and moved a divided America toward ever-greater involvement in the European war. He helped transform the United States from a hesitant, isolationist middle power into a global leader.

Franklin Roosevelt defeated America First; Donald Trump has revived it. Roosevelt fought home-grown fascists; Trump has encouraged them. In his speech at Charlottesville, Roosevelt united America and rallied the West; in his remarks about Charlottesville, Trump divided America and shocked the West.

“Every generation of young men and women in America has questions to ask the world,” said Roosevelt in Charlottesville. “Most of the time they are the simple but nevertheless difficult questions, questions of work to do, opportunities to find, ambitions to satisfy.”

“But every now and again in the history of the Republic a different kind of question presents itself—a question that asks, not about the future of an individual or even a generation, but about the future of the country, the future of the American people.”

“There is such a time again today,” said Roosevelt. “Again today the young men and the young women of America ask themselves … this same question: ‘What is to become of the country we know?’”

In 2017 the world is asking: what is to become of the country we know?