Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary. In the golden age of radio, two […]
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
In the golden age of radio, two of the nation’s most popular broadcasters lived in the White House. One was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Franklin Roosevelt: We must be the great arsenal of democracy.
The other radio star was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She had her own commercially-sponsored radio show.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Suppose we forget temporarily about the traditional way of fighting a war and think about the possibility of a new kind of war.
Radio allowed them to forge a new, more intimate relationship with the people. I’m Stephen Smith, in the coming hour: The First Family of Radio, from American RadioWorks. First, this news.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
[MUSIC: “Happy Days Are Here Again”]
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932, radio’s heyday was just beginning.
Franklin Roosevelt: My countrymen and my friends.
People from coast to coast could hear the president speak, all at the same time. That was new.
FDR: Tonight, my single duty is to speak to the whole of America.
FDR was a master at using radio to reach the people, and to persuade them to follow his lead.
FDR: You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear.
Huge numbers of Americans tuned in for FDR’s Fireside Chats. But he wasn’t the only person broadcasting from the White House.
Announcer: The curtain rises ladies and gentlemen on the first of a series of radio visits with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Good day ladies and gentlemen. I am very glad to have this opportunity to talk to my friends among the women in America during the next few weeks.
The first lady was a professional broadcaster from her earliest days in the White House. Her shows got sponsored by the makers of cold cream, typewriters, coffee, and beauty soap. And she was paid as much as the biggest stars on radio. It was a novel and controversial career for a president’s wife.
ER: I have already talked a number of times on the radio about various phases of my trip to Great Britain, but I am glad of this opportunity to give a more detailed account of the situation there as I saw it.
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt used radio to forge an uncommonly personal relationship with the American people. They rallied the nation to combat the Great Depression and then to fight fascism in World War II.
ER: There is one thing about the American people when any emergency arises. It seems to spur them on to greater activity.
FDR: I believe in practical explanations and practical policies.
ER: I feel as though I was standing upon a rock and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.
FDR: The nation will expect all individuals and all groups to play their full part. Without stint. Without selfishness. And without doubt.
ER: We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.
[MUSIC: “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”]
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, The First Family of Radio. I’m Stephen Smith. Over the coming hour, we’ll hear how the Roosevelts used radio to revolutionize the way Americans relate to the president, the first lady, and to the government itself.
Our story starts in Albany, the capitol of New York state. It is the summer of 1932. FDR is New York’s governor. He is also running for president as the Democratic candidate.
FDR: Good evening my fellow Americans, friends of the radio audience. I hope during this campaign to use the radio frequently to speak to you about important things that concern us all…
In his first nationwide radio address as the Democratic nominee, FDR spoke from the Governor’s mansion. He explained that in earlier times, political campaigns involved overblown oratory and brass bands. But radio now made it possible for candidates to chat with the voters in their homes, in what FDR called, “a quiet of common sense and friendliness.”
FDR: I want you to hear me tonight as I sit here in my own home, away from the excitement of the campaign. And with only a few of the family and a few personal friends present…
FDR had honed his radio technique over four years as governor of New York. He made frequent broadcasts to the people of the state. Radio allowed him to bypass the Republican controlled newspapers. In the 1932 presidential contest, FDR was running against the unpopular Republican incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who was not as effective at the microphone.
Norman Corwin: Hoover was a quiet, rather solemn man. And did not have the presence and the charm that exuded from FDR.
The late Norman Corwin was one of the most celebrated writers and directors in radio’s golden age. Corwin said FDR had genuine confidence and affability.
Corwin: He was friendly and down-to-earth. He did not have the facade of the typical politician. He had a great personality and he used that to wonderful effect.
Corwin says that came through over the air. Roosevelt beat Hoover by a landslide. Radio played a part in his victory. So did the Great Depression.
[MUSIC: “There’s a House in Harlem for Sale” – Henry “Red” Allen and Coleman Hawkins]
When FDR took office, America had been traumatized by more than three years of economic devastation. Many farmers were losing their land. Some 25 percent of workers were unemployed. Government relief programs were tapped out.
Farmer: I had five or six hundred chickens. They all starved to death. Two or three cows starved to death.
People later remembered the hard times in oral histories.
Man: Little home I had in Oklahoma it was made of old automobile hoods. Just anything we could get to build one out of.
Man: My father lost everything. At one point we were out of food.
Woman: Hoboes, you know, people who were down and out would come to the door a lot. And mother wouldn’t turn them away If she couldn’t give them anything else she could give them a glass of milk.
Man: My Father was quite a frugal man. His savings was all in the security trust bank here in town. And that bank folded. Well, this tipped his mind. He committed suicide.
This was the America Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to lead.
FDR: This is a day of national consecration…
FDR was inaugurated on March 4th, 1933. The nation listened on radio.
FDR: Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
But there was much to fear. Some 7,000 banks had failed, wiping out the savings of millions of people. As customers rushed to withdraw what was left, the banking system teetered on the edge of collapse. FDR declared an immediate, eight-day national banking holiday, closing them to prevent a run on the banks. A week after his inauguration, Roosevelt sat down at the radio mike to try to restore people’s faith in their banks.
FDR: My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking – to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks.
This was the first of what would come to be known as his Fireside Chats. The president gave these talks live, sitting near a White House fireplace – though it wasn’t lit. Now, to our modern ears, FDR may not sound particularly chatty. But to radio listeners in 1933, this broadcast was a revelation. Before the invention of microphones, PA systems and radio transmitters, politicians had to shout to be heard. Literally.
Bruce Miroff: Therefore the speaking style is very forceful, aggressive, loud.
Bruce Miroff is a political scientist who has written about FDR.
Miroff: What radio allowed and the fireside chats demonstrated was a different possibility that had never been possible before. A president speaking in a quiet, regular, slow tone. With a communal message.
FDR: The success of our whole national program depends, of course, upon the cooperation of the public — on its intelligent support and its use of a reliable system.
Miroff: This is a population where the percentage that has gone to college is probably below 10 percent. So that a simple language, a clear firm voice, is really designed for exactly the kind of audience that would have been listening in the 1930s.
FDR: I hope you can see, my friends, from this essential recital of what your government is doing… that there is nothing complex, or radical in the process.
Miroff: Even the opening “my friends” in so many of the Fireside Chats, was an argument about intimacy, about connection and really about, “We are all in this together.”
FDR: I can assure you my friends that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.
Roosevelt’s words and confidence convinced the frightened nation. When banks reopened the morning after his Fireside Chat,bdeposits outnumbered withdrawals. And when the stock market reopened, Wall Street chalked up its greatest single-day increase in history. Eleanor Roosevelt later explained that her husband came by his radio skills naturally.
ER: That was a gift. It was a God-given gift. He could simplify in words complicated situations and solutions. And could talk to people so they felt he was talking to them individually. People, now, say to me, in streetcars, in trains: “Oh, I miss your husband’s voice in my living room. He told me about my government.”
Listeners often asked Roosevelt to do Fireside Chats monthly or even weekly. But the President gave only two or three a year, on average. He wanted the Chats to be an event, so people would be eager to tune in. And they were.
Susan Dunn: It was exciting to listen to him.
Historian Susan Dunn is a professor of leadership studies.
Dunn: In fact there’s a famous story that on a summer evening, if the Fireside Chat was on the radio, there was no air conditioning so the windows in people’s apartments were all open, and so you could walk down the street and not miss a word of the Fireside Chat. So people wanted to listen to him and they needed to listen to him.
If FDR was proving to be a new kind of president in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt would indisputably be a new kind of First Lady. As a young woman she had been shy and self-conscious. But after marrying Franklin and having children she became involved in home-front relief during World War One, and afterwards in the international peace movement. By the time FDR was elected governor, she had become a force of her own in national democratic politics.
Allida Black: Eleanor was a formidable political figure in her own right.
Historian Allida Black is the founding editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers project.
Black: and so her challenge when she goes into the white house is to learn how to be effective for her husband’s agenda, which she supports, and do it in a way that does not undermine his standing with the general public, who know that FDR was in a wheelchair.
FDR lost the use of his legs when he contracted polio at the age of 39. In public, he wore leg braces and gripped a cane or the arm of an aide or family member to maneuver short distances. In private he used a wheel chair. So Eleanor was often a substitute for her husband. But she was not a natural-born public speaker.
ER: If the women are willing to do things because it’s going to help heir neighbors, I think we’ll win out.
Henry Morgenthau: Eleanor Roosevelt was a terrible speaker, had a terrible voice, which everyone loved to make fun of.
The late Henry Morgenthau III produced some of Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio programs. The first lady worked with voice coaches to improve her speaking style, which Morgenthau says did get better over time.
Morgenthau: And she was effective. But she was not a natural, certainly in broadcasting, as FDR was.
Not perhaps as natural, but nonetheless attractive to radio networks and advertisers. In December 1932, three months before FDR even took office, the Ponds Cold Cream Company signed up Eleanor Roosevelt to give a series of 13 talks on subjects of interest to women. She made a blunder in the first broadcast. Her subject was the “the girl of today.” The first lady said today’s girls had less supervision, and more access to alcohol.
ER [actor]: In my day, very few girls drank anything beyond a glass of wine at home.
This is not Eleanor Roosevelt’s actual voice. Her shows were aired live and there are no recordings of her earliest broadcasts, but the scripts survive, read here by an actor. Eleanor Roosevelt observed that in her day, boys never carried a flask of alcohol to parties and girls were not pressured to drink.
ER [actor]: But Prohibition seems to have changed that to a certain extent. So that the average girl of today faces the problem of learning, very young, how much she can drink of such things as whiskey and gin and sticking to the proper quantity.
Prohibition was still in effect at the time, and the first lady meant to say that banning alcohol was backfiring. But she outraged many listeners. Letters poured in.
[Sound of manual typewriter]
Woman’s voice: To Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt: We are wholly unable to understand how there can be a ‘proper quantity’ of ‘whiskey or gin’ or any other alcoholic beverage. Signed: 22 average girls, Chattanooga Tennessee.
[Sound of manual typewriter]
Woman’s voice: Topeka, Kansas. To advocate an open door to the use of intoxicants is the most astonishing statement yet made by a woman whose husband has been elected to the highest office in the land.
There were also many letters and telegrams of support.
[Sound of manual typewriter]
Man’s voice: Wichita, Kansas: This is to congratulate you on the fearless words in characterizing prohibition.
On the remaining 12 broadcasts Eleanor Roosevelt did for Pond’s cold cream, she stuck to safer subjects, such as raising children, and whether chaperones had gone out of style. Still, she was accused of cashing in on her role as first lady. When the series ended in 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt pledged she was done with commercial broadcasting. But she wasn’t.
[MUSIC: “Flying Home”]
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House coincided with the rise of radio as a mass medium and the rise of American celebrity culture. Movie and radio stars filled popular new magazines. Crooners, vaudeville performers, comedians, all rode the radio airwaves.
[Radio program medley – Boston Blackie, Lone Ranger, Jack Benny]
Nearly half of all American homes owned a radio when FDR took office in ’32. By 1940, almost every home had one. Historian Susan Smulyan writes about radio’s past. She says that during the Depression, radio offered welcome diversion. And you only had to pay for it once.
Susan Smulyan: You didn’t have to buy a movie ticket every week. Or pay to see a vaudeville show. It’s one expense and then you’re done. And you can – it’s amazing what will come into your home.
And radio offered more than entertainment. There were many programs devoted to high-minded discussion and practical information.
Announcer: No more appropriate place could be found for a discussion of the subject, “what does democracy mean?” than our own Town Hall in New York City, the home of America’s Town Meeting of the Air…
Announcer: The National Farm and Home hour. Once again the nation’s bulletin board of agriculture is one the air, coast to coast.
Announcer: Citizen of the world! [MUSIC]
Susan Ware: I think sometimes today, when we’re so connected all the time, we forget how revolutionary having a radio in your home would have been.
Historian Susan Ware has written about the Roosevelts and radio history. She says radio in the 1930s was influential everywhere, but especially for people living in smaller and more remote communities.
Ware: And it connected these lives, which previously had been isolated and on their own, with developments throughout the world, with news, with ideas, with books, with personalities, and it must have been mind expanding.
These were the people FDR set out to reach through the radio. Political scientist Bruce Miroff points to one of the broadcasts where FDR made that clear.
Miroff: And he talks about how he remembers being in his study and how he imagined the American people. And he talks about the workers.
FDR: I saw the workmen in the mills, the mines, the factories; the girl behind the counter; the small shopkeeper; the farmer doing his spring plowing; the widows and the old men.
Eleanor Roosevelt also told her 1930s radio audience how she imagined them. Her script is read here by an actor.
ER: As I have talked to you I have tried to realize that way up in the high mountain farms of Tennessee, on lonely ranches on the Texas plains, in thousands and thousands of homes, there are women listening to what I say. Listening and weighing my words against their own experiences. It seems impossible, incredible that this is true. And yet I know it is true because from many of these same isolated homes will come in a few days letters, sometimes telling me I have helped them, sometimes disagreeing with my view of life.
Americans responded to the broadcasts by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by sending an unprecedented tide of mail and telegrams to the White House. In 1933, she got 300,000 letters and postcards. A Fireside Chat could generate more than that in a week. Hoover got 800 letters a day. Roosevelt got 8,000.
Male voice: Oakland California. Dear Mr. Roosevelt, I just listened to your talk on the radio. It made me feel as though you were really one of us – a man that you could say to: “Come on, here’s a can of worms, let’s go fishing.” A regular guy.
Woman’s voice: Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: It is inspiring to know we have as our First Lady one so really great and influential, who is so kindhearted.
Woman’s voice: Seattle Washington. Dear Mr. President: The ordinary people with whom I came in contact showed new faith and courage after listening to your words.
Woman’s voice: Bruce, South Dakota. Dear Madam. I am a poor mother with 10 children and I have no way of making a living. I have an old clock in good running order. I was wondering if you knew of some rich old gentleman who would buy it to help me out.
Man’s voice: Prospect, Ohio. Dear Sir Your latest piece of glorified propaganda – miscalled a “fireside chat” – was disheartening and sickening.
Man’s voice: Toledo, Ohio: Dear madam: Now we have a blueblood society lady, in a patronizing voice, giving us all kinds of advice. What an uplift this has been.
FDR was delighted by the mail he got. He considered it a “perfect index” to the moods and minds of the electorate. If the volume dropped, he worried he was losing touch with the people. Bruce Miroff says that before Franklin Roosevelt took office, Americans did not have such an intimate relationship with the First Family.
Miroff: For most people the federal government itself and the president were somewhat distant. Figures closer at hand – mayors, governors -were more vital in people’s lives.
It’s not just that the president and his wife were showing up in people’s living rooms. Under FDR, the federal government itself would grow more present in people’s lives. FDR had pledged a New Deal that everyday Americans would get from their government. The New Deal included programs to hire millions of unemployed workers to build parks, schools, bridges and airports. There were programs to help struggling farmers, to bring electricity to rural homes, even to support out-of-work artists and writers. FDR’s opponents warned that these programs would be exploited by chiselers and frauds. In a 1935 Fireside Chat, FDR asked Americans to help make sure that didn’t happen.
FDR: My friends, the most effective means of preventing such evils in this work relief program will be the eternal vigilance of the American people themselves. I call upon my fellow citizens everywhere to cooperate with me in making this the most efficient and the cleanest example of public enterprise the world has ever seen.
Dunn: He tells citizens, feel free to criticize. Tell me where the work can be done better…
Historian Susan Dunn.
Dunn: He’s really involving citizens in this project and the New Deal, and wanting them to be active. Wanting them to feel the New Deal belongs to them and they’re partially responsible for it. And in a way it also illustrates not top-down government but government from the people and by the people.
FDR: It is time to provide a smashing answer for those cynical men who say that a democracy cannot be honest and efficient. If you will help, this can be done.
[MUSIC: “Rain Check”]
In 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt began a new series of commercial broadcasts, first for a mattress company, then for a trade group representing typewriter companies. She gave talks on the challenges of working women, on educating children and on fostering world peace. The sponsors paid handsomely.
Black: She wanted women to make money and she wanted women’s voices to be heard.
Historian Allida Black.
Black: I mean she was one of the most popular people in the United States. And the most hated. She was paid top dollar because she was a draw.
Eleanor Roosevelt donated her radio earnings to charities such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Women’s Trade Union League. The first lady also had a widely-syndicated daily newspaper column called “My Day.” Some of FDR’s advisors, who were mostly men, privately wished the first lady were a more conventional White House hostess. But as Eleanor Roosevelt said in a later interview, the president supported her professional work.
ER: Now he never asked me, in all the years we were in the White House, or in Albany, he never asked me not to do anything. But I remember once sending him a column because I thought I touched on something controversial the he might think was harmful. And I got it back with one word changed. And a simple little note: “This word seems to me less antagonistic.”
Historians say that FDR, in fact, encouraged Eleanor Roosevelt to voice her opinions. Theirs was a complex relationship. In 1918, Eleanor discovered that Franklin had been unfaithful. They stayed married, but developed separate sets of friends and lived almost parallel lives. Still, they developed a strong political partnership. They both came from privileged families, yet both felt an abiding concern for the lives of common folk. His pragmatism sometimes clashed with her idealistic faith in democracy. But they respected each other. They were proud of each other’s achievements. Historian Allida Black says Eleanor Roosevelt helped her husband mold public views and build support for New Deal programs.
Black: And so she uses radio as a way to not only celebrate programs that the New Deal has implemented, but also to sort of subtly push the New Deal to address the area that she thinks get short shrift.
Many of the First Lady’s radio topics had nothing to do with government policy, but they were still good politics, because they built good will for the president.
Announcer: This is Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s own program presented by Sweetheart Soap.
Eleanor Roosevelt regularly invited her listeners to mail in questions for her to answer on her radio shows. In 1940, she had a series of programs on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. By this time she was veteran at the microphone, having done more than a hundred radio broadcasts. This is an actual recording of the program from June 4th.
ER: Your most frequent requests are for information about the White House, how it runs, how the many tasks are divided, and a host of other details.
Listeners were fascinated to hear a first-hand account of how Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt lived. The nation was still recovering from the Depression in 1940, so frugality with the taxpayer’s dollar was a natural topic.
ER: In housekeeping for the White House, there’s more than just shopping and marketing. You have to keep the accounts, and those are the most complicated kind of bookkeeping. Everything has to be kept in detail so that you know just what every meal costs per person and you know just where to charge it, because of course, as you know, there is a division between the personal expenses of the president and his family, and state expenses.
It was a touch ironic that Eleanor Roosevelt broadcast so frequently about domestic life in the White House, because she spent much of her time away from the executive mansion. She travelled extensively to see first-hand how people were coping with the economic crisis, to give speeches and attend conferences. Time magazine suggested she used the White House “less as a home than as a base of operations.”
As the 1930s gave way to the ’40s, there was a new crisis for the Roosevelts to deal with and so the White House became the base for a new set of political operations: preparing the United States for the looming threat of world war. Radio would become more important than ever.
This is Stephen Smith. You’re listening to The First Family of Radio. Coming up:
FDR: The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory. [Applause]
To hear many of the original Roosevelt broadcasts, to see photographs from the era and learn more about this story, visit our website at American RadioWorks,org. You’ll find other documentaries on American history and a wide range of topics. You can also subscribe to our weekly podcast. That’s American RadioWorks.org. Our program continues in just a moment from APM, American Public Media.
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, The First Family of Radio. I’m Stephen Smith. This program is about how Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt used radio to revolutionize the way Americans relate to the president, to the first lady, and to the federal government. We pick up our story in London, England. It is August, 1940.
Edward R. Murrow: This is Trafalgar Square. The noise that you hear at the moment is the sound of the air raid sirens.
CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow described the attack of the German air force on London. The city was in total blackout.
Murrow: A searchlight just burst into action. A single beam sweeping the sky above me now.
For 57 consecutive days and nights, German warplanes bombed the British capitol, killing some more than 20,000 people in what became known as The Blitz.
Hitler: [Speaking German] [Applause]
By autumn 1940, Adolph Hitler’s Wehrmacht had already conquered Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. But the United States was still officially neutral.
On December 29th, 1940, FDR delivered one of his most memorable Fireside Chats. He wanted support for a plan to aid Great Britain. No American troops would go overseas. But the U.S. would supply ships, ammunition and war materiel.
FDR: We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.
Congress approved Roosevelt’s plan. An opinion poll showed that a majority of American supported military aid to Britain. But almost 90 percent were against U.S. troops actually joining the fight. One of the leading spokesmen for Isolationists was an aviator and national hero.
Announcer: WOR’s special features division has placed the following half hour period at the disposal of Charles A. Lindberg, who is about to speak before an America First Committee Rally at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Charles Lindberg: We are assembled here tonight because we believe in an independent destiny for America. [Applause]
Lindberg: That the future of America will not be tied to these endless wars in Europe… [Applause]
Both Franklin and Eleanor battled the isolationists on radio. They thought Hitler was set on world domination, and the US would eventually be a target. To be ready, Congress approved the first peacetime draft in the nation’s history. In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt began a new nationally-broadcast series of prime-time radio programs on NBC. On this program, journalist George Hicks interviewed her.
GH: But Mrs. Roosevelt, what would be your answer to those in the Middle West who feel themselves geographically secure from attack from Europe or Asia?
ER: Well, suppose we forget temporarily about the traditional way of fighting a war and think about the possibility of a new kind of war. Suppose Hitler is able to subdue the whole of Europe, including Great Britain. That would give him control of the seas and the ability to produce ships, both for war and for commerce, far beyond our own ability to do so. If Hitler controls the seas, he can out-build us, and we need no further proof of his organizing ability. He would control as slaves a great number of people, and he can undersell us. If we cannot out-build and out-train the waves of men and machines that come over, we eventually are going under.
The question of American involvement in the war against fascism was settled on a December Sunday in 1941.
[MUSIC: “Sunday Serenade” – Sammy Kaye]
Sammy Kaye’s Sunday Serenade was on NBC. A station in New York aired a football game between the Giants and the Dodgers.
Announcer: He’s hit and hit hard about the 27 yard line.
Announcer: We interrupt this program to bring you this important Bulletin from the United Press. Flash! Washington! The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stay tuned to WOR for further developments, which will be broadcast immediately as received.
At the White House, the president met in emergency session with his cabinet, as well as military and political aides. The surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Naval base killed some 2,400 American military personnel and dealt a heavy blow to the Pacific fleet. America went to battle stations.
Announcer: All coast artillery officer and soldiers of the harbor defenses are ordered to report to their stations immediately. All leaves and furloughs are cancelled by order of the commanding general.
In his office, President Roosevelt dictated to his secretary the date of infamy speech he would deliver to Congress the next day. Across the hall, the first lady was preparing for her regular Sunday broadcast, rewriting her script to account for the day’s news. Eleanor Roosevelt went on the air at 6:45 PM.
Announcer: Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
ER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am speaking to you to- night at a very serious moment in our history. The cabinet is convening and the leaders in Congress are meeting with the president. The State Department and Army and Navy officials have been with the president all afternoon. By tomorrow morning, the members of Congress will have a full report and be ready for action. In the meantime we, the people, are already prepared for action. For months now, the knowledge that something of this kind might happen has been hanging over our heads. And yet it seemed impossible to believe, impossible to drop the everyday things of life and feel that there was only one thing which was important: preparation to meet an enemy, no matter where he struck. That is all over now and there is no more uncertainty. We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it. I should like to say just a word to the women in the country tonight. I have a boy at sea on a destroyer. For all I know he may be on his way to the Pacific. Two of my children are in coast cities on the Pacific. Many of you all over this country have boys in the services who will now be called upon to go into action. You have friends and families in what has suddenly become a danger zone. You cannot escape anxiety. You cannot escape a clutch of fear at your heart. And yet I hope that the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears. We must go about our daily business more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can. And when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it. Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America. To the young people of the nation, I must speak a word tonight. You are going to have a great opportunity. There will be high moments in which your strength and your ability will be tested. I have faith in you! I feel as though I was standing upon a rock. And that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens. Now we will go back to the program which we had arranged for tonight.
It was a remarkable broadcast. With America under attack, the public heard first not from their president but from his wife. Historian Allida Black says the president knew how enormously popular the first lady was with the American public.
Black: The country needed to hear somebody. And so it was I think a perfect example of their partnership. The White House very much understood what an asset Eleanor’s media skills could be. And they certainly understood the amazing following that she had.
Announcer: Now the president has taken his position at the clerk’s desk. In a few moments he will be introduced to this historic joint session of congress.
On Monday afternoon, FDR delivered one of the most famous speeches in presidential history.
FDR: Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
He asked Congress for a declaration of war.
FDR: The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.
Within half an hour, Congress declared war. American radio went to war too. The Roosevelt administration created an Office of War Information, with a radio division to produce patriotic programs that the networks agreed to carry free of charge.
Announcer: This is a program of the United States Treasury, your Treasury … You save and serve when you buy war bonds.
Announcer: Our special guests Humphrey Bogart and Charlie McCarthy!
Humphrey Bogart: It means that 15 million bonds must be sold in order to back the attack. And we cannot afford to fail.
Announcer 3: Listen America! Trains and buses are swamped with servicemen and supplies. Is your trip necessary? Be an American! Stay home yourself and help our soldiers and sailors get home for Christmas.
Radio historian Jason Loviglio says the Office of War Information also generated specific home-front messages to be slipped into the most popular programs on the air.
Radio: Fibber McGee and Molly, written by Don Quinn and music by the King’s Men and Billy Mill’s Orchestra.
Jason Loviglio: So that an episode of Fibber McGee and Molly, which centers on Fibber’s resentment of war rationing, was in fact part of a plan to get Americans thinking more sympathetically about the importance of the war ration program.
Fibber McGee: I’m talking about this mileage rationing. I think it’s a dirty deal. The whole thing is silly. Gonna make everybody stay at home. Why in two years a guy from Indiana won’t know what a guy from Kansas is talking about. [Laughter]
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt also used their own radio broadcasts to lift the nation’s spirits. In the first months of the war the U.S. and its allies suffered defeat after defeat in battles across the world. FDR gave a fireside chat to boost public morale.
FDR: This war is a new kind of war. It is different from all other wars of the past, not only in its methods and weapons but also in its geography.
In advance of the president’s talk, Americans had been encouraged to bring a world map to have by their radio. Map sales soared. More than 60 million people tuned in – nearly half the population.
FDR: It is warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air-lane in the world. That is the reason why I have asked you to take out and spread before you a map of the whole earth, and to follow with me in the references which I shall make to the world-encircling battle lines of this war.
FDR used the map to show listeners just how big and mighty the allied nations were. And he declared that all Americans were ready to fight for ideals and freedoms larger than any individual. Listeners responded.
[Sound of manual typewriter]
Man’s voice: February 24, 1942. Bridgeport, Connecticut. Just heard your speech. It cheered me up. Received notice today that my son was killed in service of the United States at Pearl Harbor.
[Sound of manual typewriter]
Woman’s voice: Waterbury, Connecticut. I heard your speech over the radio. I am a widow with 2 sons I love dearly. But I would gladly give them to the army after I heard your talk tonight.
In the tense weeks following Pearl Harbor, Franklin made a decision Eleanor privately opposed. He ordered the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific coast. They were seen as potential spies and saboteurs. Eleanor Roosevelt was fierce believer in human rights and she argued against internment. But when it became administration policy, she supported it on the air.
ER: It is obvious that many people who are friendly aliens may have to suffer temporarily in order to ensure the safety of the vital interests of this country while at war. We are going to move the Japanese population out of strategic areas on the West Coast as soon as possible, but it is going to be done so that they will not waste their skills.
Ware: I think the Japanese internment was one of the hardest issues that she had to deal with.
Historian Susan Ware.
Ware: From everything we know about Eleanor Roosevelt, her sensitive to human rights and civil rights, the whole idea of arbitrarily interning a whole range of Japanese Americans on the west coast solely because of their ethnicity, would be abhorrent to her.
So the first lady worked behind the scenes to improve conditions in the camps and hasten the day the internees could be released. After FDR’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt said internment had been a mistake. But that in wartime, she backed her husband.
ER: I don’t think that the wife of a president should, ever forget that it is he who is doing the important job. And whatever she does must be of help to that job.
When Eleanor Roosevelt’s NBC series came to an end, she ceased doing her own commercial broadcasts for the duration of the war. But she was on other radio programs frequently supporting the war effort. FDR was also on the air, discouraging strikes, explaining overseas battles, and exhorting the home front to do its part.
FDR: I want to talk to you about rubber – about rubber and the war -about rubber and the American people.
The president made this broadcast in 1942. Rubber was a vital war material – for vehicle tires, gas masks and the like. The Japanese had captured the main rubber supplying nations in the Far East. So, FDR asked the people to drop all their excess rubber off at collection points.
FDR: And here are two simple rules for this rubber emergency. First, turn in all the old rubber – anywhere and everywhere. Second, cut the use of your car – save its tires by driving slowly and driving less. I know the United States will respond.
And the people did. They collected old tires, hot water bottles, raincoats and garden hoses. One enthusiastic citizen mailed her rubber girdle to the White House.
[MUSIC: “Dawn Patrol”]
Franklin and Eleanor made dozens of radio broadcasts during the war years. There were Red Cross fund drives, Christmas Eve messages, awards ceremonies and above all, programs encouraging national unity. On the evening of June 5th, 1944, President Roosevelt made a fireside chat about a critical Allied victory.
FDR: My friends, yesterday, on June 4th, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go!
Two meaning Berlin and Tokyo. As FDR made this broadcast, Allied forces were steaming across the English Channel towards the French coast of Normandy. Of course the president said nothing about it, but the D-Day invasion was already underway. Americans would learn the news the next morning by radio.
[Sound of news alert]
News: Ladies and gentlemen. We may be approaching a fateful hour. All night long bulletins have been pouring in from Berlin claiming that D-Day is here. Claiming that the invasion of Western Europe has begun.
And on national radio that day, the first lady made a short address to the women of the country encouraging them to stay calm and resolute. The President offered a six-minute prayer.
FDR: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day they’ve set upon a mighty endeavor. A struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization.
Had the listeners known, they might have offered a prayer for FDR himself. The president’s health was declining, he had less than a year to live.
ER: Beginning in the late summer of 1944 my husband began to look very, very tired. And many of us were very worried. However, he had a meeting of a number of doctors who looked him over with great care. And they told him that if he would obey certain rules he could without question go on in the presidency for another four years.
In fact one of the president’s physicians wrote a secret memo saying just the opposite. FDR had hardening of the arteries and dangerously high blood pressure. Yet for ten demanding months, the president pressed on, and the Allies pushed closer to victory.
Announcer: On the American frontier with the western family and Daniel Boone in the exciting days following the American Revolution….
News: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin from CBS world news. A press association has just announced that President Roosevelt is dead. The president died of a cerebral hemorrhage. All we know so far is that the president died at Warm Springs in Georgia.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in his cottage at Warm Springs, a rehabilitation center for polio patients that he founded. The date was April 12th 1945.
[Sound of funeral procession, drums]
The president’s casket was carried by special, slow moving train from Georgia to Washington, DC. All along the way, grieving citizens turned out to pay respects.
Announcer: Crowds are lining Constitution Avenue from here at the track side to the White House where this procession ends.
Less than a month later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the Allies were victorious in Europe. The atomic bombing and defeat of Japan came in August. On both occasions, Eleanor Roosevelt made a short, simple radio address on behalf of her husband.
After a period of mourning, Eleanor Roosevelt returned to public life and to radio. As world war gave way to a cold war with the Soviet Union, her broadcasts concentrated on America’s obligation to keep the peace and preserve democratic freedoms around the globe. In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt launched a daily ABC radio current affairs show co-hosted with her 42-year old daughter Anna.
Anna Roosevelt: Now what do you think mother are the dangers of allowing foreigners to come into this country?
ER: I think we ought to divide the way foreigners come in. There’s a big group now that ought to come in from displaced persons camps in Europe. Many of them are people who have suffered because they’ve left their countries, which are now USSR dominated.
In 1951, Eleanor Roosevelt had a program on WNBC in New York. .
ER: I think we talk so much about communism and being against it. We don’t talk so much about being for democracy, and how are we living it. … Because after all, you never win against an idea except with another idea.
In the 1950s and early ’60s…television took the place of radio as the nation’s electronic hearth. Eleanor Roosevelt appeared frequently on TV and had several of her own shows. She remained a prominent political figure in the US and around the world until her death in 1962 at the age 78. Opinion polls at the time, and for years to come, ranked Eleanor Roosevelt as the most admired woman in America.
The towering personalities of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt set a new standard for how to talk with the American people. Every president and first lady to follow has worked in the light of their example. They mastered the new medium of radio just as it caught fire all across the country. But in the hundreds of radio broadcasts reviewed for this program, they only appeared together on the air once as a couple. It was at a national teacher’s convention in New York City in 1938.
ER: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the president of the United States.
FDR: I am glad to come here today to this great meeting. And I am especially happy, and I think for the first time in my life, I was introduced by my wife. [Laughter and applause]
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt each had a following and each had powerful political personalities. But to most Americans they were also Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt – a political team like none ever to occupy the White House. But they never reached into American homes, as a couple, in the kind of intimate broadcast they both specialized in separately. They never sat down together by the radio fireside.
The First Family of Radio was produced by me Stephen Smith, with Kate Ellis. It was edited by Catherine Winter. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Dylan Peers McCoy, Minna Zhou, Manda Lille, Samara Freemark, Emily Hanford, Laurie Stern, Peter Clowney, and Ellen Guettler. Mo Perry Was the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt. Special thanks to Brian Horrigan and Maurine Beasleyas well as Kohnstamm Communications. Support for this program was provided in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Roosevelt Institute.
You can download this program and listen to a collection of original Roosevelt broadcasts at our website, American Radioworks dot org. We also have transcripts, photographs from the era and more. You’ll also find other documentaries on American history and a wide range of topics. And you can subscribe to our weekly podcast. That’s American RadioWorks-dot-org. This is APM, American Public Media.