Address to Youth


By FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, President of the United States Delivered to the American Youth Congress at Washington, D. C., February 11, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 294-297.

FELLOW CITIZENS: You who are attending this institute, whose primary aim is to obtain further knowledge of the democratic processes of American government, you are very welcome at the White House today. The same welcome is open to all citizens, or prospective citizens, or junior citizens, all who believe in the form of government under which the United States has been living with reasonable success for more than a century and a half. And I think that some of us have in the back of our heads the fact that if we had a different form of government this kind of a meeting on the White House lawn couldn't take place.

In saying this I am not denying to you or anybody else in any way the rights of free assemblage, of free petition, of free speech—nor am I precluding the right of any Americans, old people or young people, to advocate improvements and change in the operation of the government of the United States on one very simple condition: that all of you conform to the constitutional processes of change and improvement provided by the Constitution of the United States itself.

It's a good thing, it's a grand thing that you young people are interested enough in government to come to Washington for a Youth Citizenship Institute, because one of the hardest problems today is the indifference of so many people to the details and the facts of the functioning of their own government.

I have said on many occasions that the greatest achievement of the past seven years in the United States has been not the saving of the nation from economic chaos, not the great series of laws to avert destitution and to improve our social standards, but that it has been the awakening of many millions of American men and women to an understanding of their own government—local and State and FederalIt is a fact that in every community, large and small, people are taking a greater interest in decent government, in forward-looking government than ever before, and incidentally that the words of Lincoln in regard to fooling people are infinitely more true today than they were in the Eighteen-Sixties.

These past ten years have proved certain obvious facts— some negative and some positive. We know that the prosperity in the Twenties, and a good many of you remember them, the prosperity of the Twenties can properly be compared to the prosperity of the Mississippi bubble days beforethe bubble burst—when everybody was money-mad, when the money changers owned the temple, when the nation as a whole forgot the restraint of decent ethics and simple morals, and when the government in Washington gave completely free rein to what they called individual liberty, gave completely free rein to the virtual ownership of government itself by the so-called best minds—best minds which wholly controlled our finances and our economics, and forgot our social problems.

During those ten years you cannot find a single statute enacted for the restraint of excesses, enacted for the good, the betterment of the permanent security of the individual. That is a straight-from-the-shoulder fact, a sad fact, which the American public fortunately has not forgotten.

It is also a simple straight fact that in 1930, 1931 and 1932, those years saw the collapse and the disintegration of the philosophy of the Twenties, followed in February and the first three days of March, 1933, by an acknowledgment on the part of those who had been the leaders that they could no longer carry on.

Just by way of further illustration of the fact that we have been making progress since those dark days, not as great progress, of course, as we want or think, but just by way of illustration, let me repeat certain comparisons that I gave the other day at a press conference, comparisons between 1932 and 1939. These facts were misstated and twisted by many newspapers and by some politicians seeking office. Because of this and because I am on a national hook-up, I repeat the figures.

Now let's see. The national income from all sources has increased from $40,000,000,000 in 1932 to $68,500,000,000 in 1939—in other words plus 71 per cent.

Wages and salaries have increased from from $2,400,000,000 in December, 1932, to $3,888,000,000 in December, 1939—plus 62 per cent.

Weekly factory payrolls increased from $80,000,000 in December, 1932, to $197,000,000 in December, 1939—plus 145 per cent.

Cash farm income increased from four-billion-seven in '32 to seven-billion-seven in '39 and with the addition of farm benefits payments of over eight-hundred-million to a total of eight and a half billion dollars or plus 82 per cent.

Dividends of corporations—most of you, most of us, don't get many of them, but never mind—dividends of corporations received by individuals increased from two-billion-seven-hundred-and-fifty-million dollars in '32 to four-billion-two-hundred-and-fifty-million dollars in '39—plus 55 per cent.

Now it is true, as you and I know, that our population has gone up since that time 6 or 7 per cent, but where twenty-seven-million people were employed in non-agricultural pursuits in December, '32, thirty-five-million people were similarly employed in '39—a gain of 28 per cent.

You have heard of certain local or special opposition to our foreign trade policy—listen to this: our exports, that means goods that we made and sold outside the country, our exports for the calendar year of '32 were worth a billion-six-hundred-million, but in '39 they had gone up to nearly three-billion-two-hundred-million—an increase of 97 per cent.

I am repeating these figures on the air because not one citizen in a hundred read them in the papers last Tuesday morning. Furthermore, as I remarked last Monday, interest received by individuals—that doesn't mean wages or salaries, it means interest on loans—this past year in '39 interest so received has gone down 9 per cent since 1932. Now, I'm proud of that and I'll tell you why. Because it means thatthe exorbitant interest rates on mortgages and on loans of all kinds in 1932 have because of Federal action been reduced to a lower rate, a more humane rate, to people who had to borrow money for themselves individually or for themselves as participants in many varieties of business, and that's some achievement.

And, finally, I said last Monday—and this was the part that was most seriously mangled by certain types of papers and certain types of politicians—I said that the total debt of all of the people of the United States—private debt, State debt, local government debt and the Federal Government debt—was less in 1939 than it was in 1932. That's a simple fact—somewhere around two billion dollars less—and that in the face of an increase of our population of six or seven million people.

Why am I giving you these figures? First, to remove fears—fears which are subtly instilled in your minds by a propaganda of which you are well aware. The other day I saw an old friend, a little younger than I am but not much, who was born, if you like, with a silver spoon in his mouth; moving, if you like, in so-called social circles; but nevertheless a decent citizen who, while he has never held public office, has tried, I think with some success, to understand the tendencies of the times. And he said this to me, he said:

"I have come to the conclusion that there is no use in my trying to argue with certain types of the older generation because all they do is to hope, hope that some miracle will restore the period of thirty years ago, a period when they didn't have to think about social problems; a period when taxes on the very rich were comparatively low; a period when none of them were worrying about social security or the getting of jobs, or organized labor, or wages and hours, or the supervision of security offerings, or the regulation of the management of banks."

And he went on to say:

"I am past 50, but I recognize full well that those days, thank God, will never come again—and furthermore, that a great majority of the people today who want to see a liberal administration of government turned out and replaced by a conservative administration are really wishing, deep down in their hearts, for a return of the old social and economic philosophy of 1910."

And now some words of warning, or perhaps I should say of suggestion. The first is this: You good people, I am afraid, are getting pretty wet in this rain, and I hope very much that before your afternoon session your officers will give you a chance to go back to your rooms, and if you haven't got a spare change with you, to take off what you have got on and get it dried, because there is one thing we don't want out of this fine conference, and that is any cases of pneumonia.

Here's some more suggestions. To you who are voters and who will soon be voters, don't seek or expect Utopia overnight; don't seek or expect a panacea—some wonderful new law that will give to everybody who needs it a hand-out or a guarantee of permanent remunerative occupation of your own choosing.

I told one of your members a couple of weeks ago, somewhat to his surprise, that ever since I became Governor of New York in 1929 I have been receiving in every mail some sincere, honest proposal of some panacea. I have been receiving them, one a day, or two a day, or three a day, ever since. Now those plans were not put into the wastepaper basket.

They were all of them subjected to the closest study and scrutiny by honest liberals who have hoped that somebody, somewhere would hit on something that would save us all a lot of time and a lot of worry. But I am afraid that sofar, after these twelve years, that no such plan has come forth yet.

Take for example the question of the employment of old people and the employment of young people. You young people must remember that the problem of the older workers in America is just as difficult as yours—that when people alow up, when they have reached the age when one can reasonably expect no great improvement, no great new imagination in their work, those people find it very difficult to get a job. We have not solved the problem of older people, and yet the solution seems to me to be evolutionary and that evolution is proceeding very well.

We have made beginnings with the Old Age Pension Act, but we know it's only a beginning and that through the next ten years or twenty years that system must be greatly extended and greatly improved. Ham and eggs and other plans won't do it because they are all open to the simple objection that they either provide for the printing of a lot of paper called money, and that that money if you print too much of it will soon be worthless, or that they are based on some plan by which the whole burden of taking care of the aged will be placed on the shoulders of the younger workers.

In the case of jobs for young people, let me make it very clear in the beginning that it is not at all certain that your opportunities for employment are much worse today than they were for young people ten years, or twenty years, or thirty years ago. There were problems then just as there are today, but people didn't understand them, and under times of conservative government that we were having so often in those days, the problem never got a chance to be stated to the American people.

The problem of jobs for young people is vastly more difficult, of course, than it was a hundred years ago, because in 1840 the great open spaces of the West were crying aloud for willing hands, but today these Western frontiers are pretty well filled up.

Yes, you and I have a very distinct problem. For instance, you and I know that industrial production today calls for fewer hands per unit because of the improvement of machinery.

I have given you the figure showing that weekly payrolls in industry are 145 per cent bigger today than they were in December '32. That doesn't mean that 145 per cent more people are employed, obviously not. Fewer people are needed to produce the same volume of goods. And one of the things that disturbs me, just as it disturbs you greatly, is that in the present pick-up of industry it is too often cheaper for factory managers to work people overtime, even at time and a half or double pay, than it is to put on an extra third shift.

That's something that we have got to tackle, that problem, in these coming years.

It means, in effect, that we have not yet found a method of spreading employment to more people when good times come. It means, too, that we have not yet eliminated the terrific peaks and valleys of production and consumption. We have made gains.

We hope and believe that we have found the way to prevent, for example, a recurrence and the collapse that took place in the high point in '29 to the low point in February, '33.

We've not stopped the swing of the pendulum but we believe we have greatly circumscribed the width of the swing from one extreme to the other. That means more permanence of employment.

Therefore, I suggest again that on social and economic matters you and I are substantially in agreement as to the objective, but there are some of you who think that that objective can be obtained overnight. I don't. I do believe,

however, that all of us can make definite strides toward that objective if we retain a government which believes in the objective, believes in it wholeheartedly, and which is bent on working toward it as fast as the people of this country as a whole will let us. That in the long run is a reaffirmation of our faith in democracy.

One final word: Do not as a group pass resolutions on subjects which you have not thought through and on which you cannot possibly have complete knowledge. This business of passing resolutions at conventions of patriotic societies, of chambers of commerce, of manufacturers associations, of peace societies, yes, and of the youth congresses, is a perfectly legitimate American habit, just as it is a fact that there are many thousands, a great many thousands of organizations for almost every conceivable objective, organizations which are kept going unwittingly, on the part of most of the members, in order that some executive secretary, or legislative agent or lobbyist or other officer may find so-called useful employment.

Hence the floor of lobbyists in Washington, of special counsel, drawing big pay for doing nothing at all, of hired writers, people who literally infest the halls of Congress and the anterooms of all the agencies of the executive branch of the government today. And I am not forgetting some of the visitors who come to see the President himself.

I have in mind the type of organization which passes resolutions on some form, some matter of the utmost complexity, in the field, for example, of national defense, or international economics, some situation on which there may be not two opinions but a dozen, some situation on which the policy of the moment must be formed by those who have given deep study to every phase of the problem.

Such a decision ought not to be influenced by any gathering, old people or young people or anybody else, local or nation, which gets a smattering of the subject from two or three speakers who themselves have but a smattering of the subject themselves.

One of the big local American Youth Congress councils, I am told, took a decisive stand against the granting of some form of aid by loan or otherwise by America to Finland. Did that not on the ground that we are to spend the money here among our own needy and unemployed but on the ground that such action was "an attempt to force America into an imperialistic war."

My friends, that reason was unadulterated twaddle, unadulterated twaddle, based perhaps on sincerity, but at the same time on 90 per cent ignorance of what they were talking about. I can say this to you with a smile because many of you will recognize the inherent wisdom and truth of what I am saying.

Here is a small republic in northern Europe. A republic which without any question whatever wishes solely to maintain its own territorial and governmental integrity. Nobody with any pretense of common sense believes that Finland had any ulterior designs on the integrity or the safety of the Soviet Union.

That American sympathy is 98 per cent with the Finns in their effort to stave off invasion of their own soil. That American sympathy by now is axiomatic. That America wants to help them by lending or giving money to them to save their own lives is also axiomatic today. That the Soviet Union would, because of this, declare war on the United States is about the silliest thought that I ever heard advanced in the fifty-eight years of my life, and that we are going to war ourselves with the Soviet Union is an equally silly thought.

And therefore, while I have not the slightest objection in the world to the passing of resolutions by conventions, I do think there is room for improvement in common-sensethinking and definite room for improvement in the art of not passing resolutions concerning things one doesn't know anything about.

And so I suggest that all of you can smile with me on this subject, but please don't pass resolutions of that kind again.

More than twenty years ago, while most of you were pretty young children, I had the utmost sympathy for the Russian people. In the early days of communism I recognized that many leaders in Russia were bringing education and better health, and, above all, better opportunity to millions who had been kept in ignorance and serfdom under the imperial regime.

I disliked the regimentation of communism. I abhorred the indiscriminate killings of thousands of innocent victims. I heartily deprecated the banishment of religion—though I knew that some day Russia would return to religion for the simple reason that four or five thousand years of recorded history have proved to mankind that mankind has always believed in God, in spite of many abortive attempts to exile God.

And I, with many of you, hoped that Russia would work out its own problems and their government would eventually become a peace-loving, popular government with free ballot, a government that would not interfere with the integrity of its neighbors.

That hope is today either shattered or is put away in storage against some better day. The Soviet Union, as a matter of practical fact, as everybody knows, who has got the courage to face the fact, the practical fact known to you and known to all the world, is run by a dictatorship, adictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.

It has allied itself with another dictatorship and it has invaded a neighbor so infinitesimally small that it could do no conceivable, possible harm to the Soviet Union, a small nation that seeks only to live at peace as a democracy and a liberal forward-looking democracy at that.

It has been said that some of you are Communists. That is a very unpopular term today. As Americans you have a right, a legal and constitutional right, to call yourselves Communists, those of you who do. You have a right, peacefully and openly to advocate certain ideals of theoretical communism, but as Americans you have not only a right but a sacred duty to confine your advocacy of changes in law to the methods prescribed by the Constitution of the United States—and you have no American right, by act or deed of any kind, to subvert the government and the Constitution of this nation.

That, I am confident, receives the overwhelming support of the great majority of your organization and of every other organization of American youth. The things you and I represent are essentially the same and it will be your task, when I am gone from the scene, to carry on the fight for a continuance of liberal government, an improvement of its methods and the effectiveness of its work.

And above all, we must help those who have proved that they will try everlastingly to make things a little bit better for the people of our nation with each succeeding year. And so I say to you: Keep your ideals high, keep both feet on the ground and keep everlastingly at it.