Fireside Chats: Leading a Nation in Crisis by Ambassador vanden Heuvel

On Sunday evening, March 12, 1933, the President of the United States went on the radio to discuss with the American people what had happened in the week since he had been inaugurated. This speech, the first of 28 similar opportunities to talk directly to Americans, came to be known as Fireside Chats.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had come to the presidency in the fourth year of the Great Depression, the most catastrophic economic event in the history of the nation. As he spoke that evening, 25 percent of working America was unemployed. The farmers were destitute. Speculation, excesses and greed had made the stock market a casino. The banks had been a willing partner in promising an era of prosperity that would never end. Instead, their vast inventory of stocks, of loans undermined by foreclosures, of unparalleled business bankruptcies across the nation had caused the nation's governors to close practically all of the banks in anticipation of what President Roosevelt might do to restore confidence in the financial system. There were no jobs, savings were wiped out and, worst of all, hope had been lost. Everyone was its victim. Senior citizens found themselves on bread lines and homeless. The poor had nowhere to turn. Capitalism had failed. It was a time of fear and despair.

Franklin Roosevelt used the radio masterfully. In 1933, the United States was a country of 130 million people. Radio was just at its beginning in becoming the most powerful method of communication. In the 1920's great events were beginning to be heard on radio -- election returns, inaugurals, Lindberg's crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the stars of silent films found themselves without an audience when their voices were actually heard, so in politics and public discourse new voices and personalities emerged.

There were those who used the radio to mesmerize, even encouraging hysteria -- the dictators, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini used the radio in a compelling way that kept their countrymen in line and sent chills throughout the rest of the world. But FDR was determined to use the radio as an instrument of democracy as he had while Governor of New York, reporting to the people and discussing with them in a rational, uncomplicated way the issues that directly affected their lives.

President Roosevelt's voice was strong, confident, relaxed or compelling as the circumstances required. He spoke directly and simply. His listeners understood every word. The radio gave him an opportunity to go into the living rooms of millions of people to do what he did best, to share his thoughts, to listen, to cause Americans to know that he was aware of their most important concerns.

As never before, Americans wanted to hear their President's voice.

On this 80th anniversary day it is important to listen to President Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat. It was about the banking crisis. He explained in terms comprehensible to all of us what the purpose of the banks was and how the financial system worked. By the end of the evening on March 12, millions of Americans had heard a president describe the impact of the collapse of the banks and his assurance that it was all being put back together.

The response was extraordinary. Deposits instead of withdrawals became the order of the day and the American business community, the banking community, as well as working people across the country understood that we now had a president who would confront problems by making the people his partners. With candor and courage he had spoken to them. The radio had brought the president into the homes of countless millions.

Those who heard him never forgot the experience. I was one of them. During the years of the Depression as a small boy I remember sitting in the living room with my parents who had suffered the consequences at every level of the Depression. There was a solemnity as the radio was turned on and the announcer spoke the simple words: the President of the United States. And then came the strong, confident, softly powerful voice.

Twenty-eight times during his presidency Franklin Roosevelt used the Fireside Chat to discuss problems of our economy, national security, constitutional crises, and the war. Americans repaid his confidence in them by electing him four times as President of the United States.

The Fireside Chats were crucial in causing the public to have confidence that its government would lead the economy out of the Great Depression. One wonders why in the years of crisis through which we have just lived, our leaders were so reluctant to use a proven method of communication to allow those who had lost their jobs, their homes, their savings to understand that their government understood their plight and that lessons we had learned in even more difficult times would continue to be applicable in restoring our faith and confidence in the country's future.

Listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat on the banking crisis here.