Franklin D. Roosevelt on Americanism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The 1920 US presidential election was dominated by issues that arose at the end of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had led the nation into war and tried unsuccessfully to convince the United States to join the League of Nations. The economy struggled after the war, and labor conflict–at times in the form of strikes, riots, and even bombings–was widespread. Ethnic groups, such as Irish and German Americans felt that they had been mistreated and betrayed during the war, and immigrant groups came under greater scrutiny and suspicion as labor unrest and radical violence grew. As they mourned their dead and faced rising challenges at home, many Americans turned away from future involvement in international affairs.

Summary Overview

The 1920 US presidential election was dominated by issues that arose at the end of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, had led the nation into war and tried unsuccessfully to convince the United States to join the League of Nations. The economy struggled after the war, and labor conflict–at times in the form of strikes, riots, and even bombings–was widespread. Ethnic groups, such as Irish and German Americans felt that they had been mistreated and betrayed during the war, and immigrant groups came under greater scrutiny and suspicion as labor unrest and radical violence grew. As they mourned their dead and faced rising challenges at home, many Americans turned away from future involvement in international affairs.

In his speech “Americanism,” Democratic vice presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt argued that Americans should be proud of their role in the war and continue to work with the rest of the world to prevent future conflicts. His speech had the distinction of being one of the early political speeches recorded and distributed to the public as a gramophone record. The election of 1920 was the first to have its results broadcast on the radio, a technology still in its infancy and with a limited audience. Many more Americans had access to a gramophone than a radio in 1920, so to reach that audience, politicians recorded speeches for wide distribution before the election. The Columbia Gramophone Company released recordings of the speeches under the label Nation’s Forum. Roosevelt’s recorded speech, delivered in a studio rather than to an audience, was based on excerpts from his August 9, 1920, speech accepting his nomination as Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox’s running mate.

Defining Moment

The 1920 presidential election sparked a heated debate about what role the United States was to play internationally and what the concept of Americanism truly meant. Republican candidate Warren G. Harding of Ohio benefited from the backlash against Democratic president Wilson, who was seen as an interventionist and internationalist after his failed push for the United States to join the League of Nations. The Democrats had traditionally enjoyed the support of labor groups, but the party moved away from its support of labor as anarchist bombings, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and radical activism at home made the far left an increasingly uncomfortable ally. The Democrats also lost the support of many immigrants, especially German Americans, who felt that they had been mistreated and maligned during the war, and Irish Americans, who were angered by Wilson’s failure to support full sovereignty for Ireland. Because of those issues, many such voters instead supported Harding or third-party candidates such as Socialist Party nominee Eugene V. Debs.

When President Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, and it became clear that he would not be a viable option for a third term, Democrats nominated Ohio governor and newspaper publisher Cox, who chose Roosevelt as his running mate. Then in his late thirties, Roosevelt proved to be a popular and effective public speaker, and the campaign benefited from his youth and energy. Still, the Democratic Party remained strongly associated with Wilson and his wartime policies.

Harding, the Republican candidate, was also an Ohio newspaper publisher. He selected Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge as his running mate. Harding’s campaign promised a return to normalcy, an idea that strongly appealed to an American public wearied by war, strikes, international unrest, and social upheaval. Harding promised peace and comfort and gave speeches from his front porch. He led a campaign promising to put the United States first, and though he did not initially reject the League of Nations outright, his speeches became increasingly nationalistic as the campaign wore on.

The November 2, 1920, election was the first in which women had full voting rights and also the first to have its results announced on the radio. Harding and Coolidge won by a landslide, with 60.3 percent of the popular vote to Cox and Roosevelt’s 34.2 percent.

Author Biography

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in Hyde Park, New York. Born into a wealthy family, he was a distant cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, who served as president from 1901 to 1909. Roosevelt attended the prestigious Groton School and then Harvard University, from which he graduated with a degree in history. Roosevelt married his fifth cousin Eleanor in 1905. He passed the New York state bar exam in 1907 and worked for a time as a corporate lawyer. After deciding to enter politics, Roosevelt became a New York state senator in 1910 and worked to limit the influence of Tammany Hall, a New York City–based political organization, on the state’s Democratic Party. He was appointed assistant secretary of the US Navy in 1913 and served until 1920, when he ran unsuccessfully for vice president.

Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921 and lost the use of his legs. He served as governor of New York from 1929 until 1932, when he ran for and won the presidency of the United States. His first term as president was during the lowest point in the Great Depression, and he immediately turned his attention to the relief of the unemployed. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a series of domestic programs designed to return the nation to prosperity. He was reelected by a wide majority in 1936 and again for a third term during World War II. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, but died in office on April 12, 1945. He was buried in Hyde Park.

Document Analysis

Roosevelt’s speech, “Americanism,” intends to hit a difficult mark with the American public. By 1920, many Americans were wondering what war had gained them and why the United States should concern itself with international affairs. In the speech, Roosevelt evokes the feeling that swept through the United States at the beginning of the war, when support for the effort was high. He reminds the nation that the war was won by a concerted national effort, and this effort should not be undermined by the political posturing. “Littleness, meanness, falsehood, extreme partisanship: these are not in accord with the American spirit,” he explains. All Americans worked together during the war and should continue to do so. “The war was brought to a successful conclusion by a glorious common effort,” he says, “one which in the years to come will be a national pride.”

Roosevelt paints his Republican rivals as trying to undermine this national unity, but at the same time, he notes that it would be unfair for his party to use the war to achieve its own ends. Doing so “would therefore not only serve little purpose, but would conform ill to our high standards, if any person should, in the heat of political rivalry, seek to manufacture political advantage out of a nationally conducted struggle.” Americans, he argues, had, by that point, seen and experienced too much “to listen at this date to trifles, or to believe in the adequacy of trifling men.” Presidents and other politicians must be willing to put personal ambition and the desires of their respective parties aside and instead focus on the needs of the American people. True success, Roosevelt argues, will come to the party that is the most truthful and “honestly forward-looking.”

The speech concludes with its only open reference to international affairs. Republicans, who stopped short of criticizing the war directly, had argued that the war was a matter of self-defense, and now that it was over, the country should eschew further international involvement. Roosevelt, however, argues that US involvement in the war had little to do with self-defense, and the true goal of the United States has not yet been achieved: “We knew then as a nation, even as we know today, that success on land and sea could be but half a victory. The other half is not won yet.” The only way to win full victory, in Roosevelt’s opinion, is to ensure that “the crime of war” would never again occur.

Essential Themes

In his speech, Roosevelt tackled the theme of the United States’ duty to the world, which he believed remained important despite a growing tendency toward isolationism. Throughout his speech, Roosevelt portrayed World War I as a great national endeavor that should be a source of pride for all Americans. At the same time, he acknowledged the devastating scale of the war and argues that such an event should not be used for political ends–though it could be argued that he was doing just that. Roosevelt connected the Democratic Party to the great effort and success of the war and urged the nation not to shy away from international involvement if it were in the cause of preventing future conflicts. Turning to isolationism so soon after the war, when many of the ideals for which the United States fought had not yet been achieved, would be unwise. At the end of the speech, Roosevelt focused on the idea that although US involvement in the war was initially for the sake of the nation’s European allies, the country’s ultimate goal should be not the defeat of its allies’ enemies, which had already occurred, but the promotion of peace throughout the world.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
  • Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: American in Prosperity and Depression, 1920–1941. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
  • Pietrusza, David. 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents. New York: Basic Books, 2008. Print.
Categories: History Content