Fear Itself

By Ann Heitland

I often see quoted out of context President Franklin Roosevelt’s statement “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The full statement is:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”


This is from Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address in March 1933 when he was about to launch the most ambitious effort ever by the federal government to intervene in and rescue the economy of the United States.

From Roosevelt’s leadership of “frankness and vigor” came Social Security, Rural Electrification, the Securities & Exchange Commission, the Farm Security Administration, the Civilian Works Administration, and so many more programs that, if started today, would be derided as “socialism,” which, of course, technically they were.  FDR’s leadership allowed the United States to survive the Great Depression without revolution.

When Roosevelt spoke of the dangers of fear, as the full context demonstrates, he meant the kind of fear “which paralyzes needed efforts.” FDR would be appalled at the notion that his words are twisted to suggest that instead of applying scientific principles to the current pandemic, we should simply go about our business as though nothing was happening. That is what Hoover did before him in the face of disastrous economic collapse. FDR was for radical progressive change and the country benefited – perhaps managed to survive – because of it.

We should learn from this history. Not just in following basic principles of public health like wearing masks and avoiding gatherings, but also in confronting the current economic crisis. The wealth gap in this country is like it was in the Roaring Twenties of the last century and if we are to avoid revolution, we need vigorous and frank leadership “to convert retreat into advance.”

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