FDR and his Masterful Fireside Chats

By Brent  G Stewart

“I never realized the full scope of the devotion to him until after he died – until that night and after. Later, I couldn’t go into a subway in New York or a cab without people stopping me to say they missed the way the President used to talk to them. They’d say, ‘He used to talk to me about my government,’” claimed Eleanor Roosevelt.

Franklin Roosevelt took a downtrodden nation and experimented with a new medium; radio. With the use of radio, he mastered his rhetoric in such a way that many Americans looked to his fireside chats as a way to connect with their president on an intimate level. Over thirteen years as president, Roosevelt delivered thirty-one special radio addresses labeled fireside chats. The chats inspired confidence, and encouraged participation in government. They were beneficial to both Americans and the president, as he could control his message directly. Although Roosevelt was not the first president to use the radio on a large scale, his astute rhetoric in the fireside chats earns him the title America’s “Radio President.”

Much ink has been spilled on the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. In a 1982 Chicago Tribune poll of 49 historians, Roosevelt even surpassed the estimable George Washington, second only to Abraham Lincoln as best president.

While scholars debate the effectiveness of his policies in relation to the Great Depression and World War II, few can debate the positive impact he had on many Americans. One of the greatest and most widely cited biographers of Franklin Roosevelt, James MacGregor Burns, claims FDR had a “warm, reassuring voice.”

Burns, being a product of the Roosevelt era himself, praises Roosevelt’s effective, cunning ability to master the radio, even during the debacle with the Supreme Court in 1937.

Nearly seventy years have passed since Roosevelt gave his last address on the radio, yet more recent biographer Jonathan Alter still concurs with Burns that the fireside chats secured a strong relationship with the American people and their president.

Many biographers tend to sympathize with whom they are studying and writing about. There are, however, some historians who belittle Roosevelt’s efforts.

Many critics, such as Amity Shale’s The Forgotten Man, have claimed that Roosevelt’s policies did not help alleviate the extreme poverty witnessed during the Great Depression. Other critics claim the New Deal was an unorganized set of experiments that lack reasoned philosophy. Historian David M. Kennedy rejects these claims and suggests the fireside chats themselves were the structure of the New Deal. Despite criticisms, few would deny that his reassurance brought hope and confidence to radio listeners around the country when he gave a fireside chat. While the depression did worsen during his presidency, Roosevelt gave encouragement to those whose homes were being foreclosed, stomachs were suffering great hunger pains, and whose basic human rights were not being met. Since Roosevelt was president, there have been hundreds of books written on him. He is covered extensively in most textbooks on both the Great Depression and World War II. In both Republican and Democratic speeches, he is invoked as being a great president. The legacy Roosevelt secured for posterity was through much of his family’s money, as well as the many hardships he had to overcome.

Born into a wealthy family in Hyde Park, Roosevelt enjoyed all of the luxuries a person of his class might enjoy. He was the only child of a financially well-off family. His mother was involved in a great many aspects of his life, and remained so until she died in 1941.

Most important to the young boy, he imagined himself one day occupying the White House like his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy had been a New York state legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-President, and President. Following his path, Franklin had been voted into the New York state Legislature, served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and had ran unsuccessfully as a vice-presidential candidate. By 1921, he had every reason to hope that he would soon be elected as President of the United States.

After returning from a Boy Scout camp, Roosevelt became very ill and was diagnosed with polio.

For anybody of this period in time, this was a devastating disease. Many who had the disease were not only handicapped, but excluded from society.

To such a young, ambitious man, this must have been an occurrence almost impossible to fathom. Roosevelt, like many other polio victims, suffered from severe depression, until finally he found a place that offered hope for him to once again regain the use of his legs. In 1924, Roosevelt travelled to a resort in the small town of Warm Springs, Georgia. He soon purchased the resort for the purpose of converting it into a rehabilitation center.

After insistence from his family and political friends, FDR returned to the political arena to deliver a speech at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, and by 1928 he was ready for the New York gubernatorial campaign.

At this time, Americans were in the midst of the infamous “roaring twenties.” Many items, including radios, were being sold on credit and this new medium was developing that was becoming more and more popular. The radio was a device that could be brought into parlors and living rooms across the nation to connect themselves with others. Radio sales were on a consistent increase in the 1920’s, and by 1929 80% of radios purchased were on credit.

Throughout the twenties and thirties, the use of radio grew astronomically. There were three million radio sets in 1924 and by 1936, there were thirty million.

Each radio could only work within range of a broadcasting station, consequently they were limited to more urban areas at first. In 1922, there were thirty stations and a year later that number increased to five hundred fifty six.

In radio’s infancy, companies such as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) would run stations and charge a fee for airtime. It was up to the purchasers of that selected time to provide the entertainment. Due to its mediocre success, outside companies then began to sponsor programs, such as orchestra performances and comedy shows.

As radio grew, so did its usage.

In the campaign of 1920, KDKA (a radio station located in Pittsburgh, PA) was the only radio station to broadcast coverage of the presidential election. During the 1924 election, almost four-hundred stations covered it.

Presidents also began to appear on the radio. Woodrow Wilson was the first to experiment with this new device. Warren Harding made several speeches on the radio followed by Calvin Coolidge’s radio use for political advancement. However, it was not until Herbert Hoover was president that its usage became a corridor between the American people and their government. While Hoover was in office, he delivered about eighty broadcasts. The natures of his broadcasts were formal. He delivered them as coverage of speeches rather than specifically written for the radio. According to historian Douglas Craig, this allowed the audience to follow along with the president rather than feel a part of the government.

The means of measuring radio audience was just beginning. There were several ways to measure audience size. Some watched the increased use of electricity during selected performances, while others mailed surveys. Both of these methods had their many potential flaws.

C.E. Hooper, the owner of a company specifically designed to measure radio audience, developed a system where he would call 100,000 people in 21 cities over a two month period.

He would then organize his findings in large color-coated charts and present them to Press Secretary Steve Early. In the 1930’s these new “Hooperatings” (as they then became known) would be a significant source on which Roosevelt would rely.

Meanwhile, other levels of government were using the radio. As governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt would use the radio regularly to communicate with his constituents about the latest developments in Albany. When he encountered a political battle with the legislature, he appealed directly to the people as he would do later as president. The success of his appeal is evident by the vast amount of mail that was delivered to Albany in support of Roosevelt. He spoke with the people every ten days “to enlist their support on various occasions when a hostile legislature declined to enact legislation for the benefit of the people.”

Roosevelt used his voice and charisma to begin an informal relationship with the public which he would use to both promote his domestic and foreign policies, as well as to further his political ambition.

In 1932, Roosevelt was placed as the Democratic Candidate for president. His opponent, incumbent President Hoover, was less than enthused at Roosevelt’s rhetorical tactics. During the campaign, FDR would deliver many speeches offering hope. During his famous “forgotten man” speech, he claimed that prosperity would require faith in the forgotten man, and that the pyramid of society needs to be built from the bottom up. His famous speech would be referenced by many Americans throughout his presidency. His continued used of “I” throughout the speeches gave the impression that the speech was of a conversational manner. Describing the economic crisis, Roosevelt would borrow Lincolnian rhetoric in stating that “no nation can long continue half bankrupt.”

Throughout the campaign speeches, he would continuously make the distinction between the old and the new; stagnation and change; Hoover and Roosevelt.

Directly following the election in 1932, the victorious Roosevelt remained silent as the economic crisis worsened. Any speech made by Hoover would be of little help to Americans during the interregnum because many Americans blamed Hoover for the crisis. He knew that statements issued by FDR would be effective. However, Roosevelt had another alternative; to remain silent, let both Hoover’s popularity and the economic situation worsen, and then come in with a smashing oratorical administration.

Hoover tried dozens of times to convince Roosevelt to issue a statement, but to no avail. Hoover even desperately tried one last time the night before the inauguration at 11:30 pm. FDR dismissed the call as unnecessary and Hoover finally gave up any last efforts to save his legacy. Roosevelt would deliver his crushing rhetoric in one of the most well-known inaugural addresses. He exclaimed that the only thing Americans had to fear was fear. Furthermore, he denounced his predecessor as a “foolish optimist.”

During the interregnum, banks began to fail nationwide. People were withdrawing massive amounts of gold and currency from their banks. These banks, naturally, could not handle such a quick withdrawal and they were forced to close. During the winter of 1932-1933, states were declaring “bank holidays.” Loans given to banks by the government were publicized, which made many Americans further question the stability of their banks. Rumors that Roosevelt would take America off the gold standard only exacerbated the situation, as Americans were hording as much gold as they could.

Roosevelt well recognized the severity of the banking crisis and knew something had to be done. When Roosevelt took office on March 4, he kept several key advisors from the former Hoover administration.

He would do exactly what Hoover had wanted all along; declare a Banking Holiday.

Despite the new administration in Washington and the recently declared banking holiday, there was still a great deal of fear of the banking situation. FDR thought that he needed to communicate directly with the American people. He was implementing one of his successful maneuvers as governor, to issue an address over the radio “to explain clearly and in simple language to all of you just what has been achieved and the sound reasons which underlie this declaration to you.”

Like many of his speeches and later fireside chats to come, Roosevelt would listen to advisors and others around him for ideas. Ultimately the speech was his. He became his own artist, carefully deciding the date and time of when it should be given. He choose Sunday March12 at 10 p.m., as this would not be too late for those on the east coast and not too early for those on the west.

As millions of Americans listened with eagerness, the President of the United States began. “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking…,” declared an optimistic Roosevelt. 

It is important to note that FDR choose to start his address with an informal, “my friends” rather than a formal greeting. This introduction was used for the succeeding chats as well. Most importantly, he immediately identified the listeners as friends. Throughout the speech, he called the listeners friends three additional times. He stated things in very plain English and described the elemental function of a bank. He did so in such a way that it was easily comprehensible. The average unemployed or underemployed American heard, “… when you deposit money in a bank the bank does not put the money in a safe deposit vault…. [rather] it invests your money in different forms of credit.”

The steps the administration took since the bank holiday were declared and future plans were laid out. He assured Americans that banks would begin to reopen the next day and even more during the next week. He also labeled those hording gold as working against government in calling the act an “exceedingly unfashionable pastime.” He assured listeners “… that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.” In so doing, he used a simple metaphor which many Americans understood. At his conclusion, he ended the speech with an optimistic sense of confidence stating that the banking problem was a grave problem for both the public and him, and that united, the country may alleviate the crisis.

There was one thing that most distinguished the Hoover administration from Roosevelt’s; a personal bond forged with Americans. During the first chat there were an estimated forty million listeners and scores of letter began to flood into the White House directly following the addresses.

The Hoover administration had one secretary to handle all of the mail. Roosevelt had to hire an additional twenty-one people, and during periods of high mail volume, that number increased to seventy.

Roosevelt could gage the success of his speeches by the mere additional quantity of letters arriving in Washington.

The people expressed great enthusiasm for his first chat. People came in off the streets to hear the talk. As a Boston store owner describes, over twenty people wondered in off the streets to hear FDR. The speech was so clear and comprehensible that one staunch Republican family of foreign descent with little education understood the speech and was literally jumping for joy.

The audience was not limited to any particular age group. A Kentucky high school teacher conducted a survey of eight-hundred students and found that 75% of them could talk about the speech intellectually.

The president of the Standard Oil Company wrote FDR that his speech was “able and convincing” and through further leadership, the country may be restored to prosperity.

Some newspapers were also very receptive of the first chat. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Roosevelt, “… told in thorough detail the story of the closing of the banks and his steps to reopen them. He expressed his own confidence and called for the cooperation for the people.”

Although the sentiments expressed in letters and editorials were a clear indication of success, the events that soon followed confirmed its success. By the end of March, $1.2 billion was returned to the banks (half in gold); by mid-April $31 billion in deposits in nation-wide banks, and at the end of 1933 $33 billion was returned.

With much of the currency returned, the banks became even more stable, thereby ending the banking crisis. Although Roosevelt closed the banks until they proved to be sound enough to reopen, the return of currency was vital. The first fireside chat, therefore, may have actually ended the banking crisis. The chat was so successful that Roosevelt would continue his conversation with Americans in the same manner thirty more times. Like most things in his life, Roosevelt would calculate the timing of each chat when he thought they would best most effective.

On May 7, 1933 the president addressed the nation in his second fireside chat outlining his New Deal policies and describing what had been accomplished in the preceding two months.

He employed his use of metaphors to justify the new policies. The policy and practice of government regulating labor is one of common sense, according to Roosevelt. If, for example, a certain industry were to volunteer to comply with an agreement of better working conditions, and a select few did not, the large group would be forced to fall back on their commitment and resume their former abuses.

This was exactly the kind of rhetoric Americans were looking for, something with which they could relate. One letter received by the White House sums up what many Americans shared with their president when it read “You talked as easily and as informally as a neighbor who had just dropped in to visit the folk.”

FDR would continue his use of basic metaphors throughout the rest of the fireside chats as a way to simplify otherwise intricate details of legislation.

It was after the fireside chat delivered on May 7 that the term first “fireside chat” was used. Steve Early (Roosevelt’s press secretary) noted, “The President likes to think of the audience as being a few people around his fireside.” Washington’s CBS manager heard that phrase used and he began to call them fireside chats.

Although the chats appeared to be informal and relaxed, they were anything but that for Roosevelt. He would carefully reread each draft aloud. He would then make several amended drafts, once totally twenty-two. Those closest to the President were called in to his office where the speech was to be given. The President even took the time to have a removable bridge built to fill the gap between his two lower teeth, as to ensure no unwanted whistling noise could be heard.

Reflecting on the progress of the New Deal, Roosevelt delivered his third and fourth fireside chats on July 24 and October 22. Success of the July chat could be seen during the first hour when over five thousand telegraphs were received at the White House within the first hour.

The letters following were filled with enthusiasm. Part way through the speech, FDR added a human touch. He asked for a glass of drinking water and explained that it was rather warm in Washington that evening.

This further demonstrated the informality he shared with Americans.

In the speech, FDR described how his National Recovery Administration (NRA) worked. The NRA itself was a voluntary commitment to allow for increased wages and lower working hours. Because this was not mandated, some companies refused to participate. The president thought it was best to distinguish participants from abstainers. He used his often employed war rhetoric and gave another simple metaphor.

In war, in the gloom of night attack, soldiers wear a bright badge on their shoulders to be sure that comrades do not fire on comrades. On that principle, those who cooperate in this program must know each other at a glance. That is why we have provided a badge of honor for this purpose, a simple design with a legend. “We do our part,” and I ask that all those who join with me shall display that badge prominently. It is essential to our purpose.

This metaphor had other effects than just industrial participation. Like the individual soldier who volunteers his services during times of war and crisis, many Americans felt the same obligation. Remarkably, the chat encouraged smaller employers to help in the crusade against the Depression. One woman telegraphed that she would increase her maid’s wages ten percent, while a firm agreed to also increase their employees’ wages by ten percent.

Soon after the chat, the famous Blue Eagle could be seen in the windows of storefronts across the nation.

For now, his NRA was a success.

In 1934, Roosevelt delivered two fireside chats; one in June and the other in September. When FDR spoke to the families in their living rooms that June, he offered a simple, yet practical solution for each individual American to test the New Deal and the seventy-third Congress. He asked, “Are you better off than you were last year?”

Like in all of his fireside chats, he tried to sound as personal as he could. Roosevelt would often “you” and “I,” as though to make it sound like he knew each listener personally. He also mentioned in his address that he was taking a vacation. While one might expect the fears of many Americans to be great over the president leaving Washington for weeks amid the great economic crisis. The day after the fireside chat was broadcasted, well-renowned journalist Arthur Krock wrote that Roosevelt was fully committed to the duties as president and that Americans should not be concerned. It appears as though they were not. There is little evidence that there was any major concern about the president’s absence.

After making his own assessment of the progress of recovery, FDR seems to have been satisfied. He addressed his many critics and the new labels for his policies. He claimed, “Those who fear progress will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it ‘Fascism,’ sometimes ‘Communism,’ sometimes ‘regimentation,’ sometimes ‘Socialism’.”

He claimed these people are complicating the situation. By giving a “simple illustration” of the White House renovation, he justified his New Deal policies. He described how the architects building on to the White House that year would just add to the original structure, while preserving the architectural antiquated appearance. In a straight-forward analogy, he made the process of New Deal governance look very simple and practical.

As FDR unveiled a new agenda as part of the New Deal, he addressed the nation over the radio. In the seventh and eighth chats, Roosevelt made appeals to different groups of Americans. In April of 1935, Roosevelt introduced the American people to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Social Security Act. He gave the other one the following year before the election of his second term. In that September chat, he appealed to laborers and farmers. He described how he traveled across the country and gained much perspective on the drought crisis that plagued many farmers. He described what he saw on an intimate level. Roosevelt “talked with families” about the crops they had lost and noted that he saw livestock barely kept alive.

Because he had actually been to these drought-stricken areas, he was able to speak with Americans the way a friend might engage in a conversation with another friend. He also attracted laborers in speaking about Labor Day and how proud he was of American workforce. The reaction from both of these chats is about the same. Both precipitated letters of hope and applause.. When Archie Tickner explained that he had been living on relief for a year and was too old to work in factories, FDR’s relief gave him new hope for his later years in life.

Another concluded that God’s will was Roosevelt’s progress, a theme which appears in dozens of letters written to the White House in response to the fireside chats.

This would be the last time until WWII that response letters were so optimistic.

The New Deal “honeymoon” came to a crashing end when the United States Supreme Court started an assault on FDR’s domestic programs. The Court shot down the NRA (National Recovery Administration).  Furthermore, the Court ruled that the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act) was also unconstitutional.

Roosevelt was devastated, but like most things, he decided to act out vindictively. He submitted a bill to Congress that required any judges over the age of seventy years to retire within six months of their birth date. This was a highly unpopular move by the President. A poll taken in September, 1937 shows that less than one-third of Americans supported his proposal.

As he had done as governor when his battle with the NY legislature commenced, the President appealed to the American people.

On March 9, 1937, Roosevelt delivered his ninth fireside chat defending his legislation to alter the Supreme Court. A massive surge of letters poured into the White House filled with hostile, remarks about FDR’s plans. Although Roosevelt was able to directly deliver to Americans his reasoning behind his proposal, he still had a great deal of opposition to overcome. He tactfully referred the three branches of government to a three-horse plow; something many farmers could relate to. However relentless the President was to strike back at the Supreme Court, his fireside appeal did not work.

Many Americans who had supported Roosevelt up to this point now urged him to stop.

Others urged him to continue on behalf of the working populous. While one letter advised Roosevelt to “Keep on giving ‘em hell,” another claimed he was a “damned traitor, liar and hypocrite of the deepest dye,” and that “the dungeons of Hell will never be filled until you and your diabolical gang are dangling on pitchforks over the flames.”

Although this is the strongest language that is seen throughout the fireside chat letters, it provides a very close account of the contemporaneous attitudes shared by many Americans. The newspaper editorials were not much different. More than ever before, people expressed their outrage over how Roosevelt handled the Supreme Court. One article even accused the words of his fireside chat to be “a gross violation of elementary propriety.”

The majority of letters and responses to Roosevelt’s plan for the Supreme Court proved to have been too much for a fireside chat to alter.

The next three fireside chats were further reflections on combating the depression and the newly formed recession. On October 12, 1937 FDR promoted greater authority of the New Deal. He argued for a controlled agricultural plan and gave a simple illustration arguing its necessity. If shoe factories across America produced shoes constantly with no regard to the market, there would soon be too many shoes and prices would plummet. This is precisely what was happening with agriculture.

He also introduced a new policy that would allow products that were used in a particular region to be made there. Roosevelt had visited a dam in the state of Washington and discovered that nearly half of the materials used had been manufactures east of the Mississippi.

The President spoke of a recent trip he had made, of what he saw, and what he planned to do to alleviate the problems he encountered. This was a president who took an active role in assessing the nation’s weaknesses and proposed solutions with those most affected. If Roosevelt was going to try to help those who needed it, he required help. In a short fireside chat nearly a month later, the President explained his attempt to gain an accurate account of the unemployed. He told his listeners that their postman would leave a postcard containing fourteen questions on the doorsteps of people across the country. It was their job to accurately fill it out and return it.

Although the returns may have seemed promising, they were only 70% accurate and soon determined obsolete.

Though his attempts failed at obtaining accurate unemployment figures, his attempt for increased monetary support from Congress was successful. On April 14, 1938, he sent his message to Congress asking for more money and that night, he appealed to the American people for their support. He spoke of the dire need for action in a lengthy, detailed relationship between the national debt and his policies. The three chats were very similar to his others dealing with policy with one major exception. If the debacle with the Supreme Court did any one major thing to harm his presidency, it seems to have turned newspapers further against the administration. After his April chat, letters began to mention the unfair bias that newspapers had against the President, consequently forcing some Americans to seek other sources for information (like the radio).

Although Roosevelt could control his political maneuvers with the radio, he was often at the mercy of editors who disliked him.

By nature, FDR frequently held grudges. Before the mid-term elections in 1938, Roosevelt showed his vindictive side and tried to make certain that those democrats who opposed his Supreme Court proposal would be voted out of office. On June 24, 1938, Roosevelt delivered his thirteenth fireside chat issuing an assessment of how well Congress performed. Furthermore, he implied that those who had not agreed to “liberal” values of the Democratic Party may be better replaced by someone who was more aligned with these said values. The reaction from Roosevelt’s chat was very unenthusiastic. Many interpreted the speech as him commanding who to vote for. Others called him a dictator.

One couple claimed he was like Christ, as he had “fed and clothed those in need and furnished jobs for the unemployed.”

Although remarks such as these are typical of an election, they are the result of his partisan fireside chat. As the world began to change rapidly, so too did the nature of the fireside chats. The June 24th chat would be the last chat focusing on domestic issues. Roosevelt was soon faced with more pressing matters.

Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, alarming the world. Americans were in a very isolationist state. Starting with the fourteenth fireside chat, Roosevelt began preparing America for war. Increasingly throughout the following four speeches, he refers to foreign policy and America’s stance. Before war rhetoric started to dominate the fireside chats, the approval ratings between lower and upper classes were at their greatest distance apart, at one point reaching 39%. (although polling was not as accurate as it would later become). As Roosevelt progressed with his demand of increased militarism, that number significantly decreased. Throughout the New Deal years, the lower class tended to favor Roosevelt’s domestic and social policies, while the upper class felt abandoned.

This was probably because the New Deal was aimed to assist the poor at the expense of the wealthy. It also may have been that Roosevelt, being from a wealthy family, had proposed policies targeting the wealthy to assist the poor. Whatever the polarizing reason may have been, when the fireside chats emanated feelings of war, and members of the lower working class, who were strongly opposed to heightened militarism, began to have doubts about their president. The societal attitude towards Roosevelt’s sudden shift in his fireside chats is evidenced by many Americans.

After Roosevelt’s chat of May, 1940, a group of mothers wrote a letter telling FDR that they will not give any money to war profiteers and that “national interest mean[s] more jobs, more housing, more hospitals, more schools – not guns.”

Letters in response to the five fireside chats preceding America’s entry into WWII were almost all strongly opposed to war. Norman C. Norman stated that FDR had “forfeited the confidence of the people who placed their trust in you to keep us out of war.” Even though FDR could take the U.S. into war, the people would  not “have their hearts in it”

WWI was still in people’s minds and they had remembered how President Wilson took a passive nation and led it, unwillingly, into war. Americans were determined not to let it happen again.

As with all fireside chats, Steve Early released the tentative transcript to newspapers weeks in advance.

Surprisingly, the Chicago Tribune took the early transcript and created a front-page cartoon that was highly representative of American sentiment. The cartoon had four different scenes in it, though each similar to one another. On one side was Uncle Sam and the other a radio. In the first scene, the radio shouted, “I believe that this nation should plan at this time a program that would provide us with 50,000 military and naval planes.” Uncle Sam responded, “That’s the Stuff.” In the second scene, the radio blared, “Our defenses must be invulnerable our security absolute.” To that Uncle Sam said, “Absolutely! I’m for that one-hundred percent.” The radio then became more daring in the third scene declaring, “Our ideal is PEACE – Peace at home and abroad. Nevertheless we stand ready not only to spend millions for defense but to give our service and even our lives for the maintenance of our liberties.” Uncle Sam responded, “Um-m-m – I guess that’s ok – the liberties we have a right to defend are mostly on this side of the Atlantic.” In the last diagram, the radio says, “Our people are a people willing to defend a way of life that is precious to them all.” Uncle Sam is jumping up and down crying, “Hooray! That can’t mean we send our boys to European wars! Fighting in Europe is not precious to Americans.”

In this cartoon, Uncle Sam is representing the American people, while the radio is the rhetoric coming from FDR’s fireside chat. Throughout American history, it is common for presidents and politicians alike to ‘beat the drums of war’ through speech. What the cartoon is saying, however, is that Roosevelt used his fireside chats as a tool for such avocation.

Although intended for his American friends, FDR’s fireside chats were heard in many other parts of the world. The chat delivered on December 29, 1940, for example, was translated into Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Portuguese. The BBC (British Broadcasting Company) even broadcasted short fifteen minute clips of the chat in German.

Nazis would not comment on the famous chat except to say that they found it “extremely interesting.” They also noted that the speech was being studied by high ranking officials.

Roosevelt was also paying close attention to American media and public opinions. The Gallup and Fortune polls were established in 1935 and soon after, they became highly utilized by the President. Hadley Cantril analyzed the polls and once submitted a study to FDR. After receiving a response from the President, he concluded that Roosevelt would not change his goals as a result of the public opinion showing something unpopular, but would rather use the information he gained to then persuade the public in whatever direction he planned to lead the country.

The Gallup Poll first would ask monthly, “Are you for or against Roosevelt?” Just before WWII, the Gallup then asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Roosevelt had handled his job as president?”

Although Roosevelt was not liked by everyone, his approval ratings remained relatively high throughout his presidency, ranging from 79% to just below 50%.

Analysts Mathew Baum and Samuel Kernell have studied Roosevelt’s approval ratings in relation to his fireside chats and conclude that there is a correlation between peacetime fireside chats and his approval ratings, but not during the war.

During the war, Roosevelt was much concerned about conducting the war. His chats were diverted from policies and appeal to war-time confidence.

Few Americans were opposed to U.S. entry in the war after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Aside from Roosevelt’s most famous address delivered the day after the attack, he addressed the nation in another fireside chat on December 9. Fueled by nationalism in the aftermath of such an attack, there was very little opposition to the chat and the four following it in 1942. The first two chats in 1942 give a summary of the progress of the war, while the two given later in 1942 focus on the home front effort. Like many other parents of soldiers they wrote FDR to tell him of their son’s service to the military. This is one way Americans may have been showing the affection FDR strived to secure through his radio addresses. There is little that is more personal than the entrustment of one’s children to someone else.

In 1942, another sign of affection was evident. When Roosevelt was giving a fireside chat on February 23, he had a cold that many listeners picked up on. Many Americans wrote to Roosevelt to take care of his health. One writer claimed that it gave him great pain to hear Roosevelt cough during the speech.

Another gave Roosevelt a remedy to alleviate his cold.

This is something that might commonly be shared among friends. Regardless of the political setbacks Roosevelt dealt himself in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Americans were still very concerned about their friend on the radio.

During the war, Roosevelt asked for an abstinence of strikes, as it would hinder war production. Although many corporations seemed to comply, there were some in the year 1943 that broke with their agreement. While Chrysler workers went on strike, so too did coal workers. Roosevelt was angry with the coal workers for striking and he successfully ended the strike after he addressed Americans in his twenty-fourth fireside chat. FDR’s rhetoric was not entirely soft on the strikers. He asserted, “every idle miner directly and individually is obstructing our war effort.” He went on to say, “I believe the coal miners will not continue the strike against their Government.”

In so stating, Roosevelt made the continuance of the strike or rise of any other strike seem highly unpatriotic, dangerous to those men fighting the war, and a direct disobedience to the President. Nearly two months after his radio address reprimanding those who participated in strikes, Roosevelt applauded others fighting in the war.

On July 28, 1943, FDR shared his enthusiasm and optimism on the outcome of the war. Benito Mussolini had been killed and the allies were gaining ground in North Africa and in the Italian islands. It was during this time that FDR offered Americans abroad and home alike reassurance that their government will support returning soldiers. He also re-emphasized the need for individual Americans to be a part of the war effort by asking if they were growing as much food as they could, were working as hard as they could, and buying as many war bonds as they could.

In a brief overview of the speech, the Chicago Tribune printed, “Expatriating on the triumphant fears of allied arms on the overseas battle front, the President passed rapidly of the food shortages, bungling administration, and falling off of planting on the home front.”

While the Chicago Daily Tribune lamented Roosevelt’s chat, the New York Times printed Associated Press reporter Arthur Krock’s assessment when he concluded, “Not often has the President undertaken as much trouble-shooting as in his radio speech of Wednesday night. He sought to lay a healing finger on areas of irritation that girdle the entire world.”

At this point, the fireside chats had become extremely popular. An owner of a movie theatre wrote to the White House describing her movie theatre’s broadcasting of the chat. She had the entertainment interrupted so that everyone could listen to FDR’s speech and not a single person left the audience until it was finished.

In the speech, Roosevelt listed his plans for returning soldiers in what would later become the GI bill. The response was filled with optimism. Many American’s burdens were eased, as there was a comprehensive plan for returning soldiers. Nonetheless crtitiques, like in most of his radio chats, claimed that he was a socialist and that the GI bill was fascist legislation.

However by this time, the fireside chats were primarily on the progress of the war and not on the home front.

In a short radio address given September 8, FDR provided further updates on the progress of the war. He conveyed his joy at the surrender of Italian forces and referred to the victory as being not only shared by the United States but the United Nations; a theme that will become more frequently used in subsequent addresses. In December Roosevelt gave another account of the war and a reflection on the Cairo and Teheran conferences from which he had just returned. He mentioned that it was his first meeting with China’s Chiang Kai-shek and the Soviet Union’s Stalin. The leaders needed to secure faith in each other and they did exactly that, according to the President.

He ended the speech by provoking God in blessing those fighting for humanity. By including Americans in the discussion on the progress of the war, FDR was able to keep up support for the war effort. Whether he did this sincerely to keep Americans as much informed as they could be or for his own personal gain, it helped to keep his popularity from plummeting (like many of his predecessors during wartime) and ensured the success of the loan drives funding the war.

He continued to appease much his audience and proposed attractive legislation. Roosevelt called for an “economic bill of rights,” an end to suffrage discrimination based on age, and adequate healthcare in his conversation with the American people January 11, 1944.

This chat was the altered State of the Union address he delivered to Congress earlier that day, which explains why it was more formal than the other fireside chats. Nonetheless, many people had mixed feelings The New York Times claimed that Roosevelt had finally proposed the legislation that the newspaper had long supported.

Krock outlined the many reasons why different groups of people opposed to the bill. Laborers thought that it would not prevent strikes, while others were distrustful of those who would administer the policy.

In the last three radio addresses Roosevelt would give before his death, he started planning for peace time America. On June 5, 1944, Roosevelt addressed the nation to speak about the surrender of Italian forces in Rome. The fireside chat on June 12 urged Americans to buy war bonds. He worked on the consciousness of the American people. He told them that the more money they could give for war bonds, the safer American troops abroad would be, and they and neighbors alike knew who had not given an adequate amount.

The final chat of Roosevelt’s presidency delivered January 6, 1945 was like the one given a year earlier. Roosevelt had taken his annual message to Congress, altered it, and delivered it as a fireside chat. He called for more service to the military (such as the conscription of nurses) and stated that a strong military force would sustain peace after the war.

Many Americans were very concerned about the concept of a peace-time draft. One chilling letter even foresaw the Cold War and thought Roosevelt’s speech did too little to ensure continued peace.

After returning from the Yalta conference in Egypt (held in February, 1945), Franklin Roosevelt was in desperate need of rejuvenation. At the end of March, he took a trip to Warm Springs to relax. As he was sitting for a portrait painting, the President collapsed from a stroke and died soon thereafter. His body was carried back to Washington on a train. It was met by thousands of Americans who gathered to pay respect to their friend. After a formal funeral was held in the nation’s capital, Roosevelt was brought back to Hyde Park for his final resting place.

Through the use of radio, the President built a long-enduring friendship with the American people. Like millions of Americans, Mrs. A. Keller “opened the door of… [her]  Radio and admitted… [FDR]  to.. [her] home…. [she] listened intently to… [his] most wonderful and inspiring talk, at the close… [he] bade us good night.

Americans all over the country told Roosevelt personal stories of how he helped them. Their friend, whom they had heard on the radio, spoke to them about their government, offered advice, told them of his personal problems, and ceaselessly became a source of optimism. Franklin Roosevelt was actually a very cold and impersonal man. He would become close with very few and only share intimate things with even fewer. Americans heard their president infrequently on the radio, although newsreels would later become another medium which Americans could visualize him. His picture was hung in many business offices and often printed in newspapers. The reassurances in the fireside chats combined with the kind face seen in portraits allowed Americans to form their own image of Roosevelt. As television become a more commonly used commodity, the image of the presidency would become less easy to alter. The radio’s allowance of creative imagery proved beneficial to both the President and the people.

Without a restoration of confidence, in the banking system and in the American government, historians argue the Depression may have gotten worse. The chats proved to be the exact tool Roosevelt used to ease the Depression; rhetoric was the answer. His fireside chats had inspired people to write responses who had never written before to their government, like Alice Timoney who wrote

For the first time in my life I am writing to a public official. For the first time in my life I feel that I have a President.” “For the first time I feel that the leader of my country has some interest in me – that those in my walk of life are not altogether forgotten.

Many of these people were women at a time when women had only a decade before gained their suffrage. Some were African Americans, who in some southern states, had not yet gained the right to vote.

During his thirteen years as President, Roosevelt took the United States from the brink of economic collapse and brought it to a state of immense power. Roosevelt led the nation into the largest war it had ever fought. During those thirteen years of unstable times, the normal business of politics ensued. Social programs were proposed and signed into law, Supreme Court justices were appointed, and the constant struggle with foreign policy were all demanding issues with which Roosevelt had to deal. To gather support for his policies and to restore confidence, Roosevelt took to the radio, delivering thirty-one special radio addresses titled fireside chats. Although other politicians had used radio, Roosevelt developed a special bond with the American people. Through his unique use of rhetoric during his fireside chats, Americans justifiably remember him as their “Radio President.”


Primary Sources 

Buhite, Russell D., and David W. Levy, eds. FDR’s Fireside Chats. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

“FDR: Axis Will Lose the War! Make U.S. a ‘Great Arsenal of Democracy’and Give More Aid to Britain is the President’s Plea.” San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 1940.

Henning, Arthur Sears. “Need Greater Effort to Win F.D.R. Says.” Chicago Daily Tribune editorial, June 29, 1943.

Krock, Arthur. “The Most Difficult Times Before Congress,” New York Times, January 13, 1944.

– “Roosevelt to Retain Close Touch With Affairs.” New York Times, June 29, 1934.

– “The Planetary Speech of the President.” New York Times, July 30, 1943.

Levine, Lawrence W. and Cornelia R. The People and the President; America’s Conversation with FDR. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

“National War Service,” New York Times, editorial, January 12, 1944.

“Nazis Call FDR Speech ‘Extremely Interesting.” San Francisco Chronicle, December 20, 1940.

“Roosevelt Drops Disguise as he Openly Assails Supreme Court.” San Francisco Chronicle, editorial, March 10, 1937.

Roosevelt, Franklin D. “First Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” The Avalon Project. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/froos1.asp (accessed March 12, 2010)

“U.S. Orders Clarified; Roosevelt Broadcasts Appeal for Confidence.” San Francisco Chronicle, editorial, March 12, 1933.

Secondary Sources 

Alter, Jonathan. The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006.

The American Experience: FDR. DVD. Directed by David Grubin. 1994; Arlington, VA: PBS, 1994.

Baum, Mathew A. and Kernell, Samuel, “Economic Class and Popular Support for Franklin Roosevelt in War and Peace,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 65, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 198-229.

Braden, Waldo W., and Earnest Bradenburg. “Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.” Communication Monographs 22, no. 5 (November 1955): 290-302.

Burns, James MacGregor. Roosevelt 1882-1940: The Lion and the Fox. NewYork: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1956.

Craig, Douglas B. Fireside Chats: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.

DeGregorio, William A. The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York: Gramercy Press, 2006.

Fairchild, Amy L. “The Polio Narratives: Dialogues with FDR,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75 (Fall 2001) 488-534.

Gallagher, Hugh Gregory. FDR’s Splendid Deception. Arlington: Vandamere Press, 1994.

Kiewe, Amos. FDR’s First Fireside Chat: Public Confidence and the Banking Crisis. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007.

Sudman, Seymour. “The President and the Polls,” American Association for Public Opinion Research 46 no. 3 (Autumn, 1982) 301-310.

Winfield, Betty Houchin. FDR and the News Media. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Yu, Lumeng. “The Great Communicator: How FDR’s Radio Speeches Shaped American History.” The History Teacher 39, no. 1 (November 2005): 89-106. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30036746 (accessed January 27, 2010).


About brentgstewart

I am a 20th century historian with a focus on political history. My primary work has focussed on the personal life of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
This entry was posted in Franklin D. Roosevelt. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to FDR and his Masterful Fireside Chats

  1. Emile says:

    Excellent piece, thanks for this enlightening overview!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s