1936 Fifty Years Ago

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The crowd roared. Cowbells clanged, and horns blared. It was October 31, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had taken the podium before a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Angered by Republicans’ recent attacks on what he considered his finest work—Social Security—and unrestrained by his advisers, who were absent that evening, Roosevelt was about to deliver one of his most fiery and unforgettable speeches, the last of his reelection campaign.

The din of the ovation lasted nearly fifteen minutes before the President requested silence with raised arms and then began to speak. His were “the old enemies of peace,” he said: “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism and war profiteering.” The audience interrupted him to voice its deafening approval. “Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.” Again the crowd roared. “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” Roosevelt said. “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

The President himself was the issue in the 1936 campaign, a fact Roosevelt had recognized months before. His Republican opponent, Gov. Alfred M. Landon of Kansas, had done his best to discredit him. The governor implied that Roosevelt was a communist, said that he would behead his critics if elected, and allowed the GOP national chairman to accuse Roosevelt of complicity in the murder of Spanish priests. But AIf was a difficult sell for the GOP; he was a decent but dull man with little oratorical skill. To Landon’s aid came the forces of money. The Republicans spent nine million dollars on him, nearly twice that given to FDR. More than a million Republican dollars was sunk into radio spots, and the Hearst newspaper chain provided lavish partisan support, printing front-page editorials accusing Moscow of running the Democratic campaign.

Large employers did their part: Ingersoll Rand, Johnson & Johnson, and others inserted notices in pay envelopes informing workers that a Roosevelt victory would mean their jobs. And then, in October, workers learned from signs posted in their factories and more slips in their envelopes that Social Security funds would derive solely from their pay. “You’re sentenced to a weekly pay reduction for all your working life,” read one sign—which was true enough. “You’ll have to serve the sentence unless you help reverse it November 3.” Hoaxes were perpetrated: It was said that all workers would be fingerprinted and forced to wear steel dog tags bear- ing their Social Security numbers.

By the end of October, Roosevelt’s patience had worn thin. In the conclusion to his speech in Madison Square Garden, he challenged his opponents and all they stood for: “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said”—he paused a moment for the cheering to subside—“I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master .” Long after Roosevelt had been helped from the podium, the shouting, applause, and ringing bells continued to shake the hall. Three days later Roosevelt was swept into office, taking every state but Maine and Vermont.