and plans a counterattack
In September, 1940, FDR’s son Elliott had entered the Army Air Corps—as a captain. His rank instantly became a campaign issue: editorials charged favoritism; Republicans wore buttons that read “Papa, I Wanta Be a Captain.” The President was furious and sorely tempted to fight back at what he considered an unfair personal attack on his family. He confided in his close aide Lowell Mellett, who suggested a radio speech as the best weapon.
Roosevelt dictated the broad outline of what he’d like to convey:
FDR : Look, now, here’s the thing, Lowell… that’s never been brought out and the only way to bring it out is by way of attack , and you’ve got to attack. Somebody saying, “I’m going to be talking to fathers and mothers in this country, fathers and mothers of sons .” What would you say to the following? Now, these are the facts. You’ve got a boy, you’ve got a boy who’s thirty years old. Tried to get into the Naval Academy twelve years ago . They took one look at his eyes and said, “Why, heavens above, he could no more qualify than [fly]!” Thereupon, without going to college—mind you, a lot of the editorials said he went to college—Harvard!—he went into the airplane business, and he obtained a very great familiarity with the construction… of planes…. He went into the radio business at the same time, and he knows the very definite relationship between air and radio communications to the ground. He’s specialized in it—those two things—for the last ten years.
Alright…. This is your boy. He goes in to serve. He has his eyes checked. One eye can see two-twentieths, two-twentieths . The left eye can see three -twentieths. He is told that going into the Army or the Navy, either one, he would be put in the home guard. They couldn’t possibly … put him in any active service in the Army or the Navy, and they wouldn’t do it.
He feels terribly bad. He still wants to serve. He says, “When the war comes, I want to get in. …” He says, “I want to go in somewhere, take me in anywhere.”
“What do you know?”
“Radio and planes.”
“I say, well you’re just the fellow—you’re thirty years old—we’re looking for as part of a special arm of the government on this airplane program and we’re taking in fourteen hundred men —we’re looking for ‘em all over the country— right now —to take into this great program!”
He says, “Alright. Love to do it. Put me to work. What can you put me in as—a private?”
“Well, I’m not asking to be an officer .”
“Well,” I say, “we’re awfully sorry but the only way we can take you in is as an officer .”
He says, “Alright, put me in as the lowest kind of officer.”
They say, “We can’t do it. We have to put you in as a captain.”
He said, “I don’t rate captain.”
“Well, if you were thirty-five, we’d put you in as a major !…”
The tape ends abruptly here. Evidently, FDR later thought better of the idea. Neither he nor anyone else ever made the speech the President so lovingly outlined to his aide.