Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Signing Statement Worth Remembering

A Christmas pardon and unifying a nation

Seventy-five years ago this week, amid all the demands of the New Deal moment that he was defining, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a remarkable proclamation that had particular significance for Wisconsin.

The proclamation had practical implications for roughly 1,500 Americans.

But it also had a symbolic meaning, not just for those individuals but for a nation that was still struggling to heal the divisions of World War I. While long over, the war still strained the fabric of a nation that needed, desperately, to reconcile itself for the economic struggles of the Great Depression.

The proclamation that restored full citizenship rights to World War I dissenters took note of various laws that had been enacted during the war to benefit the efforts of the United States after we entered the fight with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1917. After citing the statutes covered, the proclamation concluded:

Now, THEREFORE, be it known, that I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, president of the United States of America ... do hereby declare and grant a full pardon to all persons who have heretofore been convicted of a violation of any of the foregoing statutory provisions or of a conspiracy to violate the same, and who have complied with the sentences imposed on them; provided, however, that such pardon shall not be construed to pardon such persons for any offenses other than those designated herein, whether committed prior or subsequently to the offenses herein designated.


The White House

Dec. 23, 1933

Roosevelt's decision to pardon World War I dissenters -- including some who as young men had refused to join the fight on foreign soil between kings and kaisers -- was much more than a conciliatory act.

Assuming the presidency at a time of great national hurting, with banks collapsing, unemployment surging and the Great Depression seeming to worsen by the day, Roosevelt well understood the necessity of unity. And he recognized that old divisions over a distant war posed a threat to that unity.

In many parts of the United States, but especially in the upper Midwest, World War I was never a popular war. Progressives, Farmer-Laborites, Non-Partisan Leaguers and Socialists had opposed it.

The great leader of the anti-war congressional force was Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette, a renegade Republican who would eventually seek the presidency on a platform of populist economics at home and anti-imperialism abroad. For his efforts, La Follette had been threatened with official censure. One of his allies in the fight, Milwaukee Socialist Victor Berger, was repeatedly denied the seat to which he had been elected in the U.S. House.

The great orator of the grass-roots opposition to the war, Eugene Victor Debs, was arrested, tried and jailed. From his Georgia prison cell, Debs would seek the presidency on the Socialist line in 1920 and secure a million votes. (The man who beat Debs in that election, Republican Warren Harding, commuted the aging Socialist's sentence on Dec. 24, 1921, and then invited Debs for a post-Christmas talk at the White House.)

By 1933, La Follette, Berger and Debs were all dead. But many bright young men and women had sided with them in the struggle against what they believed was an unjust and unnecessary war. Those dissenters were still struggling with the stigma of standing in opposition at a point when the federal government chose to repress dissent.

Roosevelt, who had served as assistant secretary of the Navy in the administration of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, had been a supporter of Wilson's decision to join the European conflict. But, as president, he wanted to force an alliance of Democrats and those to their left. In those days of a richer and more diverse politics, the Congress included Republicans who proudly described themselves as "radicals," as well as Farmer-Laborites, Non-Partisan Leaguers and members of other regional parties of the left that became essential pieces of the New Deal puzzle that FDR was assembling. Many had cut their political teeth as opponents of the war; some, like North Dakota's Gerald Nye, were still pursuing investigations into war profiteering by munitions merchants.

Roosevelt made it his purpose to try to minimize and erase old differences and divisions, arguing for "the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind."

The 32nd president's Christmas season pardon of the World War I dissenters is little recalled today. But the action he took 75 years ago did much to expand the New Deal coalition that would see America through the dark days of the Great Depression. It is a lesson that another Democratic president, who inherits his office in hard times and will need to forge broader and bolder coalitions if he hopes to meet the challenges of those times, would do well to study and emulate.

Credit: The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, December 24, 2008

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