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People Must Have More to Live for Than to Die For
Published on Friday, December 3, 2004 by the The Nation
Looking Back, Looking Forward
People Must Have More to Live for Than to Die For
by Blanche Wiesen Cook

IN 1940 FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT confronted an entirely divided country, divided sectionally and politically much as it is today, and declared: "We will have a liberal democracy, or we will return to the Dark Ages."

Liberals to Arms! We need to regroup, reconsider, reorganize. For thirty years I have been privileged to study America's great liberals, particularly Dwight Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt. They have much to tell us about where we might go from here, and how once again to get there.

To see how far along a dastardly path we have crawled, it is important to remember that Eisenhower called himself "a militant liberal." On November 16, 1953, he wrote to John Foster Dulles that his Administration was "committed to...policies that will bring the greatest good to the greatest number. This means that there must be lifted from the minds of men the fears of disaster, poverty, and old age." He campaigned for national healthcare and appointed former Women's Army Corps commander Oveta Culp Hobby to head his new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Together with Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend Esther Lape, Hobby and Eisenhower fought for a single-payer health system to cover all Americans. Eisenhower increased the minimum wage, extended the excess-profits tax, expanded the public-housing program and warned the nation of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, which he originally called the Congressional-industrial-military complex.

Eisenhower wrote his brother Edgar on May 2, 1956: "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again.... There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt...a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

Eleanor Roosevelt's work for affordable housing was central to her democratic vision. She always said governments exist for only one purpose: to make life better for all people. But, she continued, you can never depend on politicians to do anything about that. You have to go door to door, block by block, to get your wants and needs met. During the 1920s ER and her friends went "trooping for democracy" to ask potential voters what they wanted, what they needed. She asked questions and worked to build movements--movements for women, peace, community. This year thousands of volunteers followed her advice. My partner Clare Coss and I went to St. Louis with ACT, and Planned Parenthood.

After a lifetime of activism, ER addressed the future. In her last book, Tomorrow Is Now, published posthumously in 1963, she called for ardent courage and refortified liberalism: Long ago, there was a noble word, LIBERAL, which derived from the word FREE [libre]. Now a strange thing happened to that word. A man named Hitler made it a term of abuse, a matter of suspicion, because those who were not with him were against him, and liberals had no use for Hitler. And then another man named McCarthy cast the same opprobrium on the word. Indeed, there was a time--a short but dismaying time--when many Americans began to distrust the word which derived from FREE. One thing we must all do. We must cherish and honor the word FREE or it will cease to apply to us....

To forestall horror and save the rule of law (American constititutional law, international law and the promise of human rights), we will go trooping for democracy. Our future depends on a simple fact: People must have more to live for than to die for.

Blanche Wiesen Cook is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College. She is the author of Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 1, 1884-1933 and Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2, The Defining Years, 1933-1938 (both Penguin). Volume 3 is forthcoming.


The defeat of John Kerry has unleashed waves of dismay and perplexity within liberal and progressive circles. Why did so many voters embrace a President whose Iraq policy was paved with lies and deceptions, who has shown contempt for science, the rule of law and many of the principles of the Enlightenment, and whose economic policies favor the rich at the expense of the vast majority of Americans? Are the Democrats crippled, or merely wounded, and is the party really out of touch with “mainstream” values? The Nation asked some of the country’s leading political thinkers for their thoughts.

Contributors to this special forum include: Theda Skocpol, Tom Andrews, Eric Foner, Susannah Heschel, Mary Gordon, Van Jones, Robert Coles, Danny Goldberg, Richard Rorty, Michael Lind, Danielle Allen, Beth Shulman, Noam Chomsky, Mary Robinson, Jorge Ramos, Steve Cobble & Joe Velasquez, Troy Duster, Jonathan Kozol, Blance Wiesen Cook, Medea Benjamin, Bertha Lewis & Bob Master, Dan Carter and Juliet Schor.  

Copyright © 2004 The Nation


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