Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mr. Roosevelt

During our recent trip to Washington, we stopped to pay our respects to Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln. Each resides in his own temple: one, a man who helped build the machinery of democracy; the other, the man who gave the most succinct definition of it. This was the third time I have stood inside the Lincoln Memorial and read The Gettysburg Address, which is chiseled into one of the monument's walls. Its simple, direct and powerful prose always moves me.

But on this visit, even more than the Gettysburg Address, I was struck by other words on another wall -- part of a monument which did not exist the last time we were in Washington. The new memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a sprawling complex. A bronze statue of Roosevelt in his wheelchair -- his Scottish terrier Fala at his side -- is the centerpiece of the memorial. But in addition to the statue, there are several walls -- some with waterfalls cascading over them. On the rest are chiseled passages from Roosevelt's speeches, of which there were many. One wall -- and one passage -- haunts me.

In 1936 -- during a speech in Chautauqua, New York -- Roosevelt remembered his days as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration. After the United States entered the war in 1917, Roosevelt -- before the onset of polio -- made a tour of the front lines. What he saw he never forgot: " I have seen war." he said in Chautauqua. "I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen 200 limping, exhausted men come out of line, the survivors of a regiment of 1,000 that went forward 48 hours before. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war."

It was ironic that we began our visit at Arlington Cemetery and ended it at Gettysburg. In between we visited the Vietnam Memorial, where we encountered a veteran -- cane in hand --who claimed he lost the index finger on his right hand during an attack which killed 27 of his fellow infantrymen. Roosevelt had seen too many men like him; and what Roosevelt saw led him to work for international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, which could prevent what he had seen. For, as he also said, "Unless the peace that follows recognizes that the whole world is one neighbourhood, and does justice to the whole human race, the germs of another world war will remain as a constant threat to mankind."

His vision went far beyond his own country and his fellow citizens. He saw himself as a citizen of the world. If Lincoln was the greatest American president, then surely Roosevelt ranks a very close second.

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