We have just heard the president's State of the Union address. It was delivered in a fraught time by a man freighted with responsibility. He hit the right notes and struck the right tone. We have domestic differences, to be sure, but we are united in our disdain for Vladimir Putin, his expansionist impulses, his delusional view of history. Men and women of both parties generally applauded at the appropriate times. It was the sort of American moment that is rare in today's America.
The invasion of Ukraine has had many effects on us. It has caused us to reflect on the nature and value of freedom at a time when both are contested because of the spread of the coronavirus and the controversies about mask and vaccine mandates. It has prompted us to think about the role of government and elections at a time when the integrity of both have been challenged like never before, or at least since the onset of the Civil War. It has moved us to examine our views of what is a civil society and how we can build one together while retaining our separate views on the issues of the day.
It also has caused us to think anew about the value of studying and knowing a bit about history. The number of history majors in our universities has fallen, dropping especially after the Great Recession and amid legitimate concerns about future employment. Unless you are seeking to teach in a classroom or take over my column, the study of history may seem like a luxury, an indulgence.
But this period may have changed all that. And as proof, let me go back in history and offer another president's State of the Union address, given at another time of challenge. Let's tune in, if just for a few excerpts, to what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his 1940 remarks – and let's ponder whether Joe Biden might have delivered these very remarks Tuesday.
FDR: I have repeatedly warned that, whether we like it or not, the daily lives of American citizens will, of necessity, feel the shock of events on other continents. This is no longer mere theory; because it has been definitely proved to us by the facts of yesterday and today.
This was "definitely proved to us" by the facts of the past week, when "a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing" – the history-minded among you will recognize the phrase from Neville Chamberlain that captured his view of world affairs, leading to his capitulation to Adolf Hitler in 1938 – sent shock waves across the United States.
FDR: To say that the domestic well-being of ... Americans is deeply affected by the well-being or the ill-being of the populations of other nations is only to recognize in world affairs the truth that we all accept in home affairs.
Here Roosevelt was stating the obvious to a nation where large portions of the population were oblivious to the obvious. We are more conscious of this now, and yet fresh voices continue to question whether the country should curtail its global engagement.
FDR: We must look ahead and see the effect on our own future if all the small nations of the world have their independence snatched from them or become mere appendages to relatively vast and powerful military systems.
This is a chilling sentence, aimed at Czechoslovakia (already in tatters) and Poland (divided by the Nazis and Soviets), and looking ahead to Romania (at the time neutral, but seven months from a fascist coup) and Greece (victim of the Nazis within a year).
FDR: It is, of course, true that the record of past centuries includes destruction of many small nations, the enslavement of peoples, and the building of empires on the foundation of force. But wholly apart from the greater international morality which we seek today, we recognize the practical fact that with modern weapons and modern conditions, modern man can no longer lead a civilized life if we are to go back to the practice of wars and conquests of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
This is a passage with special resonance today, as Mr. Putin, fashioning himself the heir to Peter the Great (1672-1725) and behaving as the heir to Josef Stalin (1878-1953), is operating out of a worldview centuries old, even as he possesses nuclear weapons invented in the last century and enhanced hypersonic weapons refined only in the last decade.
FDR: Of course, the peoples of other nations have the right to choose their own form of Government. But we in this nation still believe that such choice should be predicated on certain freedoms which we think are essential everywhere. We know that we ourselves shall never be wholly safe at home unless other governments recognize such freedoms.
In these three sentences, Roosevelt harkens to one of his political heroes, Woodrow Wilson, who is in disrepute today for racist views and for the airy idealism that filled his Fourteen Points. But some of those Points are relevant to us today; several directly covered the broad thesis of national self-determination. Mr. Putin might be reminded that one of them asked for special consideration for Russia, where the Communist Revolution had occurred months earlier: "The treatment accorded Russia by her sister nations in the months to come will be the acid test of their good will, of their comprehension of her needs as distinguished from their own interests, and of their intelligent and unselfish sympathy."
A year later Roosevelt would use his State of the Union address to set out his Four Freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The artist Norman Rockwell made them part of American iconography.
The freedom from fear seems especially poignant to us today. No one who has viewed Rockwell's portrayal – a worried couple tucking their two children into bed – can fail to contrast that with the image shot 'round the world on CNN of the worried mother of two seeking shelter in a Kharkiv subway station. "We woke up at 5 because we heard some explosions," she said. "We were scared."
The American father in the Rockwell painting held a newspaper. The words "BOMBINGS" and "HORROR" were in the headline. The Ukrainian mother in the subway station held her family's food. It was a bag of potato chips.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.