Lessons from FDR: It turns out that authoritarian governments depend on the economies of democracies
On June 5, 1944, the day before the D-Day operation in which the Allied forces in World War II invaded German-occupied western Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his 29th Fireside Chat.
Roosevelt told the American people that Rome had fallen to American and Allied troops the previous day. He used the talk not only to announce this important milestone in the deadly war, but also to remind Americans they were engaged in a war between democracy and fascism. And while fascists insisted their ideology made countries more efficient and able to serve their people, the Allies’ victory in Rome illustrated that the ideology of fascism, which maintained that a few men should rule over the majority of the population, was hollow.
Rome was the seat of fascism, FDR told his listeners, and under that government, “the Italian people were enslaved.” He explained: “In Italy the people had lived so long under the corrupt rule of Mussolini that, in spite of the tinsel at the top—you have seen the pictures of him—their economic condition had grown steadily worse. Our troops have found starvation, malnutrition, disease, a deteriorating education and lowered public health—all by-products of the Fascist misrule.”
FDR continued: “We and the British will do and are doing everything we can to bring them relief. Anticipating the fall of Rome, we made preparations to ship food supplies to the city…we have already begun to save the lives of the men, women and children of Rome…. This, I think, is an example of the magnificent ability and energy of the American people in growing the crops, building the merchant ships, in making and collecting the cargoes, in getting the supplies over thousands of miles of water, and thinking ahead to meet emergencies—all this spells, I think, an amazing efficiency on the part of our armed forces, all the various agencies working with them, and American industry and labor as a whole.”
“No great effort like this can be a hundred percent perfect,” he said, “but the batting average is very, very high.”
That speech highlighting logistics as a key difference between democracy and fascism comes to mind these days as we watch democracy and authoritarianism clash in Ukraine.
A report released in February by Washington DC nonprofit Freedom House, which studies democracy, political freedom, and human rights, painted a bleak picture. “Global freedom faces a dire threat,” authors Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz wrote. “Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy, a form of self-government in which human rights are recognized and every individual is entitled to equal treatment under law, are accelerating their attacks.”
In 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that the ideology of liberalism on which democracy is based has “outlived its purpose.” Multiculturalism, freedom, and human rights must give way to “the culture, traditions, and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has been open about his determination to replace western-style democracy with what he has, on different occasions, called “illiberal democracy,” or “Christian democracy,” ending the immigration that he believes undermines Hungarian culture and rejecting “adaptable family models” with “the Christian family model.”
According to President Joe Biden, Chinese president Xi Jinping believes that autocracies are “the wave of the future — democracy can’t function in an ever complex world.”
Freedom House documents that for sixteen years, global freedom has declined. Authoritarians are undermining basic liberties, abusing power, and violating human rights, and their growing global influence is shifting global incentives toward autocratic governments and away from democracy, “jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance.” Over the past year, 60 countries became less free, while only 25 improved.
“They’re going to write about this point in history,” Biden told a group of news anchors in April 2021, shortly after he took office. “Not about any of us in here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century…. Things are changing so rapidly in the world, in science and technology and a whole range of other issues, that—the question is: In a democracy that’s such a genius as ours, can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?”
The last few weeks have demonstrated the same advantage of democracy over authoritarianism that FDR saw in the fall of Rome. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was supposed to demonstrate the efficient juggernaut of authoritarianism. But Putin’s lightning attack on a neighboring state did not go as planned. Ukrainians have insisted on their right to self-determination, demonstrating the power of democracy with their lives.
At the same time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the weakness of modern authoritarianism. Putin expected to overrun a democratic neighbor quickly, but his failure to do so has revealed that his army’s perceived power was FDR’s “tinsel at the top”: lots of bells and whistles but outdated food, a lack of support vehicles, conscripted and confused soldiers, and compromised communications. The corruption inherent in a one-party state of loyalists, unafflicted by oversight, has hollowed out the Russian military, making it unable to feed or supply its troops.
That authoritarian government, it turns out, depended on democracies. As businesses pull out of Russia, the economy has collapsed. The ruble is worth less than a penny, and the Russian stock market remains closed. The Russian economic ministry announced it would take the property of businesses leaving the country. Notably, it claimed the right to take about $10 billion of jets that had been leased to Russian airlines, quite possibly a way to get spare parts for the airplanes the huge country needs and can no longer get.
Putin is trying to prop up his power by insisting his people believe lies: he signed a law making it a crime for media to produce any coverage the government says is “false information” about the invasion. He is now pushing the false claim that the U.S. is developing biological weapons in Ukraine, and has requested a meeting of the U.N. Security Council tomorrow to discuss this issue. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called the story “classic Russian propaganda.”
In contrast, democracies and allies, marshaled into a unified force in large part by Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the U.S. State Department, have done the boring, complicated, hard work of logistics, diplomacy, and intelligence, a combination that has crushed the Russian economy and is enabling the Ukrainian army to hold off an army 8 times its size. While there is a horrific humanitarian crisis inside Ukraine, those over the borders have managed the extraordinary logistics of processing and moving 2 million refugees from Ukraine in two weeks.
In 1944, FDR pointed out that democratic government was messy but it freed its people to work and think and fight in ways that authoritarian governments could not. In Fireside Chat 29, he warned his listeners not to read too much into the fall of Rome, because fascism had “not yet been driven to the point where [it] will be unable to recommence world conquest a generation hence…. Therefore, the victory still lies some distance ahead.” But, he added, “That distance will be covered in due time — have no fear of that.”
Library of Congress
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics