A look at President Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” speech shows that the Green New Deal is in line with the very best aspects of the American tradition, and provides key lessons for our time.
Since the Green New Deal resolution has been introduced to the American public, it has captured the support of a majority of the American public despite being vilified by a swath of powerful interests. After years of gloomy reports from the scientific community, the most recent of which indicates that we have 12 years to keep temperature rises to a manageable 1.5°C, the Green New Deal represents the first full swing at the problem.
Based on the reality that climate change is an existential threat to our way of life, the Green New Deal aims to marshal the nation’s collective energies in a full-scale mobilization to meet the moment. The plan addresses five main goals: achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, creating millions of jobs, investing in infrastructure, securing clean air and water, and promoting equity and justice. While the resolution stays away from endorsing specific policy prescriptions, it offers various projects to address the crisis – such as upgrading existing buildings, developing energy-efficient power grids, and investing in renewable energy technologies, among others.
More than any specific goals and projects, perhaps what is most notable about the Green New Deal from past climate plans is the clear-eyed, unapologetic vision behind the plan. On an issue where hopelessness and defeatism towards the challenge can seem all too easy, the plan’s proponents strike an overarching and fundamentally hopeful note: we can do this because we have done it before. The creators of the Green New Deal studied how federal industrial policy helped transform the American economy during World War II. They have said that they drew inspiration from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy” speech in 1940, which laid out how the United States would confront the existential threat posed by Nazi Germany.
It is worth revisiting that speech, for that critical moment in American history provides several lessons for this moment today. Almost 80 years later, the speech shows us why the Green New Deal is in the best spirit of American dynamism and reminds us why “we have every good reason for hope.”
There have always been those that want us to hide from our problems
At the close of 1940, facing a divided nation still smarting from the pain of the Great Depression, Roosevelt set out to earn public support for ramping up production of military equipment to aid Britain in its war effort. With France’s collapse only six months prior, Great Britain remained the only major Allied power still standing as Hitler’s Germany rapidly seized land with impunity. Despite the impending threat, Roosevelt addressed a country that was largely isolationist in its mood, and he knew it. He spoke of a telegram that he received, which “expressed the attitude of the small minority who want to see no evil and hear no evil, even though they know in their hearts that evil exists.”
Facing those that believed Nazi Germany wasn’t a threat to the United States, he addressed this point head-on: “Frankly and definitely there is danger ahead – danger against which we must prepare. But we well know that we cannot escape danger, or the fear of danger, by crawling into bed and pulling the covers over our heads.” Among his detractors was none other than Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator-turned-prominent non-interventionist. Lindbergh argued in a 1941 speech that “no foreign army will ever attempt to land on American shores” due to our physical distance from them, and thus the United States should “turn our eyes and our faith back to our own country.” The title of that speech? ‘America First.’
Today’s most prominent ‘America Firster’ doesn’t just deny that the threat from climate change won’t reach America’s shores – he denies the existence of the very idea of climate change. That’s why he has appointed a Presidential Committee on Climate Security led by an individual who argues that up is down and down is up: “We’re doing our best to try and counter this myth that [carbon dioxide or CO2] is a dangerous pollutant. It’s not a pollutant at all… We should be telling the scientific truth, that more CO2 is actually a benefit to the earth.” It is also the reason why he has nominated an ambassador to the United Nations who believes that “there are scientists on both sides that are accurate.”
There will always be those that want to hide under the covers, whether out of fear of the problem itself or fear of making the required changes that come after admitting that the problem exists. The Green New Deal is different from past plans, as it rejects the politics of fear. Rather than worrying about attacks from those that have been operating in bad faith for decades, the deal reframes the discussion around action. Just as Roosevelt dismissed naysayers and stressed the need for preparation, the Green New Deal also rejects the premise that there are “both sides” to the climate discussion and instead focuses on tangible actions that we can take now.
Cost should not be the primary policy consideration when addressing existential national security threats
As the trauma of the Great Depression was still widely felt, Roosevelt knew that he would need to justify why massive mobilization to aid Great Britain was needed when growth at home was still lethargic. Barring the economic considerations, he explained why assisting Britain would benefit all Americans: “It is a matter of realistic, practical military policy, based on the advice of our military experts who are in close touch with existing warfare. These military and naval experts and the members of the Congress and the Administration have a single-minded purpose: the defense of the United States.”
Members of his cabinet were more blunt. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, affirmed that through preparing munitions for Britain, “…we are buying our own security while we prepare.” Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox further noted that if British sea power failed and the Germans were not kept at bay, they would “…almost certainly move into South America” first and build “an aggressive military power” on America’s doorstep. Failure to prepare now, he warned, would ultimately result in the need to “build a wall around the United States” as we stand “…armed to the teeth, completely surrounded by totalitarian powers intent upon our final subjugation.”
Our military leaders know all too well that no such wall can stop the national security threat posed by climate change – an issue which knows no borders. A 2015 report by the Department of Defense highlighted the effects that frequent extreme weather events have around the world: increased refugee flows, conflicts over basic resources like food and water, and damage to critical infrastructure and US military bases, among others. According to former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, climate change essentially acts as a threat multiplier that “drive[s] instability … [and] requires a broader, whole-of-government response.”
The Green New Deal offers such a response. Recognizing that the costs of climate change would be incalculable to our way of life if left unaccounted for , the plan places feasibility of addressing the crisis as the primary policy consideration ahead of cost. Cost is an important factor; advisors to the Green New Deal are determining potential ways to finance the Deal and keep it sustainable. However, the first consideration is whether the proposed solution addresses the scope of the challenge, for anything short of that would be disastrous. Roosevelt understood that the financial status of the United States mattered little if the United States as we knew it ceased to exist. The Green New Deal adopts that same sense of urgency.
“Socialism” has always been the tattered cry of those opposed to any cooperation between the market and government
When laying out how he believed the country could significantly increase its production of munitions, Roosevelt called for a “splendid cooperation between the government and industry and labor.” Lauding American industrial genius, he challenged American industry to “…discard the notion of ‘business as usual’ ” in pursuit of “…more ships, more guns, more planes – more of everything.” Despite not calling for any changes in ownership of resources as socialism demands, Roosevelt was met almost immediately with accusations that he was using the war as a pretext to enact socialism. Media mogul Henry Luce wrote: “We are all acquainted with the fearful forecast… that in the process of war and its aftermath our economy will be largely socialized, that the politicians now in office will seize complete power and never yield it up.” Luce warned that …“we shall end up in such a total national socialism that any faint semblances of our constitutional American democracy will be totally unrecognizable.”
This prognosis could not have been further from reality. Roosevelt sought to spur business’ entrepreneurial energies toward the war effort, not stifle it or seize its resources. Under his watch, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a government corporation that was the largest lending institution in the world, invested $33 billion (over $1.2 trillion today) into American business, particularly into the aircraft and machine-tool-design sectors. With an economic incentive provided to industries if they aided the war mobilization effort, the country’s entrepreneurial spirit was unleashed towards that end. Entirely new commodities such as aluminum, magnesium, and synthetic rubber, were created. Rather than have an antagonistic relationship with business, Roosevelt enlisted the help of hundreds of corporate executives, such as General Motors CEO William Knudsen, to help run the government commissions as equal partners.
Contrary to the fantasy spun by the plan’s detractors, the Green New Deal is not a government-run takeover of the private sector but an endeavor to work with the market. New Consensus, the think tank working to flesh out the proposal, readily declares that “…mobilizations of this kind cannot be led simply by bureaucrats. Rather, great national projects, including development and redevelopment projects, have always been orchestrated by … all sectors: labor, industry, government, nonprofits, community organizations, and others.” When pressed on how to achieve the Green New Deal’s goals, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has cited public-private partnerships and government contracting as potential ways. Other key advisors have discussed the role that private capital can play in financing the Deal’s projects. While the details continue to be discussed and debated, it is clear that the plan’s creators envision a robust role for the private sector.
All of which makes repeatedly raising the specter of socialism all the more absurd. The Green New Deal recognizes, as Roosevelt did during his World War II mobilization, that markets respond to incentives. If federal industrial policy can create those incentives, whether through R&D grants or government contracts, and give the private sector a nudge towards the green economy, then businesses will compete amongst each other for those incentives. Far from leading to the socialist future of hysterics’ dreams, such a shift would allow the public and private sectors to work together in pursuit of solutions – the only realistic way a problem of this magnitude can be addressed.
An investment in the American worker pays for itself
Realizing the scale of the challenges ahead, Roosevelt was straightforward with the country: “If we are to be completely honest with ourselves, we must admit that there is risk in any course we may take … So I appeal to the owners of plants, to the managers, to the workers, to our own government employees to put every ounce of effort into producing these munitions swiftly.” At a time when Germany was rapidly outproducing the United States and with Japan’s entry into the conflict imminent, Roosevelt understood the need to speak hard truths. Each day spent not mobilizing was a day wasted. “We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he concluded, for “…this is an emergency as serious as war itself.”
The American people did not disappoint. In four years, American industrial production doubled in size as the country turned its energies to outproducing the Axis powers. Although output was less than 6,000 planes in 1939, Roosevelt challenged the nation to produce 50,000 planes annually; the country responded by producing 300,000 planes over the next five years. The numbers were equally impressive across other industries: the country went from producing 3,300 tanks in 1940 to 88,000 over the rest of the war. The production time of some types of ships was reduced from 365 days down to one day. As a result, unemployment in the United States fell from 8.1 million in 1940 to 670,000 by 1944. The investment in the American worker paid off. Roosevelt’s decision brought not only peace abroad but also prosperity at home.
As the defining challenge of our time, climate change requires an equally bold investment in the American worker. We already have early signs that this would yield a tremendous payoff. In 2009, President Obama’s stimulus package invested $90 billion into increasing U.S. clean energy, researching new ways to capture carbon, and funding research and development of advanced energy technologies. In the ensuing years, we have seen the early fruits of that investment: US wind capacity has tripled, solar capacity has increased more than sixfold and more than a million electric vehicles are already on the road – up from nearly zero in 2008.
While the clean energy investment in the 2009 stimulus reflected progress, it was not enough for the scale of the problem. The Green New Deal, in calling for a massive mobilization that involves a universal employment guarantee, would direct the nation’s energies towards the next generation of American industry. Roosevelt, understanding that the war would be won or lost on the back of U.S. production, went all in on the American worker. Learning from his example, the Green New Deal makes a bet that we still have the ability to reverse the worst effects of climate change if we remain unified. It seeks to double down on the United States’ best asset: its people.
For all of the similarities between the eve of World War II mobilization and the moment we now find ourselves in, there is one crucial difference: we know that we can win. Speaking to the nation that dark December day, Roosevelt had no such assurances. As city after city succumbed to Nazi aggression, as the German Luftwaffe rained down bombs upon civilians in London, and as Mussolini’s Italian Royal Army invaded sovereign nations in the Balkans, Roosevelt did not know if the nation could overcome the overwhelming might of the Axis powers. Some at home, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, were already urging the President to surrender to “realism,” arguing that Hitler had “…already determined the broad lines of our national life for at least another generation.” There was real doubt whether Hitler could be defeated at all.
There is no such doubt that the United States can still defeat the worst impacts of climate change if we act now. As the last IPCC report made clear, we have not yet hit the tipping point of 2°C where several hundred million humans will be exposed to climate-related risks, global economic growth is halted as key industries are decimated, and entire ecosystems are wiped out. There is still time to adapt, and the economy has already begun to move in that direction. Solar and wind costs have plummeted by 88% and 69%, respectively, making renewable technologies cheaper than existing energy sources, just as the last coal plants are expected to be phased out in the next 15 years. Meanwhile, new technologies designed to remove carbon out of the atmosphere are becoming more viable. The only thing we are missing is the political will to act, which is where the Green New Deal comes in.
The Green New Deal injects into the climate change discussion what has so desperately been lacking for decades: hope. For too long, we have been inundated by report after report showing increasing damage to the climate, only to be met with silence from too many of our elected leaders. The Green New Deal breaks that cycle of paralysis and offers an actionable path forward that we can believe in. More than belief, however, it gives direction to where we should focus the nation’s energies and taps into the greatest aspects of American dynamism by centering that action around our nation’s workers. We are at our best when we work towards a common purpose, a higher purpose, and the Green New Deal reminds us of those roots. It reminds us that Americans do not cower in the face of defining moments; we meet the challenge and redefine the moment. Roosevelt’s words further remind us that “We have every good reason for hope—hope for peace, hope for the defense of our civilization and for the building of a better civilization in the future.” It is up to us to turn that hope into action.
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 Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. “The Great Arsenal of Democracy.” Oval Office Address. Washington, District of Columbia. 29 December 1940.
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 Ibid, Roosevelt.
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 Ibid, Freeman.
 “The Way We Won: America’s Economic Breakthrough During World War II.” The American Prospect. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://prospect.org/article/way-we-won-americas-economic-breakthrough-during-world-war-ii.
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 Hockett, Robert. “Green New Deal Funding: Remember Finance Is a Public-Private Franchise, Not a Big Broker in the Sky.” Forbes. February 24, 2019. Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rhockett/2019/02/24/green-new-deal-funding-remember-finance-is-a-public-private-franchise-not-a-big-broker-in-the-sky/#37c28a604e72.
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 Ibid, Gropman.
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 Ibid, Grunwald.
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