EIGHTY YEARS AGO on New Year’s Day, the country was anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop. A crushing economic depression showed no sign of abating. Americans had elected a new president in November but had to wait until early March of 1933 to see what he would, or could, do about it. When Inauguration Day finally came, the new chief got quickly to the point. He proclaimed his “firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The words are old now, somewhat tired from repetition, and they weren’t entirely true when spoken. There was a lot more to be feared than fear itself: drought, disease, hunger, economic failure, Hitler. But Franklin D. Roosevelt, in addition to lifting the country’s spirits, had hit on an important point about the American character in that inaugural address, one that was essential to recovery. It was the idea that fear, the sort of paralytic, debilitating fear he had in mind, discourages people from action and dims their hopes. It strikes not only at the economy but at America’s most essential quality: its basic and enduring optimism.