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Celebrating Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy

On January 6, 1941, President Roosevelt came before the Congress and gave us a vision of the world that would be worthy of our civilization. He spoke—simply, eloquently—of a nation dedicated to the Four Freedoms—everywhere in the world:

Freedom of speech and expression,

the best defense against the corruption of democracy;

Freedom of worship,

our shield against the forces of bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism;

Freedom from want,

a commitment to erasing hunger, poverty, and pestilence from the earth;

Freedom from fear,

a freedom dependent on collective security,

a concept carried forward with our leadership in the United Nations.

Winston Churchill once said of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that “He is the greatest man I have ever known.”

Franklin Roosevelt was the voice of the people of the United States during the most difficult crises of the 20th century. He led America out of the despair of the Great Depression. He led us to victory in World War II. Four times he was elected President of the United States. By temperament and talent, by energy and instinct, Franklin Roosevelt was ready for the challenges that confronted him. He was a breath of fresh air in our political life—so vital, so confident and optimistic, so warm and good-humored.  He was a man of incomparable personal courage. At the age of 39 he was stricken with infantile paralysis. The pain of his struggle is almost unimaginable—learning to move again, to stand, to rely upon the physical support of others—never giving into despair, to self-pity, to discouragement.  He gave that courage to his country at a time of its greatest need.

It was a time when heroes were possible, when idealism was admired, when public service was the highest calling. Franklin Roosevelt transformed our government into an active instrument of social justice. He made America the arsenal of democracy. He was Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military force in history. He crafted the victorious alli­ance that won the war. He was the father of the nuclear age. He guided the blueprint for the world that was to follow. The vision of the United Nations, the commitment to collective security, the determination to end colonialism, the opportunity for peace and prosperity for all people—such was the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt.

We have witnessed disappointed expectations. We have seen agonizing struggles continue between ancient rivals. But we must continue to reach out to all the nations of the world to prevent war, to resolve conflicts, to turn our great wealth and power to the betterment of our country, our world, and all of humanity.

One of President Roosevelt’s proud achievements was the Good Neighbor Policy, reaching out to the nations of the Western Hemisphere, assuring them that a new era of cooperation, dignity, and respect had begun, ending decades of heavy-handed intervention, and pledging a mutual commitment to peace and social justice. The principles established as Good Neighbors helped lay the basis for the United Nations, for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for the Organization of American States. When the major test came with the nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum industry by President Cardenas, President Roosevelt was under enormous pressure to intervene, by force if necessary. He absolutely refused, acknowledging that Mexico had acted in accordance with international law, and that the problem should be negotiated. It was—and a new era was born.

The United States that Franklin Roosevelt led would reject as we do the bombast of foul-mouthed threats, it would insist on our nations according each other dignity, sovereignty, respect, conciliation—as we do. Demagogues would have been scorned, insulting threats would have been dismissed as would the bullies who made them.  President Roosevelt built bridges, not walls.  He embraced Mexico with respect, and its people with affection, as we who stand in his shadow happily do today. Each of our countries has struggled to define and establish freedom, to become the country we want to be. We may falter but we will not fail.

On September 21, 2016, the Trustees of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy marked President Roosevelt’s declaration of the Good Neighbor Policy with a special ceremony during which Mexico and Canada were honored as exemplars of good neighbors.

In recognizing Mexico, the Trustees wished to honor its people and the benefits the world has received because of our being Good Neighbors. There is no better symbol to speak for all of us than Dr. Alfredo Quiñones, known to his legion of admirers as “Dr. Q,” a neurosurgeon, a prolific author and a pioneering researcher whose work holds hope for breakthrough results and miraculous advancement. Dr. Q crossed the border between Mexico and the United States in 1987.  He was a poor farm worker who spoke no English.  Within a decade he was an acclaimed graduate of the University of California (Berkeley) and Harvard Medical School. In the course of this year he has moved from being a professor of neurosurgery and oncology at John Hopkins University to being Chair of Neurological Surgery for the Mayo Clinic in Florida. Next year, Disney will release a movie about his remarkable life.

As for Canada, a recent biography of President Roosevelt described his visit to Ottawa on August 25, 1943. He was greeted by the largest crowd ever to welcome a dignitary to Canada’s capitol. The author writes that the President gave an extraordinary speech, expressing the essence of the challenge to our two democracies—to be leaders in establishing a better world, in founding the United Nations and supporting the Four Freedoms as our cause and our responsibility.

Despite the oft quoted lamentation of a former Prime Minister as he looked to the heavens: O Canada—it is our fate—so close to the United States, so far from God, no relationship between two countries has been better.  No two countries share more extensive social, economic, military and cultural ties. In times of crisis, we have never failed to speak to each other truthfully and frankly, as Good Neighbors must do, and we have resolved our differences peacefully and respectfully.

In honoring the Canadian people, we go back to the earth-shattering events of 9/11.  As the tragedy unfolded, 46 planes and their 6,000 passengers were diverted to Newfoundland whose citizens embraced them as though they were family and shared their homes and responded to their needs.


More than 600,000 visitors from all over the world have come to the Four Freedoms Park. Why have they come? Why will they come again? To share a vision that brings yesterday and tomorrow together—to tell their children stories about the history of our country and those who have led us—to hear the river, to see the ocean, perhaps even to subdue the turbulence of their lives. Franklin Roosevelt once said: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” This is a great place to “hang on.” They come and will continue to come to enjoy an outing with their families, to picnic, to laugh, and run in the shadow of one of the most beautiful presidential memorials in America.*


* This text is edited from remarks presented by Ambassador William J. vanden Heuvel at the September 21, 2016 ceremony to celebrate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of the Good Neighbor Policy.

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