I’ve been watching The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, tapping into my lifelong but often neglected curiosity about history. PBS documentaries play prominently in my memory of jr. high and high school history classes. Watching The Civil War in seventh or eighth grade, Eyes on the Prize in high school…the events of history gripped me through their storytelling, songs, photos.
The documentary is full. Anecdotes, statistics, details support lessons and themes of the Roosevelts’ public lives that might help us understand the past we come from. After the German agenda against Jews manifested in Kristallnacht in 1938, FDR extended the visas of 15,000 German and Austrian resident aliens. Yet, in 1939 85% American Protestants, 84% of American Catholics and 25% of American Jews opposed welcoming refugees from Europe. The documentary follows these statistics with Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: “What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history, we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunate from other countries. And though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousandfold by what they have brought us.”
In the excitement of presidential primary season, amidst soundbites of politicians promising a new future, perhaps we should tune into history. It seems our faith affiliation alone does not motivate us to follow the tenants of that faith, but maybe the hindsight of history could inspire us to act on the virtue of its ideals.