On March 4, once upon a time known as Inauguration Day, Americans marked the 80th anniversary of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, with it, the creation of the environmental movement.
Now, I know what you may be thinking. Between the two Roosevelts, chances are you’d pick Teddy if asked to name who was America’s first “environmental president.”
And TR would be a good answer. He was, after all, a pioneer of the American conservation movement, champion of our national park system and an amateur zoologist who liked to spend his spare time on yearlong safaris. But Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin was no environmental slouch himself. His own green thumb while president should not be discounted.
Before he sent American soldiers overseas to fight fascism, FDR scattered more than 2.5 million young Americans like seeds about the country and told them to plant trees — more than 3 billion of them.
The year was 1933, and this mobilization of budding Johnny Appleseeds was called the Civilian Conservation Corps — the CCC — affectionately known as “Mr. Roosevelt’s Tree Army.” The CCC was just one of the many “alphabet agencies” created by Roosevelt to shore up the Great Depression-ravaged sector of American society.
By the time Roosevelt bravely declared in his first inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” America lay prostrate from an economic collapse that paralyzed not only the leaders of its own government but governments all around the globe.
During his famous first “Hundred Days,” Roosevelt reached deep down into his progressive roots and began ordering up new agencies like courses from an Italian restaurant, a veritable banquet of relief for beleaguered farmers, laborers, bankers, businesspeople and the elderly.
What Americans remember most about President Roosevelt might include Social Security, the GI Bill, the United Nations, recovering from the Great Depression and winning World War II. Each of these achievements touched Americans either directly or indirectly. As a teacher, I always tell my students that history is tangible. While there is no question that Social Security, which pulled the nation’s elderly out of poverty, will always rank as Roosevelt’s signature domestic accomplishment, my favorite chapter of the New Deal story has always been the Civilian Conservation Corps.