History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
At 5 o’clock in the evening on July 4, 1941, activities in the U.S. ground to a halt. Drivers in Times Square pulled over and stopped on the road, Philadelphians gathered around the Liberty Bell and baseball games across the country stopped mid-play as President Roosevelt took to the radio waves to kick off a patriotic program that was described by The New York Times as “somber.”
“In our generation—in the past few years—a new resistance, in the form of several new practices of tyranny, has been making such headway that the fundamentals of 1776 are being struck down abroad and, definitely, they are threatened here,” Roosevelt told the nation. “It is, indeed, a fallacy, based on no logic at all, for any American to suggest that the rule of force can defeat human freedom in all the other parts of the world and permit it to survive in the United States alone.”
On the 165th anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence, the freedom and democracy the country was founded on were under threat. War had been raging in Europe for nearly two years, and the U.S. was still undecided on its involvement. Just over five months after Roosevelt’s Fourth of July address, the luxury of choice would be removed when Japan bombed the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.
Happy 165th Birthday, America!
The Fourth of July celebrations that most Americans know and love today involve backyard barbecues, pool parties, flag cakes, fireworks, and more festive trappings. But the official agenda on July 4, 1941 was a little more sedate. The New York Times called the national radio program put together by New York City Mayor LaGuardia “a simple and solemn Independence Day observance unprecedented in the nation’s history.”
From his desk at the FDR Library in Hyde Park—the same desk Woodrow Wilson sat at when he drafted the League of Nations—Roosevelt addressed the nation in a short speech that was broadcast over the radio waves. After his address, Chief Justice Stone read the pledge of allegiance, and then the Marine Band in Washington played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I tell the American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship,” Roosevelt warned in his speech. He ended his address by pledging “our work, our will and, if it be necessary, our very lives” to the cause of freedom.
Kaboom! A History of Fireworks
Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, John Adams had a good idea of the pomp and circumstance that would accompany the historical date for hundreds of years to come.
On July 3, 1776, Adams wrote his wife Abigail a letter in which he said, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
His predictions of the fireworks that would ring out for years to come on July 4th came true. The very next year, Philadelphia and Boston both celebrated with colorful explosions in the sky, and the practice continued to catch on in more cities every year thereafter. Today, fireworks are one of the hallmarks of America’s Independence Day celebrations.
But Things Weren’t So Colorful During WWII
It didn’t help the somber tone adopted during the official commemoration of the Fourth of July in 1941 that it was also a rainy day in New York, so rainy, in fact, that the Yankees game was cancelled. The foul weather also put a damper on the fireworks display scheduled that year—well, the weather and the fact that the state government had recently outlawed the private sale of fireworks. But as staid as things were in 1941, reporters were already predicting that the next year would be even less festive as, “the priority situation in the national defense program may require restrictions on the production of fireworks.”
These predictions proved true. By July 4, 1942, the U.S. was firmly embroiled in the conflict raging on the European continent. War production efforts had overtaken the manufacturing of fireworks, so there was a shortage of the colorful rockets, not to mention a general discouragement—if not full prohibition of in certain areas—on their use.
But fireworks do not a nation make! The patriotic fervor in 1942 was stronger than ever—lack of fireworks notwithstanding—and it was reported that the American flag made the cover of 500 magazines that Fourth of July week.