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A very prescient president, a speech for the ages Add to ...

'It is impossible not to remember that for years when Canadians and Americans have met, they have lightheartedly saluted as North American friends with little thought of dangers from overseas."

These words, spoken by an American president being honoured by a Canadian university, could have been uttered in the recent past, by George Bush -- or perhaps his eventual successor. They were, however, part of an important address 70 years ago today at Queen's University by arguably the greatest U.S. president of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And his words seem as relevant now during a time of heightened fears over security in a world shaken by threats and acts of terror.

To place FDR's words in context, in August of 1938, war clouds were darkening in seemingly far-off Europe. Memories still lingered of the many thousands of soldiers both Canada and the United States had left behind on the killing fields of France and Belgium only a generation earlier.

The president's visit to Canada, to receive an honorary degree from Queen's and to open the International Bridge at nearby Clayton, N.Y., coincided with growing diplomatic and political concerns abroad and a fervently determined isolationism in North America.

These conflicting pressures seemed to be on the president's mind as he continued his address to his Canadian friends:

"Yet we are awake to the knowledge that the casual assumption of our greetings in earlier times, today must be a matter for serious thought. ... We in the Americas are no longer a faraway continent, to which eddies of controversies beyond the seas could bring no interest or no harm. Instead, we in the Americas have become a consideration for every propaganda office and every general staff beyond the seas. The vast amount of our resources, the vigour of our commerce and the strength of our men have made us vital factors in world peace whether we choose it or not."

On that lovely summer morning in Kingston, FDR, in retrospect, was prescient. The infamous Munich Pact would be signed the following month. And the U.S. president appeared to be bracing both himself and his audience for what loomed on the horizon.

His message also included a stirring homage to the constructive relationship that existed between Canada and the U.S.: "We as good neighbours are true friends because we maintain our own rights with frankness, because we refuse to accept the twists of secret diplomacy, because we settle our disputes by consultation and because we discuss our common problems in the spirit of the common good."

Roosevelt was as popular among Canadians of his time as he was among his own citizens, who would re-elect him to unprecedented third and fourth terms. His brief visit in the summer of 1938 represented a major event in Canada-U.S. relations.

He concluded his remarks at Queen's by saying: "[It has been]suggested that we cultivate three qualities to keep our foothold in the shifting sands of the present - humility, humanity and humour. I have been thinking in terms of a bridge which is to be dedicated this afternoon and so I could not help coming to the conclusion that all of these three qualities, imbedded in education, build new spans to re-establish free intercourse throughout the world and bring forth an order in which free nations can live in peace."

While the humour may not have been evident, it was a speech for the ages, on the eve of a world about to be turned upside down by a global conflagration. And perhaps it is useful to remember FDR's message from that moment of relative tranquillity 70 years ago: Even in our apparent security and comfort in North America, we obviously cannot pretend to be immune from the forces gripping the rest of humankind.

David Mitchell is vice-principal (advancement) at Queen's University

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