Fifty years ago today Franklin Roosevelt rode to the Capitol and took the oath as thirty-second president of the United States and I am going to propose a monument for an event that didn't occur. It was probably the most important nonevent of half a century. It was the time when FDR reopened the banks - every one in the country was closed - and people decided what to do with their money, was there going to be a revolution or not? No revolution and you kept your money in the banks. Revolution, and you took it out. What would they decide?
Earlier the governor of Michigan closed some banks. He called it a ''bank holiday.'' Individual banks, of course, had been closing ever since the great 1929 Crash. Now anxiety was spreading on a broader range, and panic was threatened. On Feb. 28, four days before Roosevelt took over, bank ''holidays'' were declared in Delaware, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Nevada.
People quailed. Roosevelt, elected in November, wouldn't take office till March. The new 20th Amendment ending the president's term on Jan. 20 hadn't gone into effect yet. So poor Hoover, although overwhelmingly defeated, was still legally in charge. On Wednesday, March 1, the banking system collapsed in California, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.
Next day Roosevelt left Hyde Park and came to New York City. Arthur Krock of the New York Times reported that responsible men had urged him to seize power now, things were getting out of hand. On Thursday, March 2, he came to Washington on his special train and put up at the Mayflower Hotel. Hoover implored him to sign a joint statement to calm the situation. FDR didn't like the proposed declaration and rejected it.
Friday, March 3 - the Bowery Savings Bank (New York) closed its doors while a line outside demanded cash. The Roosevelts had tea with Hoover in a frigid atmosphere at the White House. By this time the banks of Minnesota and Kansas were gone and North Carolina and Virginia were going. Hoover told advisers the country was ''on the verge of financial panic and chaos.'' He privately wrote Sen. David A. Reed of Pennsylvania, that if FDR accepted his proposed terms ''it means the abandonment of 90 percent of the so-called new deal.'' Roosevelt wouldn't sign.
FDR kept in touch with Hoover by telephone till 1 a.m. Five hundred million dollars had been drained from the banking system in the past two days. Banks in most of the states except Illinois and New York were now closed. Illinois capitulated at 1:45 a.m. March 4. Governor Lehman proclaimed the final state holiday in New York at four in the morning. A few hours later Roosevelt and Hoover rode up to the Capitol to the inaugural. They wore silk top hats in an open car and had little to say.
It was a cloudy day with an occasional ray of sunlight piercing the chill. I was there in the throng wondering what would happen. The mood was more relaxed. Under the clouds rode majestically the Navy airship Akron. Airplanes flew against the dark sky in groups of nine: some 95 of them altogether. There was an enormous crowd. It was hopeful, willing to cheer, but basically, I think, the mood was expectant. It was said that the army had machine guns at strategic points.
The voice was clear and resonant. The President seemed confident. He told the country it had nothing to fear but fear itself. He said it with a cock of his head and an encouraging voice. He was speaking in a city where it was almost impossible to cash a check. The banks were closed and would be next week.
If ordinary powers were inadequate, he said, ''I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis - broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to use if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.''
Pledge or threat? He said it without special emphasis. It was electrifying in a way, but what if he had to use extra-constitutional power? He spoke with gusto. What about those banks? He called Congress back for March 9. People decided that the speech had been a triumph. That weekend 450,000 wrote him to tell him so.
Then Roosevelt declared a four-day holiday for all banks. He called Congress back to pass emergency bank legislation. The House acted in 38 minutes, while Mrs. Roosevelt sat knitting in the gallery like Madame DeFarge. The Senate, a more deliberative body, took several hours to do the work. FDR signed it at the White House at 8:36 p.m.
So now the banks were to reopen. What would happen? All that night and the next lights of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing twinkled across the tidal basin. They had hired 375 new workers. So much money was in hoarding that the country needed more bills and they were printing bundles of new money. Would people accept it?
People took the money. Customers nodded at tellers and as they did their business a lot of them thought about this new man Roosevelt. He seemed sure of himself didn't he; hopeful, confident? Maybe things would be all right.
In New York stocks jumped 15 percent. The Dow Jones ticker clicked at the end ''Happy Days Are Here Again.''
Fifty years ago. What kind of a monument do you erect to a nonevent?