Franklin Roosevelt delivered a State of the Union address to Congress on January 6, 1941, that would at least bend history, if not change it. In the last part of the speech he mentioned four freedoms which, he said, are worth going to war to preserve, protect and extend.
Now we call it the Four Freedoms speech. Today is the 74th anniversary of his delivery. Do our students even study this any more?
I found a photo that reminded me of Norman Rockwell‘s “Freedom from Want,” and wrote about it.
Then I ran into a tweet from Texas educator Bonnie Lesley:
That in turn led to an Alternet post, displayed at Reader Supported News (RSN), by a guy who claims that, compared to 1941 and the progress made on the Four Freedoms, all four of them are in danger, in America, today.
Could that be right? In was in his State of the Union address in January 1941 that Roosevelt described the four freedoms he said the U.S. should work to secure around the world — this was clearly a philosophical foundation-laying for going to war on the side of Britain, and against Germany, in the World War that was already raging, but which the U.S. had managed to stay out of for five years in Asia and two years in Europe.
Near the end of the speech on January 6, 1941, Roosevelt explained why freedom needed to be fought for, what was important to us, as Americans in the freedom of others in other nations. This was 10 months before Pearl Harbor. The United States counted itself officially “neutral” in World War II, already raging in Asia and Europe — the Battle of Britain was already over. Anyone who seriously thought the U.S. would be able to stay out of the war probably lived in deep denial (much as denialists of today on a number of topics). Roosevelt was working furiously to get support to Great Britain, and had already started the wheels to cut off U.S. supplies of war materials, including petroleum, to the Japanese empire. (Odd to remember the U.S. was the largest exporter of petroleum then.)
Roosevelt knew he had to establish a philosophy to follow to merit defense of freedom, if, or when as he expected, war would draw the U.S. in, or an attack would trap the nation with need of a very quick response. In his State of the Union to the newly-elected Congress, at the start of his third term, Roosevelt talked in modern language about just what the U.S. stands for, and what the U.S. should be willing to fight for.
Here is an excerpt of the speech, the final few paragraphs:
I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today. No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.
If the Congress maintains these principles the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause.
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic under- standings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
To that new order we oppose the greater conception — the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear.
Since the beginning of our American history we have been engaged in change, in a perpetual, peaceful revolution, a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly, adjusting itself to changing conditions without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.
This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.
To that high concept there can be no end save victory.
This speech inspired Norman Rockwell to create a series of paintings in tribute to the four freedoms, which paintings were used as posters for War Bond drives.
Paul Bucheit argues we’re losing those four freedoms, which we as a nation fought to secure, in the Pacific, in the Atlantic, in Africa, Europe and Asia:
The 2013 version shows how our freedoms have been diminished, or corrupted into totally different forms.
- Freedom from want? Poverty keeps getting worse. . .
- Freedom from fear? The new Jim Crow. . .
- Freedom of worship? Distorted by visions of the Rapture. . .
- Freedom of speech? No, surveillance and harassment. . .
Mr. Bucheit offers longer explanations. I don’t think I agree completely, but I’m interested in your opinion: Are we losing the Four Freedoms we fought for?
Tip of the old scrub brush to Bonnie Lesley, @EdFocus on Twitter.
- There is a Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, off of Manhattan
- Freedom from Fear 2010, a rather brilliant update by Dan Nance (and pricey!)
- A lot more about Rockwell and his paintings, at the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
- Great materials on FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York; teachers, there’s a fair deal of DBQ source material here
- Harvey Kaye published a book about the speech a year ago, and the Four Freedoms: The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great. Good explanation, some great history — maybe yo should buy a copy for your school library.
- “73 years later: Remembering President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms,” William J. vanden Heuvel at Huffington Post
- FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech, James M. Lindsay at The Water’s Edge, Council on Foreign Relations
- CNN’s story by Lucky Gold, via Amanpour
Harvey J. Kaye’s the fellow who wrote the book on the Four Freedoms.