A Brief History
On January 6, 1941, much of the world was enmeshed in World War II, with only the United States among the great powers not yet at war. Many US citizens wanted to keep it that way, and sentiment was largely against any involvement in the affairs of Europe where Hitler and Nazi Germany along with Italy were at war with Western democracies such as France and Britain, and Asia where Japan was fighting in China.
US President Franklin Roosevelt publicly echoed the party line of non-involvement with the war, but he personally wanted to help the democracies resist totalitarian domination. In his 1941 State of the Union speech Roosevelt addressed the security of the United States by recognizing that for the US to enjoy freedoms the country must exist in a world where such freedoms existed.
The Freedom of Speech
The Freedom of Worship
The Freedom from Want
The Freedom from Fear
The speech about human rights and references to the US Constitution was a slap at the totalitarian dictatorships of the aggressive countries that had started World War II, the key instigators being Germany, Italy and Japan, along with our soon to be ally, the Soviet Union. The speech marked an end of official US isolationism and direct support of the Western allied democracies stopping short of committing military combat involvement. The speech was part of the introduction of the Lend-Lease program to provide war materiel to the Allies in exchange for the use of military bases and the transformation of the United States into “The Arsenal of Democracy,” a commitment to massive industrial mobilization to producing war weapons.
lthough a stirring and inspirational speech that echoed throughout World War II and beyond, there were still detractors. Many Americans were unconvinced to abandon their isolationism (until after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor) and the obvious disconnect with US mistreatment of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and other minorities despite the avowed “rights of men of every creed and every race wherever they live,” just apparently not the US. The detention of Japanese-Americans comes to mind as well. Still, many consider this speech one of History’s greatest.
After the war, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took the Four Freedoms as her personal cause and advocated for human rights in the US and United Nations. Despite his call for a massive armaments build up, FDR also called for nations to disarm as a way of keeping world peace. The speech inspired painter Norman Rockwell to paint a set of 4 paintings depicting his vision of the Four Freedoms. Other artists also rendered their depictions of these freedoms in paintings and posters, and the Marvel Comic superhero group, The Fantastic Four, was headquartered in the fictional Four Freedoms Plaza 1986-1998) Postage stamps and other references to this speech have also appeared since, leaving a lasting legacy.
Question for students (and subscribers): Are these Four Freedoms enough? Should Roosevelt and others have added other planks to the platform? If so, what other Freedoms would you nominate to the list? Please share your ideas with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Engel, Jeffrey A. The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea. Oxford University Press, 2015.