|Norman Rockwell made clear that the Four Freedoms were at the heart of World War II aims in this famous series of paintings.|
Technically it was a State of the Union Address, his eighth since taking office in 1933. Nobody else ever got to deliver that many such messages to Congress either as an in person speech or as a written document to be read by some droning clerk as had been the custom through most of the nation’s history. And as it turned out, no one will ever get a chance to break that record. But that’s another story.
History remembers Franklin D. Roosevelt’s remarks on January 6, 1941 for one paragraph in a long recitation of the nation’s challenges and his administration’s accomplishments and proposals for the future:
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 understandings 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.
And so the famous Four Freedoms were announced to the world as an American vision and purpose. The first two, Freedom of Speech and Expression, and Freedom of Religion were unremarkable restatements of ideals embraced by the Founding Fathers and Constitution. The second two were kind of revolutionary and looked on as such by alarmed domestic conservatives and belligerent powers and cheered by progressives and starry-eyed idealists of various stripes.
The world was at war that January and Roosevelt knew that sooner or later that the United States would be drawn into the war. And he knew clearly on which side—with the beleaguered British and their mostly defeated allies against Nazi Germany and Axis Powers. He had been doing everything possible he could to aid the British skating to the brink of American neutrality with Lend Lease and other aid. But he faced an American public still firmly in the grips of isolationism and powerful domestic political operations and mass movements like America First fanning opposition to any American intervention.
The Four Freedoms provided an ideological platform to rally support for war preparations and the inevitable.
After conferring with Churchill in the Mid Atlantic in August, the two would proclaim the Atlantic Charter which would be close to an open announcement of alliance and a declaration of eventual war aims that would incorporate the elements of the Four Freedoms, along with renouncing the aim of territorial gain or post-war vengeance on the losing nations.
When Japanese bombs swept away any political opposition to entering the war, the Allies wanted to provide the world wide conflagration with a higher and grander purpose than simply defenses against aggressors. Roosevelt wanted to transform a typical war time military alliance of convenience, which had grown to include the Soviet Union, into an enduring union of nations grounded in noble principles. The President had obviously absorbed the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, who he had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
The United Nations was proclaimed in January 1942 just a year after the Four Freedoms speech. Once again, largely at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, the declaration of a united world embodied the freedoms.
In the post war world Eleanor would work to embody them in the founding documents of the post war UN and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The American right wing has always hated Roosevelt, the Four Freedoms, and the international world community that they envisioned. They recognized that Freedom from Want would inevitably undermine unfettered Capitalism based on ruthlessly competing interests competing for advantage and market share by keeping wages down and maintaining a large reservoir of the poor prepared to go to war with their peers over table scraps. The United Nations was seen as surrender of American sovereignty and a malevolent force for one world government.
But in the post-war years there was little they could do but rage against it. Even at the very height of McCarthyism and the second Red Scare, the public overwhelming embraced the ideas of the Four Freedoms, which were celebrated by paintings by the all American Norman Rockwell. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower enthusiastically endorsed them. They were at the heart of a great American consensus that survived the Vietnam War only to shatter to pieces during the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Triumphant neo-conservatives renounced idealism and put naked American “self-interest” enforced by overwhelming military might at the center of foreign policy. The aspiration of other nations and peoples mean nothing. Even pretending otherwise was cast aside on the presumption that fear, “shock and awe” would carry the day.
Even as the disastrous consequences of that policy became apparent, the inheritors of liberalism, the Obama administration, have been tied up in “real politic” cynicism and while sometimes trying to dress things up with references to past idealism, deal instead in Drone attacks, and suspension of civil liberties and human rights abroad and even at home.
Were the Four Freedoms ever more than a lofty rhetorical device? Maybe. Maybe not. But the world seemed to be a better place when we at least tried to live up to them.