Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms

The photo to the left shows President Franklin Roosevelt giving his annual Message to Congress (what we now call the State of the Union address) on January 6, 1941. This became known as the Four Freedoms speech.

Two months earlier, Roosevelt had won re-election to a third term as president. Most of his efforts in his first two terms had been directed at battling the Great Depression. But by now Roosevelt was turning his attention to the raging war in Europe.

In 1940 Germany had conquered nearly all of continental Europe. Britain was fighting for survival. President Roosevelt believed that the United States itself would be threatened if Germany defeated Britain, but much of the U.S. public was opposed to involvement in another European war after the costly experience of The Great War 1914-1918 (what we now call World War I). This speech was another step in President Roosevelt’s efforts to build support for U.S. assistance to Britain. Note the timing – January 1941 was eleven months before the U.S. entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Most of the speech was a plea for “a swift and driving increase in our armament production” to be sold to Britain. But at the end of the speech, President Roosevelt explained what the war in Europe was about. He introduced Four Freedoms that the democracies of the world were fighting for:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of worship
  • Freedom from want
  • Freedom from fear

President Roosevelt emphasized that he intended these Four Freedoms to apply “everywhere in the world” and he added:

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.

Where did these Four Freedoms come from? In a previous speech in June 1940, President Roosevelt had said that:

if the world were to ask him to negotiate an end to the ongoing violence [in Europe], his goal would be the ‘elimination of  four fears’: the fear of not being able to worship freely, the fear of losing one’s freedom of expression, the fear of military arms, and the fear of fractured commerce among nations.

(source, p. 32)

In his January 1941 speech, he converted the four fears into Four Freedoms.

How were the Four Freedoms received? They fell flat. They were largely ignored by the press and the public. The White House engaged in a considerable propaganda effort to promote the concept of the Four Freedoms, especially after the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. They hired artists and writers, but with little effect. In January 1943, two years after the Four Freedoms speech, the Office of War Information concluded that: “The four freedoms theme is a flop.” (source, p 38)

Unbeknownst to the White House, artist Norman Rockwell was about to make the Four Freedoms famous throughout the world. For the rest of that story, see Rockwell’s Four Freedoms, Freedom of Speech Painting, and Legacy of the Four Freedoms.

Let us return to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech on January 6, 1941. Click here for the full text of the speech (audio also available at the link). Here is how he introduced the Four Freedoms:

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.

There are two groups of freedoms. Freedom of speech and worship are not the same as freedom from want and fear. Roosevelt felt no need to explain freedom of speech and worship, but he did explain what he meant by freedom from want and fear.

To my ear the first two freedoms apply to inhabitants within a country (e.g., the First Amendment), while the latter two freedoms speak to relations between countries (i.e., trade agreements and arms control treaties). That would be consistent with the “four fears” in President Roosevelt’s June 1940 speech. I am not sure that we have retained President Roosevelt’s original meaning for the latter two freedoms.

This is one of four posts about the Four Freedoms:
1. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (this post)
2. Rockwell’s Four Freedoms
3. Freedom of Speech Painting
4. Legacy of the Four Freedoms

Photo credit: I took the photo above of a documentary film showing at a special exhibit titled “Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms” at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. See the post Legacy of the Four Freedoms for more discussion about this exhibit. Photo taken October 19, 2018.

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