FDR Delivers the Four Freedoms | January 6, 1941
In November 1940 the American people elected Franklin Roosevelt to an unprecedented third term as president. Citizens continued to suffer from the effects of the Great Depression with unemployment above fourteen percent, and the nation’s annual gross domestic product still lower than it had been in 1929. As citizens struggled for food and shelter, they watched fascist armies overrun France, China, and other countries in Europe and Asia. It looked like Britain would soon fall as well. Despite its anti-fascist rhetoric, the Soviet Union cooperated with Nazi Germany, and Italy and Japan were emboldened by the perceived weaknesses of their adversaries, including the United States.
Roosevelt’s annual message to the American people in January 1941 did not neglect these severe challenges, nor did it offer simple solutions. The president recognized that citizens remained profoundly opposed to war, despite recent efforts to aid Great Britain in its struggle against Nazi Germany. Roosevelt used his annual message to do what he did best: offer frightened and uncertain Americans a hopeful vision that could motivate, comfort, and even inspire. Roosevelt expressed empathy for suffering people around the world, and he defined the freedoms Americans would strive, slowly and deliberately, to promote at home and abroad.
Freedom has always been a keyword for American foreign policy. Every generation of citizens has struggled to define the purposes of American power in terms of protecting freedom at home, and promoting it abroad. Although material interests are at the core of policy-making, the American political vernacular prefers to describe interests in terms of freedom, rather than profit or control. The pursuit of freedom placed Americans in the middle of foreign wars, dating as far back as the Seven Years’ War (before independence) and the Napoleonic Wars (soon after independence). Traditionally, Americans had traded and sympathized with foreign belligerents, but generally avoided direct participation in their wars. This was true of President Woodrow Wilson, who rejected any direct role in the First World War until two-and-a-half years into the conflict, and even then he defined the United States as an “associate power,” rather than an ally.
Franklin Roosevelt was aware of this history. He had to convince a skeptical American public, still opposed to war, that there were goals worth defending as the country increased its aid to Great Britain, China, and other countries fighting fascism. Roosevelt had to explain which freedoms he sought to defend by his increasingly belligerent actions toward Germany, Italy, and especially Japan. In his presentation to the American people, listening on their radios at home, the president conveyed a sense of urgency with a comforting tone of self-confidence.
Roosevelt’s speech re-defined the New Deal and American foreign policy
Roosevelt’s speech re-defined the New Deal and American foreign policy, by combining the two explicitly. The president described the spread of fascist tyranny as a mortal danger to the trade, individual rights, and peaceful relations that Americans relied upon for the security of their democracy. He explained how fascist governments threatened to impose isolation on the United States, locking the country behind “an ancient Chinese Wall” that would suffocate the economic growth citizens so desperately desired. Roosevelt also described how isolation would place the territorial security of the United States in peril, as never before, due to foreign espionage, new technologies of war, and ultimately, the monopoly of power acquired by the fascist governments in Europe and Asia.
Instead of affirming the anti-interventionist biases of his listeners, Roosevelt recounted one hundred-and-fifty years of American history to show how prior efforts to keep the country engaged internationally set the stage for his current programs (lend-lease and national rearmament) to aid anti-fascist allies and strengthen the United States’ defensive capabilities. Roosevelt walked a fine line in avoiding advocacy of war, but demanding more forceful efforts to defend democracy abroad. As at home, the president expanded the reach of the U.S. government to protect basic citizen rights and combat the forces of fear that undermined international political order.
The New Deal fusion with national security is clearest in the final section of the speech, where Roosevelt famously articulated the “four freedoms.” These were basic individual rights (speech and religion) and expanded welfare obligations (freedom from fear and want) that placed the United States at the center of democratic developments around the world. The president argued that freedom at home now depended on promoting it abroad. In a world where extremists exploited suffering for violent purposes, Roosevelt contended that spreading freedom was essential for security. The United States had to help citizens across the globe live better, if it wanted to be safer.
Although many listeners remained unsure of these new global commitments, the speech marked a decisive turn in American policy toward expansive democratizing efforts abroad, built on domestic New Deal foundations. After four years of war deprivation and sacrifice, and repeated encouragement from the president to make freedom the antidote for conflict, Americans after 1945 gave unprecedented support to foreign aid programs that vigorously promoted the “four freedoms.” These programs included the creation of the United Nations, the implementation of the European Recovery Program (the “Marshall Plan,”) and the reconstruction of postwar Japan.
Born of world crisis, Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” motivated American efforts to construct a new world order. This was a project that largely succeeded, often at great cost, during the Cold War. Historians now question if Americans will continue to pay the costs for defending these freedoms in a new century.
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Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of Destiny: FDR and the Making of the American Century. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Kaiser, David. No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. New York: Basic Books, 2014.
Suri, Jeremi. The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office. New York: Basic Books, 2017.