The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “THE FIGHT FOR THE FOUR FREEDOMS: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” by Harvey J. Kaye from Chapter Five on page 72 titled “We Look Forward to a World Founded Upon Four Essential Human Freedoms.” and I quote: “Eleven months before Japan’s attack on the United States’ Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor violently pulled America into the war, FDR delivered his 1941 Annual Message to Congress. In that speech—the Four Freedoms speech—he not only made clear the intensifying Axis threat to the nation, dismissed isolationist arguments that the United States could and should remain neutral in the already-raging war, and urged his fellow citizens to turn the country into the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and enact a Lend-Lease program to aid Britain. He also translated his previous eight years in office and Americans’ resurgent aspirations and energies into the terms that would give historic purpose to the five years of global struggle to come. He cautioned against those who would try to take advantage of the crisis for personal gain, insisted on the need to enhance American readiness by building upon the progressive initiatives of the 1930s, and articulated the vision that became the cause of a generation.
The President and his advisers had spent days on the speech before he delivered it on the afternoon of Monday, January 6. But he had spent much longer on it than that. He knew he had strong public support for what he was to say. Only weeks before, he had won reelection to an unprecedented third term. The response to his Fireside Chat of December 29, in which he first advanced the “Arsenal of Democracy” idea, had been extremely positive. Even longtime critics of the New Deal such as Frank Kent of The Baltimore Sun acknowledged that “the President has voiced what the great bulk of Americans have in their hearts.” And polls showed that approximately two-thirds of the American people wanted to aid Britain even if it meant going to war as a consequence.
However, FDR knew as well that up until only a short time ago most Americans wanted no direct involvement in overseas conflicts. As he prepared his speech, the task before hm was to present their achievements in a way that sharpened appreciation of what they had accomplished while conveying just why European fascism and Japanese imperialism imperiled everything they believed in and held dear. At the same time, he recognized that even now, with Germany occupying Europe and Japan overrunning East Asia, there were many Americans, including some very prominent ones, who would vehemently reject what he was proposing. Among their number were quite a few of those gathered at the Capitol, who would not applaud for no other reason than their profound dislike of everything he and the New Deal represented.
The 1941 Annual Message went through seven drafts before Roosevelt felt it was ready for delivery. As his chief of staff Samuel Rosenman later recounted: “The President himself had dictated five pages, and worked on it very hard through the various drafts. . . filling each of them with his handwritten corrections and insertions.”
The Four Freedoms had been taking shape in FDR’s mind for some time. He had spoken of them in various ways for a number of years. But not until the writing of the fourth draft did he state them precisely. Rosenman clearly recollected that moment. It was the night of January 1. The speechwriting team of Harry Hopkins, Robert Sherwood, and Rosenman himself, along with the White House secretary Dorothy Brady, was sitting with the President in his study going over the third rendition of the address when, just as they neared the end of it, Roosevelt exclaimed that he had “an idea for a peroration.” Then, “[after] a long pause—so long that it began to feel uncomfortable, “ the President said, “Dorothy, take a law.” And he proceeded to dictate, “We must look forward to a world based on four essential human freedoms. . .” Indeed, Rosenman said, “the words seemed now to roll off his tongue as though he had rehearsed them many times to himself.”
Roosevelt fully grasped that when he went up to Capitol Hill to deliver his Message five days later, he wold be addressing not just the members of Congress, but the American people as a whole. And it surely must have seemed that all of the political campaigns and struggles and legislative victories and defeats of the previous two terms had led him to what he was about to do.
Anticipation of what the President was going to say ran high. Despite the January cold, hundreds had gathered outside the Capitol building. They would not hear Roosevelt speak. They just wanted to be there. Inside, the House chamber was full to overflowing. Representatives and Senators, cabinet officers and diplomats, the First Lady and other dignitaries awaited the President’s words. And as Time magazine reported, FDR did not delay: “The President leaned heavily on the rostrum, threw open the big black leather binder, straightway began his message. . .”
Speaking without hesitation, Roosevelt proceeded to expound upon the profound crisis and mortal dangers facing the United States and to explain how the nation could not only confront them but prevail in doing so. Rejecting as utterly foolish the isolationists’ argument that Americans should simply hunker down behind great defensive walls, he rallied his fellow citizens around a dynamic image of America serving as the great Arsenal of Democracy. And dismissing conservatives’ claims that the crisis required Americans to suspend or give up their hard-fought-for social and economic advances of the past eight years, he argued that an effective industrial and military mobilization required them to not simply sustain their achievements, but to extend and deepen them. Time would observe, “Mr.. Roosevelt spoke clearly as ever, but there was no lightness in his voice, no touch of humor. As he went on, his big head thrown back, his voice gained depth and strength, and emotion.” And his words garnered fervent applause—at times, thunderous applause.
Finally, the President proclaimed his vision of what Americas might actually realize in the struggle that lay before them: “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 . . The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way . ,.. . the third is freedom from want. . . The fourth is freedom from fear . . “ And, he confidently averred: “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.”
The vision was global. But Roosevelt rooted it firmly in American experience and aspiration: “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.”
The historic rendezvous of which he had spoken in 1936 had arrived: “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 . . . there can be no end save victory.”
Headlining its coverage “Roosevelt Rallies Democracy for Finish Fight on the Axis,” Newsweek called the speech a “challenge to the world.” And welcoming his abandonment of “unrealistic and dishonorable . . . .neutrality,” The New York Times editorialized not only that FDR’s “message is a confession of deep faith, a summons to duty and a call to action,” but also that it clearly “has the endorsement of the vast majority of our people, and that they will approve whatever measures are needed to put it into practice.” All recorded as well that while most of the Republicans present did not applaud (The New York Post columnist Samuel Grafton figured “a few Democrats” did not do so, either, on hearing “freedom from want”), ardent isolationists made quite a bit of noise afterward. That was to be expected, for the President, to the great applause of most Americans, had essentially called the country to war in the name of the Four Freedoms.
From the time he first took office in 1933, Roosevelt had been concerned about the threat that Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan’s rulers posed to world peace. And ever since his days in the Wilson administration, FDR had hoped that the United States would participate in international collective-security arrangements to counter just such ambitions. However, in his failed 1920 vice presidential campaign, and again early in his presidency, he had learned that Americans were leery of foreign alliances.
Americans did not like Hitler, Mussolini, or the ruling clique in Japan. But neither did they like the idea of going to war against them. When Japanese planes attacked and sank the USS Panay, anchored near Nanking, China, killing two U.S. seamen and wounding thirty more, Americans demanded nothing more than an apology and indemnity. Imagining that they were protected by geography, Americans had little interest in fighting wars on distant shores. Besides, they already were fighting the Great Depression..
Roosevelt, convinced that his countrymen would think otherwise if they perceived the real dangers threatening American shores and values, set himself to “educating” them to the perils of too great a reliance on isolationism. His goal wasn’t to incite fear and anxiety, but rather—as in his efforts to recruit them to the labors of the New Deal—to remind them who they were and what that both afforded and demanded. In an October 1937 Fireside Chat, he said, “I want our democracy to be wise enough to realize that aloofness from war is not promoted by unawareness of war. In a world of mutual suspicions, peace must be affirmatively reached for. It cannot just be wished for. It cannot just be waited for.” And after observing in his 1938 election-eve radio remarks that “the flares of militarism and conquest, terrorism and intolerance [in other lands], have vividly revealed to Americans for the first time since the Revolution how precious and extraordinary it is to be allowed this free choice of free leaders for free men,” he stated. “The rest of the world is far closer to us in every way than in the days of democracy’s founders—Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. Comparisons in this world are unavoidable. To disprove the pretenses of rival systems, democracy must be an affirmative, up-to-date conception.”
America’s work in the world, the president was reminding Americans, was far from over. Assuming the burden of that work did not mean they had to give up the New Deal. The converse was true. In his April 14, 1938, fireside Chat, Roosevelt explained, “Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations. . . not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion, government weakness through lack of leadership in government.” Yet, he continued, “We in America know that our own democratic institutions can be preserved and made to work. But in order to preserve them we need to act together, to meet the problems of the Nation boldly, and to prove that the practical operation of democratic government is equal to the task of protecting the security of the people.” And in a speech to the National Education Association convention later that spring, he declared: “If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own.”
The task FDR and a cohort of similarly concerned citizens set themselves was daunting. The vast majority of Americans were disgusted by the blatant criminality and brutality of the Axis regimes; what direction that disgust took the nation was an entirely different matter. The public-opinion researcher Jerome Bruner would term American ambivalence “nightmarish.”
Americans did not trust Europe’s, let alone Asia’s, rulers. White Americans had “escaped” the Old Country and, while they might feel affection for the lands of their ancestors, they had little confidence that Europe or any other continent could be progressively transformed. And black Americans, given the record of western European imperialism and colonialism in Africa, had even less reason to care about Europe’s destiny.
Furthermore, the memory of World War I, which had cost 116,000 American lives, had left Americans mistrustful, even downright cynical, about foreign “entanglements.” After all, what President Wilson had claimed would be a war to “make the world safe for democracy” had been followed by Fascist and Communist dictatorships, continuing imperialism, and economic depression. Books bearing titles such as The Merchants of Death and Iron, Blood and Profits deepened their cynicism, along with their isolationist sentiments. As, too, did the 1934 Senate hearings on the munitions industry chaired by the North Dakota Senator and ardent isolationist Gerald Nye. In the course of nearly one hundred sessions and two hundred oral testimonies, the latter gave disturbing credence to charges that financial capitalists and munitions manufacturers had conspired to “dupe” the country into war in 1917.
Deep social divisions made unifying the country for action against fascism and imperialism all the more challenging. Decrying supposed Jewish power and influence, the pro-Nazi “Radio Priest,” Father Charles Coughlin, not only drew a loyal following, but incited young Irish-Catholic youths of the Christian Front, a new paramilitary organization, to assault Jewish children and elderly people on the streets of Boston and Brooklyn. However, the Boston Irish had no corner on anti-Semitism. Congress, the State Department, the U.S. Army, and the American Legion—as well as the nation’s premier colleges and universities—contained many a Jew-hater who would successfully oppose legislative efforts by Senator Robert F. Wagner to lift immigration quotas in order to permit greater numbers of refugees fleeing Hitler to enter the country. And similarly, white supremacists, spouting “states’ rights” and racial epithets from the corridors of Congress to the courthouses of Dixie, stiffened their resistance to African-American demands for justice and equality, which included blocking passage of antilynching bills.
Moreover, not only did harsh conflict between capital and labor persist. The labor movement itself was splitting into the AFL and the CIO. And while capitalists were hardly pacifists, the war that most of them hoped to see would have pitted Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union. In fact, some of America’s largest companies, such as GM, Ford, DuPont, and Alcoa, had licensing and production agreements with Germany’s biggest corporations.”
(PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT WAS IN OFFICE FOR A LONG TIME AND HE KNEW HE HAD TO SET STANDARDS UP THAT WOULD STAND THE TEST OF TIME, CONCERNING WHAT IS A DEMOCRACY SUPPOSED TO REPRESENT AND I GIVE THE GENTLEMAN THAT WROTE THIS BOOK THE CREDIT FOR WRITING IT TO BRING OUT THE FACT THAT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT GAVE THIS SPEECH AFTER BEING ELECTED FOR THE THIRD TIME. IT MUST HAVE BEEN GREAT BECAUSE, IF THE PEOPLE DIDN’T LIKE IT AND BELIEVED IN HIM, THEY WOULDN’T HAVE ELECTED HIM TO A FOURTH TERM. HE WAS CERTAINLY DIFFERENT THAN THE POLITICIANS WE HAVE TODAY. A PRESIDENT THAT TREATED ALL CLASSES AS EQUALS. SOMETHING THAT WE DEFINITELY DON’T HAVE TODAY. BECAUSE ANY GOOD SUPREME COURT COULD NEVER SAY, “MONEY IS FREE SPEECH” AND WITH THE MORE MONEY YOU HAVE THE MORE TV ADS YOU CAN HAVE AND BRAINWASH THE PEOPLE WITH LIES THAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SPIN INTO SOMETHING THEIR RICH CONTRIBUTORS CALL THE TRUTH. THE CANDIDATE RUNNING WITH NO MONEY JUST HAVE FEWER ADS AND IS CONSTANTLY TRYING TO FIGHT THE LIES THE RICH MAN IS TELLING ABOUT HIM BECAUSE WE HAVE VERY FEW FACT-CHECKERS CHECKING THE ACCURACY OF THE STORIES AND REALLY NO AUTHORITY TO THROW THE CRIMINAL IN JAIL FOR TELLING THE LIES. A FAIR-RUN MEDIA IS WHAT A DEMOCRACY MUST HAVE TO MAKE THE SYSTEM WORK, WHICH WE DON’T HAVE TODAY.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed, Independent, Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members