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 titled “We Look Forward to a World Founded Upon Four Essential Human Freedoms” on page 79 and I quote: “Also, as Roosevelt well knew, many German and Italian Americans, while by no means pro-fascist, sympathized with their nations of origin; Irish Americans remained strongly anti-British; and the Catholic faithful, whatever their qualms, generally did not dissent from the Vatican’s support for conservative and even fascist movements battling secular and anticlerical leftists.
Most Americas looked out from their shores, saw a world edging ever closer to war, and had good reasons for wanting to stay out of it. Indicative of the nation’s prevailing popular isolationism, little more than rhetoric and a heroic volunteer brigade of 2,500 Americans could be mustered in support of the Spanish Republic while Mussolini and Hitler transparently used the civil war as training ground for conflicts to come.
Roosevelt was not without his own doubts about responding aggressively to German, Italian, and Japanese aggression. He dreaded the prospect of war: “I have seen war. . . I hate war.” He also wondered if he could trust the British and French, given their own imperial interests and repeated willingness to appease Mussolini and Hitler—which would include giving way to Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia and signing the now-infamous September 1938 Munich agreement that compelled Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudentenland to Germany, paving the way for Hitler to occupy all of the country six months later.
Despite reservations, Roosevelt also knew, as with the New Deal, that the stakes were too high to cede the initiative to isolationists or detractors. And with the outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939, the fall of France in June 1940, and Germany’s ensuing “blitz” against Britain, he steadily regained command of foreign policy. Even as he headed into the 1940 presidential campaign, he not only convinced Congress to revise the Neutrality Act and expand the American military. He also created a “war cabinet” with the Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox serving, respectively, as Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy; embargoed steel and scrap-iron sales to Japan; donated old destroyers to Britain in exchange for Caribbean bases; and even secured passage, though just barely, of the Selective Service Act—not to mention, secretly gave the go-ahead to explore the making of an atomic bomb, in order to beat Germany to it.
Seeing that the country was moving to a war footing, isolationists and “non-interventionists” rallied in the summer of 1940 around the banner of the America First Committee, a group organized by several leading midwestern businessmen. Described by the journalist and historian John Egerton as a “motley assortment of pacifists, anti-Semites, pro-Nazis, and laissez-faire capitalists,” the Committee nonetheless gained a reported membership of 850,000 that, along with a few liberal oddities, included such notable mouthpieces as the former ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy and the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh. Convinced that Britain would soon collapse under the Blitz, Kennedy contended that the United States should not waste its efforts trying to save it, and Lindbergh, an anti-Semite who had accepted honors form Hitler’s Third Reich, echoed Kennedy’s assertion. And all the while, reactionary newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and those of the Hearst chain propagated America First positions in their editorial pages, and senators such as Burton K. Wheeler of Montana and Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota advocated them in Congress.
Nevertheless, FDR had reason to feel encouraged. The America First Committee did not represent majority opinion. In fact, Americans’ already resurgent democratic impulses quickened all the more and their sense of their own precarious international position, as well as their sympathy for Britain, was intensifying. The poet and playwright Stephen Vincent Benet gave voice to these sentiments, answering fascist assertions that “Democracy is dead and finished. . . is new,” “democracy . . . goes forward,” indeed, “Democracy is the Revolution.”
Sympathies notwithstanding, Americans were reluctant to go to war. They were understandably fearful of the consequences, and yet they were equally mindful of the risks, both abroad and to the democratic accomplishments of the past seven years.
Democratic talk, both inspired and anxious, pervaded American culture and references abounded to the Founding Fathers—not just Washington and Jefferson, but also the radical-democratic author of Common Sense and The Crisis, Thomas Paine—and to the Great Emancipator and wartime president, Abraham Lincoln. Finding audiences were new literary anthologies like The Democratic Spirit and A Treasury of Democracy; biographical collections such as American Heretics and Saints and They Worked for a Better World; and treatises such as The Course of American Democratic Thought and The Prospects of American Democracy. Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations,” not only authored Speak Up for Democracy: What You Can Do—A Practical Plan of Action for Every American Citizen, but also persuaded organizations like the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and the Elks to take up the project. And while colleges and civic groups held forums on the “Foundations of Democracy” and “Democracy and National Unity,” schoolchildren studied Democracy Readers, celebrated “Democracy Days,” and performed “Democracy” plays.
From the launch of PM, the independent-left, New York daily newspaper that openly advanced an “anti-fascist, pro-labor, pro-New Deal outlook,” to the release of Hollywood films like the populist director’ Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), advocates for both continuing the New Deal and preparing to meet the reactionary menace abroad rallied the public.
“Intercultural” activists, led by the writer Louis Adamic, created the Common Council for American Unity to develop ideas for “cultural” or “ethnic” democracy; the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ) promoted the “Judaic-Christian ideal of brotherhood” through publications, classroom programs, and annual “Brotherhood Days”; and the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) championed “freedom and democracy for all.” Similarly motivated, a cohort of renowned playwrights that included William Saroyan, Robert E. Sherwood, Stephen Vincent Benet, Orson Welles, and Archibald MacLeish formed the Free Company and proceeded to produce ten original radio dramas to “remind” Americans of the promise of the Bill of Rights. And remarkably, all three major Baptist Conventions—Southern, Northern, and National (African-American)–approved an “American Baptist Bill of Rights” in 1939 in which they declared: “Believing religious liberty to be not only an inalienable human right, but indispensable to human welfare, a Baptist must exercise himself to the utmost maintenance of absolute religious liberty for his Jewish neighbor, his Catholic neighbor, his Protestant neighbor, and for everybody else.”
These diverse initiatives expressed the widespread sense Americans had that they shared something special, something that overwhelmed their differences, something that, while rooted in the meaning of America, had been cultivated anew by their New Deal labors and struggles, something to be assured for future generations—liberty, equality, democracy.
Exclaiming that the “U.S. was singing, a it had not done in years, of pride in its past, of hope in the future,” Time reported in July 1940 that 13,000 people turned out to Manhattan’s Lewisohn Stadium to hear a concert dedicated to “Democracy” that, while celebrating America, shined a light on its continuing injustices as well. The New York Philharmonic debuted Challenge 1940 by the Oklahoma-born composer Roy Harris; “white and Negro choirs and musicians” performed And They Lynched Him on a Tree, a cantata written by Katherine Garrison Chapin with music by the black composer William Grant Still; and Paul Robeson sang everyone’s favorite, “Ballad for Americans.” The magazine also reported that sales of Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” had leapt dramatically since the outbreak of war in Europe. And in that same spirit, the NCCJ organized an “I Am an American Day” at the New York World’s Fair that October that was attended by more than 125,000 people—the grand climax of which was a two-and-a-half-hour pageant featuring the thousand-member chorus of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Narrated by a figure dressed as Walt Whitman, the pageant presented critical moments from American history and a rousing performance of I Hear America Singing, a cantata based on Whitman’s poems.
In May 1940, prominent antifascists led by the Kansan William Allen White, the famed publisher-editor for the Emporia Gazette, founded the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies. And that October, members of the Committee, joined by a host of progressive figures such as Louis Adamic, A. Philip Randolph, the Nation editor Freda Kirchway, and the poet Carl Sandburg—as well as Eleanor Roosevelt—created the Council for Democracy (CFD),. Sponsoring lectures, rallies, and two weekly radio programs, Speaking of Liberty and Americans All, the CFD, headed by the news commentator Raymond Gram Swing, criticized prejudice and promoted unity to combat fascist subversion. Though White’s committee itself never exceeded ten thousand members, it increasingly reflected popular opinion. Tuning in to CBS radio to hear Edward R. Murrow’s eyewitness reports–”This is London”–from the Blitz-besieged capital, Americans in growing number now backed aid to Britain.
As Americans prepared themselves for the global defense of democracy and the ideals of the past eight years, forces were already in play that would be given full expression in FDR’s Four Freedoms speech. More and more prominent and progressive voices such as the writers Archibald MacLeish, Max Lerner, Lewis Mumford, and Samuel Grafton came out for entering the war against fascism and for pursuing the struggle in an avowedly radical-democratic fashion. MacLeish, whom FDR named Librarian of Congress in 1939, insisted that the defense of democracy demanded renewed democratic initiatives: “For democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing. . . Democracy in action is a cause for which the stones themselves will fight.”
At the same time, figures very close to Roosevelt were now talking publicly about enhancing or augmenting the Bill of Rights along the lines he himself had begun to lay out in 1937,. solicitor General Robert H. Jackson, whom FDR would appoint Attorney General in 1940 and name to the Supreme Court the following year, told the National Lawyers Guild in 1938, “We too are founders . . .We too are makers of a nation. . . We too are called upon to write, to defend and to make live, new bills of right.” Indeed, he said, the “economic bill of rights” that liberals were crafting would encompass “collective bargaining for labor. . . the ending of starvation wages and sweatshops, the right of the willing to work, the right to a living when work is not available, the right to some shelter from the cruelties of impoverished age.”
Dedicating the “Plaza of Four Freedoms” at the New York World’s Fair on April 30, 1939, with the President and First Lady seated nearby, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia directed everyone’s attention to the four towering statures arrayed around the pool at the plaza’s center that were designed to symbolize the four freedoms of the First Amendment: Religion, Speech, Press, and Assembly. Saying he did not think Americans would ever want to lie under a government that denied those freedoms, LaGuardia bluntly stated that they “cannot be fully enjoyed without economic security,” and then prophesied: “soon there will be a fifth . . . the right to live properly and decently and happily, and to give to your children a chance to enjoy the other four freedoms.”
And the politician scientist Charles E. Merriam revealed, in a lecture a the University of Chicago in November 1940, that the administration was already working on the possibility of expanding the Bill of Rights. Serving as vice chair of the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB)–created by FDR to devise policies and programs that government might institute to rebuild the economy, address citizens’ needs, and prevent another depression—Merriam explained that “we undertake what was declared but not done . . . when life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were set forth as the rights of man.” And he predicted that the “modern bill of rights” would encompass “the right to a job, the right to economic security, the right to a fair share of the gains of the civilization in which one participates.”
But the administration’s foremost advocate for extending and deepening Americans’ fundamental freedoms was surely Mrs. Roosevelt. In her 1940 book, The Moral Basis of Democracy, she not only asked Americans to consider what democracy meant to them and what they were willing to consider what democracy meant to them and what they were willing to do to sustain it. She also reminded them of the revolutionary origins of American democratic life, decried the fact that “We [still] have poverty which enslaves, and . . . prejudice which does the same,” and spoke of what needed doing to better realize the nation’s historic purpose and promise. Here, too—almost a year before FDR enunciated his Four Freedoms—she began to articulate the “Four Equalities” that would soon become the hallmark of her speeches and writings in these years: “Equality before the law; Equality of education; Equality of opportunity to earn a living; Equality to express oneself and participate in government.”
The President, however, did not leave such talk to others. Campaigning in Cleveland, Ohio, just before Election Day 1940, he rejected fascist claims—if not also conservative, reactionary, and corporate hopes—that the democratic story had run its course: “We have seen a rebirth of American democracy in America” and “It is the destiny of this American generation to point the road to the future for all the world to see.” He celebrated American’s labors: “You provided work for free men and women . . You need the powers of government to stop the depletion of the top soil . . .decline in farm prices . .. .foreclosures of homes and farms. You wrote into law the right of working men and women to bargain collectively. . . You turned to the problems of youth and age. . . You made safe the banks. . . You advanced . . .” And he challenged his fellow citizens with a vision of what they might yet accomplish:
”I see an America where factory workers are not discarded after they reach their prime. . . I see an America whose rivers and valleys and lakes are protected as the rightful heritage of all the people. I see an America where small business really has a chance to flourish and grow. . . I see an America of great cultural and educational opportunity. . . An America where the wheels of trade and private industry continue to turn . . . where the legitimate profits of legitimate business are the fair reward of every businessman . . an America where the workers are really free and . . . can take their proper place at the council table with the owners and managers of business . . . An America where those who have reached the evening of life shall live out their years in peace and security . . . I see an America devoted to our freedom—unified by tolerance and by religious faith—a people consecrated to peace, a people confidant in strength because their body and their spirit are secure and unafraid.””
(I BELIEVE THE MAIN THING THAT’S KEEPING THE MEDIA GOING IS ALL THESE GREAT BOOKS WE CAN GET THROUGH OUR LOCAL LIBRARIES, CONCERNING WHY WE HAD TO FIGHT WORLD WAR II AND TO KEEP OUR COUNTRY FREE AS A DEMOCRACY BECAUSE WE DIDN’T LIKE THE WAY GERMANY, ITALY AND JAPAN WAS ACTING BECAUSE THEY WERE RUNNING THEIR COUNTRIES AS A MILITARY DICTATORSHIP AND IN THE END, THAT FAILED THEIR PEOPLE BECAUSE THEIR COUNTRIES ENDED UP IN RUINS. PEOPLE HAVE TO SEE IN A DEMOCRACY EVERYBODY GROWS TOGETHER AND EVERYBODY HAS THE SAME OPPORTUNITY TO VOTE, GET A FAIR JOB THAT PAYS THEM A LIVING WAGE AND HAVE A FAIR BANKING SYSTEM, THAT WHEN THEY PUT THEIR MONEY AWAY FOR RETIREMENT AND PAYING THEIR DAILY BILLS, THAT IT’S THERE WHEN YOU NEED IT. THAT’S SOMETHING THAT DEFINITELY SHOWED UP JUST BEFORE REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH LEFT OFFICE, THEY ENGINEERED, WITH A LOT OF HELP FROM BIG INVESTMENT BANKS, WHO BOUGHT OFF POLITICIANS TO GET A TAXPAYER BAILOUT—THE $700 BILLION TARP PROGRAM. AT THE SAME TIME, THE COUNTRY WAS SLIDING DEEPER AND DEEPER INTO A DEBTOR NATION. THIS IS JUST THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT HAD WITH REGULATIONS ON THE BANKS, A FAIR INCOME TAX SYSTEM AND JOBS FOR THE PEOPLE. WE WERE THE TOP CREDITOR NATION IN THE WORLD AT THAT TIME.
LaVern Isely, Overtaxed Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members