The United States stands for freedom. No politician dares say otherwise, lest they seek an early retirement. But what kind of freedom, precisely, and for whom? Franklin Roosevelt offered an answer in 1941. Believing the United States had a role to play in the battle against Nazi and fascist aggression already underway in Europe, he called Americans to arms not just to preserve their security, but their way of life, and their very freedoms. Four freedoms, to be exact: freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of religion, and freedom from fear.
Roosevelt’s words helped define American politics and foreign policy for generations, but the freedoms he desired are not necessarily those espoused today. He called for freedom from want, citing the need for universal health care, in particular. Needless to say, contemporary Americans continue to struggle to find a universal sense of how much is too much, and how much government should do to keep all its citizens from wanting. He called for freedom of speech, yet today we debate if that applies to corporations as well as people, and if money and speech are truly one and the same. He called for the freedom to worship as one pleases, yet not every religion is universally embraced across the political spectrum. Finally, Roosevelt promised freedom from fear, and today Americans live as fearful of the future as ever. Contemporary Americans live in the shadow of FDR, but as we ponder the country’s future, and as we trace the evolution of our common understanding of this term from 1941 to our present day, we need ask, as well: if we stand for freedom, can we even define it?
Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929 – 1945, by David M. Kennedy and Tom Weiner
The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea, by Jeffrey A. Engel
Roosevelt’s Lost Alliances: How Personal Politics Helped Start the Cold War, by Frank Costigliola
- Why did FDR deliver his January 1941 State of the Union (the Four Freedoms speech) as a war address, even though the United States would not enter WWII (formally) for another 11 months?
- Philosophers divide freedoms into negative (freedom from) and positive (freedom to). Roosevelt had two of each. What do you think the government’s role should be in ensuring and enabling individual freedoms (since ensuring and enabling are two quite different things)?