I wrote this before last week’s horrific riots but note the contrast: on Jan 6 1940 a real president a real leader articulates the 4 freedoms for all and brings out the best in us – and on Jan 6 2020 the most unpresidential president unleashes his thugs….
Joe Biden should help Americans rediscover the ‘Four Freedoms’
Eighty years ago this week, Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his eighth State of the Union address to a divided nation. As Nazis blitzkrieged Europe, Americans froze, unwilling to fight so soon after the Great War, yet unable to overlook Hitler’s threat. FDR tried mobilizing Americans to fight for 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 … everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want … everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear… anywhere in the world.”
We know the happy ending. Rallying around the Four Freedoms, Americans triumphed, spreading freedom at home and abroad. That’s history as immaculate conception — Patrick Henry chose liberty over death and freedom emerged; Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg and the American nation bonded; FDR proclaimed Four Freedoms and Americans mobilized.
Actually, the speech failed at first. It took the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 11 months later to drag Americans into World War II. Even then, most G.I. Joes knew what they were fighting against — not for. Deep into 1942, pollster George Gallup reported that the president’s words had “not registered a very deep imprint.” Without the help of an artist and his first lady, we wouldn’t be citing Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms today.
On that cold January day in 1941, the most aristocratic of presidents articulated the most far-reaching of freedoms, rooted in every person’s inherent dignity. It’s the great American paradox. Franklin Roosevelt had his limits — tolerating the lynching of Blacks, the relocation of Japanese Americans and the banning of European Jews. But, like most Americans, he believed in America, appreciated its democratic aspirations as “the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
FDR was bred with this all-American faith in democracy and service. While paying today’s equivalent of $10,000 monthly for his Harvard undergraduate digs, he explained that his family’s privilege made him feel extra-responsible: “[B]eing born in a good position, there was no excuse” for not doing your “duty by the community.”
Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms evolve from the most basic freedoms to the most fanciful. Free worship respects one’s inner life, the basis of our “inalienable” rights. Only by breaking from God’s supposed emissary on earth — the British king — could Americans start building democracy. But to function, democracy needed robust public debate, making free speech essential.
Freedom from want is more controversial, as it stretches the government’s reach — some would say far too much. If 19th-century Americans worked to create structures offering political rights, 20th-century Americans struggled over just what basics the country owes its citizens economically. And while democracy and prosperity are mostly domestic matters, freedom from fear relies far more on the world’s cooperation too.
Tragically, these were ideals not fully realized. “If you believe in the Four Freedoms, too, then share ’em with me — don’t keep ’em all for you,” poet Langston Hughes wrote in “How About It, Dixie” in 1942. “It’s hard to beat Hitler protecting Jim Crow.”
Still, the Office of War Information’s democratic propagandists understood that this paradigm could help unite the nation while explaining “Why We Fight .” This became especially true after Roosevelt and Winston Churchill incorporated the Four Freedoms into their Atlantic Charter defining the Allies’ war aims in August 1941.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s formula didn’t do its magic alone.
Norman Rockwell, the plainspoken illustrator of folksy Saturday Evening Post covers, also recognized the Four Freedoms’ potential. But, “It was so darned high-blown,” he recalled, “Somehow I just couldn’t get my mind around it.” One night, he watched a neighbor at a New England town hall meeting defend an unpopular position. Rockwell realized that these freedoms were not just abstractions, but gateways to deliciously all-American moments. That insight yielded perhaps the greatest artist-politician, pictures-speak-louder-than-words alliance in American history: Rockwell’s instantly-iconic rendition of Roosevelt’s belatedly-iconic Four Freedoms.
Rockwell made FDR’s prose reflect the profound ideas shaping the simplest moments in American life: praying, politicking, celebrating Thanksgiving, or putting your child safely to sleep. The illustrations’ magnificent familiarity made them charming — and unforgettable. Rockwell’s images brought Roosevelt’s ideas to life. Suddenly, the Office of War Information took interest, printing 4 million posters of the images. A “Four Freedoms War Bond Show” showcased Rockwell’s paintings in 16 department stores nationwide, attracting 1.2 million viewers and selling $133 million in war bonds.
Even before Rockwell, Eleanor Roosevelt tried popularizing the Four Freedoms in columns and speeches. On Feb. 21, 1943, the day after Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover, she saluted freedom of speech on national radio. Ultimately, Eleanor Roosevelt ensured the Four Freedom’s immortality. “When the war is over,” she had worried , “the four freedoms will not have been won; we shall simply have dominated their more aggressive enemies.” From 1946 to 1948, she chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . The text consecrated the Four Freedoms as peacetime tools, not just ideological weapons for democracies at war.
America’s rhetorical hall of fame is overcrowded. To enter, new phrases must resonate historically while looking ahead, be defined enough to address momentary needs while remaining elastic enough to grow with the country. Examining the Four Freedoms in the 1940s and today, we can see how well Roosevelt aced those tests. Then as now, many forms of nationalism ascending were so aggressive, so xenophobic, that good liberal-democrats repudiated the term. But, then as now, Americans could never meet the challenges of the moment without some bonds, without the common stories, values, sense of destiny — and essential pride — all healthy societies need.
Roosevelt repudiated fascism’s suffocating narrowness without denouncing the patriotism so essential for Americans to unite and work together. His achievement teaches today that nationalism’s first name need not be “white” — in America it usually has been “liberal,” in the John Locke-Thomas Jefferson life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness sense of the term.
To help unite America and restore the president’s role as custodian of America’s soul, Joe Biden should launch a nationwide conversation about what the four freedoms mean today. Perhaps we’ll rediscover our old-new American nationalism — not defined by the height of our walls but the loftiness of our aspirations, not expressed by trashing the spirit of 1776 for falling short but by working extra hard to fulfill it, activating our heritage, our pride and our unity.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.