Not long past noon on Monday, January 6, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt locked his leg braces into place and mounted the podium of the Capitol’s House of Representatives to deliver his eighth State of the Union address. Newly elected to a third term, FDR was by now a seasoned leader. Indeed, on that winter day in 1941, he was arguably the most experienced and most important statesman in the world.
And the world was falling apart. The Nazis had swallowed Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France, the Fascist Italians had invaded Ethiopia, Egypt, and Greece, and the Japanese had sacked China and Indochina. In September the three powers had signed the ominous Axis Pact, pledging mutual support in establishing “a new order of things.” Great Britain, a last line of defense against totalitarianism in Europe, had held fast during months of German bombing and U-boat attacks, but was now much depleted of armaments and out of money.
FDR had a great deal to accomplish in his speech. Most immediately, he asked Congress to authorize and fund “a swift and driving increase” in American arms production. He also asked listeners to support his plan (the “Lend-Lease” program) to give the British and other Allies ready access to American airplanes, ships, tanks, and other munitions without having to pay for them in cash.
But FDR went beyond these short-term goals to explain to a country deeply troubled at the prospect of sending its sons into combat on foreign soil just what was at stake for Americans in this war.
He first made an eminently practical case, drawing a picture of Britain vanquished, the Axis tyrants holding dominion over all of Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. Nothing resembling an American way of life would be possible in such a world, he argued. Under a “dictator’s peace,” a “new one-way international law,” Americans could not long enjoy independence as a nation, nor should they expect to exercise their traditional liberties.
FDR went further still, arguing that Americans’ very identity—their most cherished values—hung in the balance. In so doing he defined American identity as a universal idea to which any and all might cleave, something very different from the tribal and even racist nationalism that fueled the Axis powers’ pitiless expansionism. It was no mistake that in FDR’s description of his nation’s values, the word “freedom” rang out again and again.
In the famous conclusion of his speech, he named four “essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship as one chooses, freedom from fear (of armed aggression, for example), and freedom from want (for destabilizing “social and economic problems,” he pointed out, had birthed the appalling political movements that now threatened American security). In each case the president pointedly added that these freedoms must prevail everywhere in the world.
FDR’s message married the New Deal values that had helped sustain democratic life through turbulent times in America to an impassioned defense of “democratic existence” around the world. He proposed a broad “moral order” that would protect the individual but inspire the multitudes—and thus prove mightier than the militaristic “new order” the Axis powers sought to impose. “Freedom,” said FDR, “means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”