75 Years Later: Freedom from Fear

This year, Four Freedoms Park has been celebrating the 75th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's pivotal Four Freedoms speech, for which this memorial is named. This blog post is the second in a four-part series celebrating each of these four freedoms in a modern context.

FDR's first inaugural speech, given on March 4, 1933.

FDR's first inaugural speech, given on March 4, 1933.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This famous line is from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Fear was also an important theme in his influential eighth State of the Union address in 1941. In this speech, now known as the “Four Freedoms Speech,” FDR rallied the nation to prepare for war to keep every country free from aggression.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

This speech not only made the case for entering World War II, but also clarified what the country was fighting for and provided hope for peace. FDR called the American way a “perpetual peaceful revolution” and promoted human rights and individual liberties for everyone in the world.

FDR also said, "We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon."

In the past 75 years, FDR’s Four Freedoms have continued to inspire people to work for that better world and have supported the movements for civil rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights, and many of the rights we all now take for granted.

However, as our board member Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote on the 75th anniversary of the Four Freedoms speech, “the idea of freedom is once again under siege and being tested in new ways.” There’s a pervasive culture of fear in this country, stoked by sensational media reports and political fearmongering.

Change is hard. And the world has definitely changed. Americans are more afraid now than ever before. We worry about mass shootings, police brutality, hate crimes, terror threats, campus rapes, child abductions, muggings, car jackings, gang violence, identity theft, natural disasters, robots … the list goes on.

Is the world more dangerous now than it used to be? Let’s examine the facts.

On some issues, Americans are more worried than we should be. The United States is a historically safe place to live, yet the news media amplifies stories of danger and causes us to think that we’re not safe. Perhaps these statistics describe a safer world than we often think:

However, there are some things that deserve more concern that don’t get as much public attention. If you’re a person of color in the United States, it makes sense to be afraid of the police. Women in this country probably should worry about sexual assault. Plus there’s that tiny issue of climate change, which affects everyone on the planet.

Overall, there is a strong case for considering the United States a safe place to live and work. The media, pundits, and political candidates often play on our fears, which makes people think we’re less safe and increases our stress. (Chronic stress can weaken the immune system and make us vulnerable to disease, depression, anxiety and other illness.)

So how do we embrace freedom from fear? In his speech, FDR was talking about freedom from war and physical aggression for the world. Some might say we have currently achieved that for our country, though we’re still involved in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. And there are still many other countries, like Syria, suffering from war. We have work to do in ending the conflicts around the world and making the planet safer.

On a personal level, we can correct the myths about crime, stand up against fear-mongering in the media and in politics, speak out against racism and sexual assault, and do our part to reduce carbon emissions. Perhaps we should also turn off the news when it sensationalizes danger, take a deep breath, and go for a walk outside.

Instead of focusing on fear, let’s put the American spirit of optimism and innovation towards deconstructing racism, violence against women, and climate change. We can’t afford to be paralyzed by fear. Take inspiration from Franklin D. Roosevelt and use his ideals, ideas, and his example to shape a better world.