On January 6, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, newly elected to a historic third term as President of the United States, delivered his eighth State of the Union, otherwise known as the "Four Freedoms" address. Often taught in schools as the Lend-Lease speech, FDR's immediate goal was to gain support for his plan to provide war materiel to Britain and other Allies without requiring them to pay in advance. This was no easy sell—delivered almost a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one poll that year found 61% of Americans at the time thought staying out of World War II should be the country’s main foreign policy objective. The successful passage and implementation of this plan is a testament to Roosevelt’s leadership and skill as a politician. But the Lend-Lease Act was Roosevelt’s argument for how the United States might get involved in affairs beyond its national borders. In the same speech Roosevelt also articulated why the United States should get involved.
It was in articulating this why that Roosevelt first named the four freedoms: freedom of speech & expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Promoting these values as fundamental components of a “moral order,” Roosevelt contrasted his vision of a peaceful world founded on international cooperation with the militaristic and nationalist “new order” of the Axis powers. The president argued that not only did the United States have an ethical obligation to stand up for freedom around the world, but that doing so was also essential to protect and advance the freedoms that defined us as Americans here at home. Almost a decade before the passage of the International Declaration of Human Rights, FDR stood before Congress, the American people, and the world and declared, “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” In January of 1942 Roosevelt would join twenty-five other world leaders in signing the United Nations Declaration, a document whose principles were given voice by the American president exactly one year earlier.
The four freedoms section of the speech presented the long-term goal of a visionary president and was a deeply personal section to Roosevelt. His trusted advisor and speechwriter Sam Rosenman recounted that the four freedoms paragraphs came entirely from Roosevelt himself. Rosenman remembered that “We waited as he leaned back far in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling. It was a long pause—so long that it began to become uncomfortable. Then he leaned forward again in his chair…and dictated the words so slowly that on the yellow pad I had in my lap I was able to take them down myself in longhand as he spoke."
The four freedoms are personal for us at FDR Four Freedoms Park as well. They are the guiding principles that determine all of our public programming and educational initiatives. Much may have changed in America and the world over the last seventy-seven years, but the need for outspoken defenders of religious liberty, economic security, democratic government, and free expression for both individuals and the press never lessens. Please join us in championing the four freedoms at home and abroad this year by visiting our memorial on Roosevelt Island, bringing your students on a guided class field trip, giving a donation, and/or sharing how you or your institution are helping advance the four freedoms via our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.
Source material for this blog can be found via the Park’s educational website on the four freedoms and all-things-FDR: http://fdr4freedoms.org/four-freedoms/.