The enduring wisdom of FDR's 'Four Freedoms' speech

It was delivered 70 years ago this past week. Reading it today recalls a time of inspiring presidential leadership, when the fate of democracy in this country was far from secure.

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Eleanor and Franklin: living on, living words.

It was delivered 70 years ago this past week. Reading it today recalls a time of inspiring presidential leadership, when the fate of democracy in this country was far from secure.

When the new Congress convened last week, much media attention was paid to the fact that incoming Republican and Tea Party legislators were carrying copies of the constitution in their pockets.  Totally lost from coverage was the fact that last Thursday (Jan. 6) marked the 70th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt's historic "Four Freedoms" speech to an earlier Congress. 
The speech was delivered while the American economy still was suffering from Depression and nearly a year before the United States entered World War II.  If you download it, you will see that it contains much more than the listing of the Four Freedoms.  It also is a remarkable political document which should be read, now, by congressional Democrats and Republicans, as well as President Obama, as they consider their agenda of the next two years.
The Four Freedoms, as enunciated by FDR in January, 1941:

•"The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
•"The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
•"The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
•"The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction in 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 vision, Roosevelt said, was "a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation." It was, he said, in direct opposition to the agenda being espoused by totalitarian regimes of the time.
Roosevelt, earlier in his presidency, had said that he "might be the last democratically elected president of the United States."  Utopian
Communist and fascist visions, in which a powerful state apparatus directed political and economic life, had appeal in this country as well as in depression-torn countries elsewhere.  Domestically, FDR's greatest achievement was the preservation of free political and economic institutions in the United States.
Roosevelt knew that the United States inevitably would be drawn into world war.  He called for bipartisanship and large-mindedness
in our political decision making and declared that Americans should take pride "in the fact that we are soft-hearted, but we cannot afford to be soft-headed."  This meant greater military preparedness at home and loans to threatened friends abroad.
Some of FDR's rhetoric seems dated today.  The "everywhere in the world" declarations foretold later American attempts to act as world policeman and to become arbiter of other nations' economic and political paths.  At that time, though, the course of many nations' histories were at stake.  Colonialism was nearing its end.   Totalitarianism seemed ascendant.  Roosevelt took a stand for values whose future were at that time greatly in doubt.
President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech ("suppport any friend...oppose any foe") traced its origins to Rooseveltian concepts.  Successive presidents of both parties have carried his ideas forward.   FDR was a special hero both to Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan and they, too, pressed the FDR agenda in their own terms in office — Johnson domestically, Reagan internationally.
The Four Freedoms got the most attention in the speech of 70 years ago. But there also was a clearly stated domestic agenda within it.  FDR called for "equality of for those who can for those who need it....the ending of special privilege for the few....the preservation of civil liberties for all."
It is difficult in the present day to understand the hold Roosevelt had over the American people in his time. 
In those pre-television days, his famous fireside radio chats generated confidence in a country beset by financial and economic distress of far greater magnitude than that of the past two years. The Depression-born, such as myself, grew up knowing no president except  "President Roosevelt," usually pronounced as a single word. Most homes had Roosevelt photos on their walls.

I cast my first "vote" for president in 1940 when my father, an unskilled sawmill worker, took me into a voting booth in the Bellingham High School library to pull the lever for FDR and a straight Democratic ticket.  I was 6.   I learned of FDR's death, in 1945, when I saw a flag flying at half-staff in front of the high school.   Someone on the street told me "President Roosevelt is dead."  I had been walking from my grade school to the downtown YMCA. Shaken, I walked home instead.  When my father came home a few hours later, he was crying.  It was the only time I saw him cry.
During the Johnson presidency, LBJ decided he wanted to make an updated version of the Four Freedoms speech.  I got the writing assignment.  I had my doubts about the speech and thought it presumptious.  But I turned in a draft with Rooseveltian prose. Johnson, in the end, had second thoughts and did not make the speech.  I thought it best that he let the original stand.

In later years I was a member of the board and executive committee of the Roosevelt Institute, which confers the annual Four Freedoms awards and supports the FDR Library at Hyde Park, N.Y. It was a great pleasure then, as it is now, to walk the grounds of the Hyde Park estate and the Roosevelt family residence, and to talk with FDR's children and grandchildren.   A Washington, D.C. mentor of mine, Jim Rowe, who had served as FDR's White House assistant, told me once that "since Roosevelt died, I have been bored."

FDR's critics were right, Rowe said, in characterizing him as an improviser and political pragmatist but "he sure as hell knew how to be president."
Download the Four Freedoms speech.  Read it through.  Or listen to it. Big ideas expressed in dangerous times.  Still a worthy agenda for our country.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of