Roosevelt historian David Woolner shines a light on today’s issues with lessons from the past.
On January 6, 1941, at a time when democracy was literally under siege in much of Europe and Asia, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon his fellow countrymen to help the United States establish a world based on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression; Freedom of Worship; Freedom from Want; and Freedom from Fear. At the time of the speech, all of Western Europe lay under the heel of the Nazi dictatorship, and with only Great Britain and the Royal Navy standing between Hitler’s war machine and the United States, FDR felt it was crucial that the US do all it could to help the British wage war and carry on their resistance to German aggression. In the meantime, things were not much better in the Far East, where the militarist Japanese regime continued its aggressive war in China and had now moved into Indochina in the wake of the French defeat in Europe.
With democracy itself teetering on the brink of collapse, and with Hitler having declared that he had established a ‘”New Order” of tyranny’ in Europe, FDR proposed that the United States promote the very antithesis of such an order, “a greater conception” based on a “moral order” that embraced the Four Freedoms as its fundamental guiding principles. It was to establish these principles that he called upon the American people to make the sacrifices needed to help America’s allies win the war. America, he said, must become the great “arsenal of democracy,” and by the time the United States had formally entered the war in December 1941, establishing the Four Freedoms-“everywhere in the world”-had in essence become the war aims of the United States.
Few Americans — especially younger Americans — are familiar with the Four Freedoms, but the vision that FDR articulated in such simple yet eloquent language had an enormous impact not only on the war, but also on the post-war world. For in calling for a world based on these fundamental human freedoms, FDR established a clear link between fundamental human rights and global security. Equally important, the rights that the Four Freedoms called for not only included those that are essentially political in nature, such as speech and worship, but also those that concern one’s well being and personal security — want and fear.
Inspired by these goals the United States went on to direct the effort to establish the postwar multilateral economic and security apparatus — including the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also the IMF and World Bank — that would lead to an unprecedented period of economic prosperity; economic prosperity that helped prevent the possible outbreak of a Third World War.
For the generation that fought the war, then, the promotion of human rights and the establishment of global security were inseparable. As we head into the year that will mark the 70th anniversary of FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, we will do well to remember this, as well as his admonition that achieving the Four Freedoms “everywhere in the world” is not some “vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.