Sixty-five years ago this week, thousands of British, Canadian and American soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate Europe from the most evil tyranny humanity has ever known. They did so not just to join in the effort to eradicate the barbarous tenets of Nazism and fascism, but also to create a better future for themselves and their children. They were helping to build a world that Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned in his most famous wartime address, a world founded on four fundamental human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want and freedom from fear. FDR called these “the ultimate stake” in this desperate struggle against the bigotry and hatred that inspired fascist ideology. He knew that victory on the battlefield was only the first step in securing such a world; he understood that hunger and economic disparity were the stepchildren of fascism and that the best means to prevent the outbreak of another, even more destructive war was to try to extend the four freedoms to all peoples “everywhere in the world.”
He began this effort right here at home, through the major provisions of the New Deal that sought to provide the American people with a measure of economic security in the midst of the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. Social Security, the labor legislation that guaranteed workers rights to a minimum wage and to collective bargaining, the banking and financial regulations aimed at ridding Wall Street and Main Street from the reckless exploitation of speculators–all of these provisions were designed to restore the American people’s faith in their government and in liberal capitalist democracy.
We sometimes forget that when FDR took office liberal capitalism was under siege and anti-democratic alternatives were on the rise. Fascist regimes had already sprung up in Italy and Germany and would soon spread to other European states; totalitarian communism held sway in the USSR, and militarists had seized control of Japan. Here at home the vitriolic radio addresses of Father Charles Coughlin and the activities of such political demagogues as Dr. Townsend and Huey Long stood as ominous warnings that the United States was not immune to such extreme ideologies.
The New Deal was thus not merely meant to provide short-term relief; it was part of a larger, long term effort to preserve democracy and make capitalism work for all—not just those at the top. By 1944, when it finally appeared that Allies would prevail, FDR returned to this theme when he postulated that it was time for the American people to embrace a second bill of rights—an “economic bill of rights,” which included the right to a decent job, adequate housing, an education and health care. Taken together, he said, “these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”
For the generation that stormed the beaches at Normandy, the better future that they sought for themselves and for humanity included not just a world where the political rights of freedom of speech and conscience were secured, it was also a world where common people everywhere might be able to live free from the scourge of want and fear.
It was this sentiment that inspired “the greatest generation” not only to win the war but also, ultimately, to win the peace. Motivated by victory and the basic humanity of the New Deal, they built the United Nations, extended the Marshall Plan to Europe, established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and worked to open the world’s markets to freer trade and access to raw materials. The result between 1945 and the early 1960s was the longest and most substantial period of economic expansion in US—and world—history.
As we face our own severe economic crisis, we would do well to look back to ideas and values that inspired the New Deal and World War II generations. To work for the same simple yet eloquent goals that FDR asked his fellow countrymen to aspire to. A world based on four fundamental human freedoms, so that each of us, “everywhere,” might live in dignity and in peace.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.