Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Revisited

Reading about World War II recently, I came across a reference to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms.”

I vaguely remembered the phrase, but I was curious to know more so I looked it up.

In his State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearly Harbor catapulted the United States into what became World War II, Roosevelt was urging Congress away from a policy of neutrality in the war in Europe and the Japanese advances in the Far East.

It’s a great speech, worthy of a re-reading in its entirety. He could have used it to brag about how he had gotten America out of the Great  Depression, or how his administration gave us Social Security, made the 40-hour week the standard, established the national minimum wage and guaranteed overtime pay. Roosevelt’s administration also saw the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Smoky Mountains National Park. But he didn’t crow about past achievements. He focused on getting the nation ready to get dragged into the wars in Europe and the Far East.

At the end of his speech he stressed that the people in all nations of the world shared Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship God in each one’s own way; freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

These days, most of us take the cherished freedoms embedded in our Constitution for granted. But as I read Roosevelt’s words, I wondered how our country is doing today in defending these freedoms, particularly the four he listed.

Freedom of expression is being attacked viciously by those who label unfavorable stories in the media “fake news,” attempting to undermine the credibility of professional reporting when it is critical or runs contrary to their own positions. Freedom of expression is attacked when government officials are fired from their jobs because they dared to tell the truth in Congressional hearings. Freedom of expression is attacked when the president of the United States attempts to bar publication of books that might be critical of him. The list could go on and on.

Freedom of religion is threatened by those who would force school children to pray in a certain way. Freedom of religion is threatened when religion becomes politicized. Freedom of religion is threatened when places of worship are vandalized or burned down or people of a certain religion are singled out for ridicule and unfounded accusations.

Freedom from want has never happened, even in this country. Today millions still live in poverty, millions still have no health care, millions are homeless, millions are jobless. For Roosevelt freedom from want meant that every person should have the opportunity to work. If a person could not work for some reason, it was up to the government to make sure that person’s family had enough to live on. Over the years, we have attempted repeatedly to deal with the problem and have made great advances, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare initiatives. But these haven’t been enough. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater. Despite the great advances in race relations, racism is still a cancer in this country.

Freedom from fear also has not happened. On the contrary, politicians from the president on down use fear as a political weapon. Fear of foreign immigrants, fear of minorities, fear of “socialism,” fear of taxes, fear of our allies and enemies alike in foreign policy, fear of illness, etc. This kind of fear begets racism and police brutality and helps polarize the nation.

Roosevelt took office in 1933 at a time when our country, in the midst of the Great Depression, was gripped with fear, fear of the present and fear for the future. As president, his became the voice of calm as he rallied the country to accept the drastic measures he knew were necessary to restore the nation’s economic health.

“The only thing we have to fear,” he said in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933, is fear itself.”

Roosevelt was one of the greatest leaders this country has ever had. His leadership brought us out of the Depression and guided us to victory in World War II.

In both instances, he unified the nation, got the politicians to rise above narrow partisan interests and rallied the people to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve success.

In World War II, the entire nation went to war. The “home front” was as vital as the battle fronts. When the men went off to war, women put on work clothes, rolled up their sleeves and went to work in the factories and shipyards and wherever else they were needed.

Even though we had very little chance of being attacked, particularly in the heartland, we had air raid drills, kept our windows covered at night and learned to recognize enemy aircraft. We recycled everything we could for the war effort. School children bought war stamps and adults bought war bonds. Food and gas were rationed. The entire nation was mobilized and we all knew it.

We were in that war only four years before the Allies achieved total victory, the unconditional surrender of the enemies.

Roosevelt had many critics who called his programs “socialism.” Certainly, Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority and some other programs could be labeled socialistic, as can the later additions of Medicare and Medicaid. But they have improved our country, not destroyed it.

Today, the country has never been so divided since the Civil War.

The a few of critical issues now are:

  • First and foremost, a national plan and direction based on science to combat the Covid-19 coronavirus. Making a pandemic a political issue has not only further divided the country, it has cost many people their lives and millions of others their livelihood.
  • A national health care system that works for all people. That includes making health insurance and health care available to all people in this country, not just a privileged few.
  • A living wage for all people. While top executives earn millions or billions, workers on the bottom rung can barely scrape by on what they get. The federal and the Tennessee minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour. Twenty other states use the federal minimum. Some other states have higher minimums and the national average is $11.80. Imagine trying to feed a family pay the rent and other expenses on $290 a week.
  • A sensible and workable national plan to reform our police departments to stop police brutality, particularly against minorities. This would never include defunding police departments.
  • A coherent foreign policy that cooperates with our allies and encourages the four freedoms throughout the world.
  • An immigration reform program that is compassionate, actually gets the job done and includes a path for long-time residents to obtain citizenship. Building a border wall is not the way to get that done.

Roosevelt in that 1941 address stating his opposition to isolationism said: “What I seek to convey is the historic truth that the United States as a nation has at all times maintained clear, definite opposition, to any attempt to lock us in behind an ancient Chinese wall while the procession of civilization went past. … ” I think the same words could apply to today’s immigration policies.

These should not be partisan issues. It’s not a question of who gets the credit or the blame. It is a matter of bringing the country together to solve national problems.

What is lacking on these and other issues, in my opinion, is a strong, coherent national leadership that can bring the country together as Roosevelt did in the Depression and in World War II.

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