The Four Freedoms by William J. Vanden Heuvel

The Four Freedoms by William J. Vanden Heuvel

We look back in order to see where we are going. We need only remember the world to which Franklin Roosevelt spoke on January 6, 1941, to be reminded of the blessings of our lives today. The world then – beset by war, oppressed by Nazi domination, brutalized by racist thugs – was a world where every tenet of democracy was threatened and ridiculed. The Four Freedoms bring the past and present together. They are the freedoms for which we fought; they are the words inscribed in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; they are the fundamental values of the world we would leave to out children.

On January 6, 1941 President Roosevelt came before the Congress and gave us a vision of the world that would be worthy of our civilization. He spoke – simply, eloquently – of a nation dedicated to the Four Freedoms – everywhere in the world:

  • Freedom of speech and expression, the best defense against the corruption of democracy;
  • Freedom of worship, our shield against the forces of bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism;
  • Freedom from want, a commitment to erasing hunger, poverty, and pestilence from the earth;
  • Freedom from fear, a freedom dependent on collective security, a concept carried forward with our leadership in the United Nations.

The words and concepts of the Four Freedoms were distinctly personal to President Roosevelt. He wrote the phrases himself, he spoke them deliberately and simply to explain to the American people that their history of isolation was over, that the United Stated had no choice but to commit its enormous power to defeat the Fascist dictators. Franklin Roosevelt wanted not only his countrymen but every nation in the world to understand that the Four Freedoms justified the battle, made worthy the sacrifice, made essential the victory.

Who was this leader of whom Winston Churchill said, “He is the greatest man I have ever known”? Franklin Roosevelt was the voice of the people of the United States during the most difficult crises of the century. He led America out of the despair of the Great Depression. He led us to victory in World War II. Four times he was elected President of the United States. By temperament and talent, by energy and instinct. Franklin Roosevelt was ready for the challenges that confronted him. He was a breath of fresh air in our political life – so vital, so confident and optimistic, so warm and good-humored. He was a man of incomparable personal courage. He is the only person in recorded history chosen as leader of his people even though he could not walk or stand without help. At the age of 39, he had been stricken with infantile paralysis. The pain of his struggle is almost unimaginable – learning to move again, to stand, to rely upon the physical support of others – never giving into despair, to self-pity, to discouragement. He gave that courage to his country at a time of its greatest need. He replaced fear with faith, transforming our government into an active instrument of social justice.

It was a time when heroes were possible, when idealism was admired, when public service was the highest calling. It was also a time when Adolf Hitler laid claim to the future. President Roosevelt warned the world to quarantine the aggressors. He made America the arsenal of democracy. He was Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military force in history. He crafted the victorious alliance that won the war. He was the father of the nuclear age. He guided the blueprint for the world that was to follow. The vision of the United Nations, the commitment to collective security, the determination to end colonialism, the economic plan for a prosperous world with access to resources and trade assured to all nations – such was the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt.

The Cold War blocked the fulfillment of his dreams for a better world. Now it is over. We witness disappointed expectations. We see agonizing struggles between ancient rivals. Some question whether the democracies can meet the challenge. We need the patience to prevail, the discipline to succeed, the courage to accept the challenge. The Four Freedoms have never been more relevant.

A newspaper editor in Kansas, hearing the Four Freedoms speech in January, 1941 declared that “the people of theUnited Statesthrough their President have given the world a new Magna Carta of democracy.” “The Four Freedoms,” said William Allen White, “mark the opening of a new era for the world. A great occasion, a great cause and a great man have been united.”

The editor from Kansas was right. President Roosevelt’s words live on, and each succeeding generation must take hold of his dream, understand it, believe in it, work for it, and go forth with new strength and purpose in our commitment to freedom.