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A Call to Arms: FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech Resonates More Than Ever Today

In November 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term. It was a dangerous time. Nazi Germany had conquered all of Western Europe save Great Britain – and Great Britain teetered on the precipice of capitulation. On the other side of the world, Japan’s invasion of China continued, and its military leaders were making plans for further expansion of the Japanese empire. Meanwhile, Roosevelt had to balance the need of American military preparedness with the strong isolationist sentiment still determined to keep the country out of war.

To rally the nation behind his vision of America as a true world power, Roosevelt would have to deliver an inspirational speech at least as great if not greater than those fireside chats he had delivered during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Interestingly, FDR was not a great orator. “But where Roosevelt excelled over his contemporaries … was that he was the first real master of the new technique in mass communication necessitated by widespread use of the radio,” Supreme Court justice and long-time friend Robert H. Jackson observed. “Others might orate, but he would simply talk as to a neighbor – the country sat at its receiving sets, and each felt that he was being talked with.”

“Where Roosevelt excelled over his contemporaries … was that he was the first real master of the new technique in mass communication necessitated by widespread use of the radio.”

In his President’s Annual Message to Congress, now known as the State of the Union Address, Roosevelt would need all of his public speaking skills to influence his audience.

To those who had elected him to that third term, he had to offer reassurance that they had made the right decision; that he was in command and had a vision, knew and appreciated their concerns, and would be firm in his resolve going forward come what may.

Four Freedoms

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech inspired artist Norman Rockwell to create a series of paintings inspired by the speech. His paintings went on to be used for War Bond drives during World War II. National Archives painting

To the fence sitters, skeptics, and political opponents, he had to address head on their suspicions and doubts of him and his course; they had to know the “why” in clear, unvarnished terms.

Then there was a third audience, one that had no vote in the matter, but whose fate rested on his words: the international audience dominated by the Axis conquerors of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy, the nations they had conquered, and the beleaguered nations fighting for their freedom. This audience had to know what America stood for, what it stood against, and that it was willing and capable of fighting for those principles.

On Jan. 6, 1941, Roosevelt, before a joint session of Congress and with the world as his audience, laid out his plan. His speech began by calling the present crisis “unprecedented in the history of the Union.”

The shape and substance of his address was simple and direct: summaries of important events, whether domestic or international, followed by forthright statements of principle or key facts. He was inspirational, and unsparing.

“No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion – or even good business.”

For those leaning toward or in the isolationist camp, he said, “No realistic American can expect from a dictator’s peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion – or even good business.

“Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors.”

Appealing to national character, he said, “As a nation, we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed.”

He summarized military events overseas and listed how government and private industry had rallied to the calls for national defense. In conclusion, he expressed his vision of a postwar world, saying, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms:

  • “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 of 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.”

Known as the Four Freedoms speech, it was a watershed moment – an official shift in America’s foreign policy away from isolationism. The United States would remain neutral for another 11 months and one day. But there was now no doubt where America stood, and where it was going.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...