Four Freedoms

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The "Four Freedoms" inscribed on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C

The Four Freedoms are goals famously articulated by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the State of the Union Address he delivered to the United States Congress on January 6, 1941. Roosevelt proposed four points as fundamental freedoms humans "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy: Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, and Freedom from fear.

Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech represented a milestone in his work of turning the United States away from isolationism and inspiring it to commit itself to working for human rights around the world prior to the U.S. entry into World War II. These ideals were later enshrined by American illustrator Normal Rockwell in a series of paintings published in the Saturday Evening Post, accompanied by essays on the same themes. After the war, the Four Freedoms inspired Eleanor Roosevelt's campaign for human rights at the United Nations and were later enshrined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Roosevelt's emphasis on freedom of speech and freedom of religion were readily accepted by the American public, since they are specifically mentioned in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, inclusion of the latter two freedoms—freedom from fear and freedom from want—were controversial in that they went beyond traditional American constitutional values. Freedom from want appeared to endorse a socialist right to economic security, while freedom from fear was interpreted by some as endorsing an internationalist view of foreign policy. Although Roosevelt himself led an unprecedented American arms buildup, in later decades "freedom from fear" became one of the slogans of the disarmament movement.

The declarations

Roosevelt delivers his "Four Freedoms" speech during his State of the Union Address in January, 1941.

Before the entry of the United States into World War II, Roosevelt faced strong isolationist sentiment. He slowly began rearming in 1938, and by 1940, the arms buildup was in high gear with bipartisan support, partly to re-equip the U.S. Army and Navy and partly to aid Allied forces against Nazi Germany. As Roosevelt took a firmer stance against the Axis Powers, isolationists like Charles Lindbergh criticized him as an alarmist and warmonger. To counter this, on December 29, 1940, Roosevelt delivered his "Arsenal of Democracy" fireside chat, in which he made the case for involvement directly to the American people. A week later he gave his famous "Four Freedoms" speech in his State of the Union Address of January 6, 1941, further laying out the case for an American defense of basic rights throughout the world. The speech included the following section, in which the Four Freedoms were spelled out:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

  • The third is freedom from want—which, translated into universal 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 world-wide 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.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Roosevelt's speech was designed to stimulate the conscience of Americans to think of human rights in more global terms. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion, he argued, were not for Americans only, but must be applied "everywhere in the world." While less fundamental, his appeal to freedom from fear and want likewise attempted to extend the natural generosity and compassion of Americans to the global level. The Four Freedoms continued to be a major theme in U.S. educational efforts both during the run-up to the American entry into the war, during the war itself, and after the war in the debates surrounding the establishment and direction of the United Nations.

Four Freedoms paintings and monument

Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech inspired a set of four Four Freedoms paintings by Norman Rockwell. The four paintings were published in The Saturday Evening Post on February 20, February 27, March 6, and March 13 in 1943. They were accompanied in the magazine by matching essays on the Four Freedoms.

The United States Department of the Treasury toured Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings around the country after their publication in 1943. The Four Freedoms Tour raised over $130,000,000 in war bond sales. Rockwell's Four Freedoms paintings were also reproduced as postage stamps by the United States Post Office.

Roosevelt also commissioned sculptor Walter Russell to design a monument to be dedicated to the first hero of the war. The Four Freedoms Monument was created in 1941 and was dedicated at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1943.

United Nations

After the war, the concept of the Four Freedoms became part of the personal mission undertaken by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It formed part of her inspiration in promulgating the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed as General Assembly Resolution 217A (1948).

The Four Freedoms were explicitly incorporated into the preamble to the Declaration, which reads: "Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people…."

The declaration goes on in its subsequent articles to specify further and expand on each of the Four Freedoms, as well as other rights. It is considered the first truly global human rights document, and many of its articles were later incorporated into other international human rights conventions.

The Four Freedoms and disarmament

Roosevelt called for "a world-wide reduction of armaments," but he clarified this as a goal for "the future days, which we seek to make secure." More immediately, he called for and implemented a massive build-up of U.S. arms in preparation for the U.S. entry into World War II, which he sensed was inevitable. "Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world," Roosevelt stated. "The need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily—almost exclusively—to meeting this foreign peril… The immediate need is a swift and driving increase in our armament production… I also ask this Congress for authority and for funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations. Let us say to the democracies: '…We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns.'"

Nevertheless, the idea of "freedom from fear" became an important theme of the disarmament movements of the next generation. Roosevelt's theme—"a world-wide 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"—justified for some a policy of unilateral disarmament, which emphasized that in the world of nuclear arms, war had become unthinkable.

The Four Freedoms Award

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Institute honors outstanding individuals who have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the ideals enshrined in the Four Freedoms speech. The Four Freedoms Award medals are awarded at ceremonies at Hyde Park, New York and Middelburg, Netherlands during alternate years. The laureates, through 2008 are:

Awards are also given to individuals who have provided outstanding service in each of the areas specified: Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Donovan, Frank Robert. Mr. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms; The Story Behind the United Nations Charter. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1966. OCLC 1180649.
  • Finkelman, Paul, and Bruce A. Lesh. Milestone Documents in American History: Exploring the Primary Sources That Shaped America. Dallas, TX: Schlager Group, 2008. ISBN 9780979775833.
  • Murray, Stuart, and James McCabe. Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms: Images That Inspire a Nation. Stockbridge, MA: Berkshire House, 1993. ISBN 9780936399423.
  • Raskin, Marcus G., and Robert Spero. The Four Freedoms Under Siege: The Clear and Present Danger from Our National Security State. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. ISBN 9780275989118.
  • Schmitz, David F. The Triumph of Internationalism: Franklin D. Roosevelt and a World in Crisis, 1933-1941. Issues in the history of American foreign relations. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007. ISBN 9781574889307.
  • Welles, Sumner. The World of the Four Freedoms. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943. OCLC 97244


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