The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea.

Author:Rauchway, Eric
Position::Book review

The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea. Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 232 pp.

In January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt laid out war aims for a nation not yet at war. Over the preceding months, the Luftwaffe's terror bombing of London had reached a crescendo, Britain's envoy to the United States announced that the crown needed financial help, and the president--after signing a peacetime draft bill and trading destroyers to Britain in exchange for bases--had won a unique third term from an American electorate who told pollsters that if the United States could stay out of a European war, they would prefer his Republican opponent; inasmuch as they could envision no such splendid isolation, they would rather that Roosevelt remain. Roosevelt mused publicly about lending materiel to the United Kingdom, much as one might lend a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire. The United States would become, he said, the arsenal of democracy, aiding Britain not only to repel the Nazi assault but also to fight for a new kind of democratic world. So, it made sense for the president to tell Congress in January that the United States would fight for "four freedoms"--freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear--and that they would obtain everywhere in the world. In the years that followed, this global commitment resurfaced whenever the Allies announced their war aims, and it became the basis for the postwar world in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Then, the four freedoms began to fade. If they now grace a handsome memorial in New York City, they otherwise reappear rarely, anywhere in the world. This short volume of essays suggests some reasons.

First, even Roosevelt was unclear what a world devoted to the four freedoms might look like. Linda Eads notes that the president himself signed the 1940 Smith Act limiting freedom of speech in the name of anti-Communism. Since then, other nations have outlawed hate speech and entire political parties.

Freedom of worship, also, had limits under Roosevelt. The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Nation of Islam offices in 1942, as Tisa Wenger notes. As with many New Deal commitments, the four freedoms did not fully cover African Americans.

Freedom from fear, by which Roosevelt meant disarmament, was the aim most immediately undermined. In 1941, the president was about to send...

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