Lee Hamilton: FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech is relevant today

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President Joe Biden reached back in history in his recent State of the Union address, citing a January 1941 speech in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called on America to reject isolationism and engage with the world. This was the famous Four Freedoms speech, when FDR laid out his idealistic vision of “four essential freedoms” that were worth fighting for: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt’s immediate purpose, the one that Biden embraced, was to rally support for America’s friends. As Biden said, “freedom and democracy were under assault in the world.” World War II was well underway in Europe. Hitler’s forces had conquered Poland, and France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands would fall to Germany within months. In the Pacific, Japan was expanding its empire.

Roosevelt’s speech articulated one of the “big decisions” that shaped American history, which I discussed in a recent column. An ardent internationalist, he argued that the attacks in Europe and Asia would inevitably threaten our freedom, and it was in our national interest to respond. America’s safety was “overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders,” he told Congress.

He had just been elected to an unprecedented third term, and his Republican opponent, Hoosier Wendell Willkie, also favored support for U.S. allies. FDR said Americans agreed “by an impressive expression of public will and without regard to partisanship.” In fact, there remained a strong strain of isolationism among the public. Many people were still exhausted from World War I, which claimed more than 100,000 American lives. The Great Depression had understandably put the focus on domestic suffering.

Roosevelt wasn’t calling for American soldiers to go to war. Instead, he wanted funds to manufacture military supplies and equipment for America’s allies. The U.S. economy would shift from a peacetime to a wartime footing. Allies didn’t need manpower, he said, but needed billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to defend themselves. Persuaded, Congress passed the Lend Lease Act, which let the president direct aid to the allies without violating the official U.S. position of neutrality.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan invaded Pearl Harbor and neutrality was a thing of the past.

Roosevelt didn’t use the phrase Four Freedoms until near the end of the speech, but the concept came to symbolize what America and its allies would be fighting for. The artist Norman Rockwell created iconic illustrations, published in the Saturday Evening Post, that represented each of the freedoms, and the Treasury Department sold copies to raise money for the war effort.

Biden cited FDR’s speech to appeal for billions of dollars in military aid for Ukraine, which has spent the past two years fighting courageously against an invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Congress has, unfortunately, stalled the aid, with partisanship playing a big role.

The president was on target to point out parallels between FDR’s time and our own. Donald Trump, the almost certain Republican candidate for president, has questioned U.S. support for Ukraine and argued Europe should bear more of the cost. Many Americans today are disillusioned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and focused on domestic problems. Trump’s “America First” slogan even shares its name with an isolationist group that opposed U.S. entry into World War II.

But Biden’s argument that America should stand by its friends is as true today as ever. It will not serve our national interest to stand by as Russia threatens Europe.

The debate over helping Ukraine is a reminder that our nation’s big decisions often are revisited.

Do we still believe in freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear for all people? Will we stand by our friends? What, exactly, is America’s role in the world? Each generation of Americans will have to answer these questions anew.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected].