FOUR FREEDOMS - Jeffrey Scott Demsky
There are, however, some misconceptions that skew our understanding of the speech. The “Four Freedoms” were not an ecumenical expression of goodwill. Rather, the rhetoric served a calculated political purpose. At the time of his remarks, the Second World War engulfed Europe and the Far East. Although the U.S. remained uninvolved with the struggle, President Roosevelt stated that he did not expect Americans to remain “neutral in their thoughts.” Such interventionist prodding, however, concerned some onlookers. Only one generation earlier, the country’s involvement in the First World War had unloosed serious disagreements. Many of these questions remained unsettled into the early 1940s. Against this backdrop, President Roosevelt’s globalist tilt irked members of such powerful isolationist organizations as the “America First Committee.” His calls also met with criticism from prominent commentators such as Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh, and Henry Ford who thought it best for the U.S. to accommodate, rather than oppose, the fascist powers.
President Roosevelt recognized that in order to enact his international agenda, he needed first to inspire public support. This was the parochial ambition that motivated his expansive “Four Freedoms” declaration. In the months prior to his proclamation, the president had signaled his intentions in additional ways. He selected Frank Knox and Henry Stimson, both outspoken critics of isolationism, to lead the Navy and War Departments. He signed into law the Selective Training and Service Act, establishing the first peacetime draft in U.S. History. In December 1940, one month before laying out his “Four Freedoms,” Roosevelt delivered his so-called “arsenal of democracy” speech imploring Americans to embrace as their own the European fight against Nazism.
In the months that followed his “Four Freedoms” remarks, the president intensified his efforts. He prodded Congress to replace its Neutrality Acts with legislation that came to be known as the Lend Lease programs. He brought Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland under the American security umbrella, and authorized the U.S. Navy to engage German vessels. That August, Roosevelt took his most significant foreign policy action by signing the Atlantic Charter with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This eight-point document established American common cause with the British and restated verbatim language that first appeared in the “Four Freedoms.”
In December 1941, after the Japanese Empire’s unexpected attack against Pearl Harbor, many Americans credited Roosevelt’s prescience. It was at this point that the “Four Freedoms” enjoyed a swift acceleration from mere political rhetoric into an exposition of grand strategy.
Franklin Roosevelt’s activist calls accomplished no less than the toppling of George Washington’s long-standing maxim to avoid diplomatic alliances. Subsequent American presidents, from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, have found in the “Four Freedoms” a sturdy foundation upon which to unwind their own interventionist doctrines. The “Four Freedoms” also influenced the narrative of twentieth-century global history. Portions of Roosevelt’s canon appear verbatim in both the preamble to the United Nation’s Charter as well as its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the Cold War, the ideology connected member nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Such resilience betrays a larger and often misunderstood conclusion. Since its January 1941 appearance, the “Four Freedoms” declaration evolved from an abstract speech into a practical policy framework. During the twentieth century’s second half, it became an unquestioned set of foreign policy premises that justified wide-ranging American military actions. While most observers continue to think of the doctrine in terms of its wartime applications, the “Four Freedoms” irrevocably altered the scope and thrust of American diplomatic behaviors.
JEFFREY SCOTT DEMSKY (San Bernardino Valley College)
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