The Four Freedoms and America Today

Last week, Kathy and I traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana, to spend two days at the World War II Museum. It was quite an experience. It is impossible to go through the museum without pondering the application of the lessons of World War II to our times. In my case, outside the museum. As we arrived, our cab driver let us off near a bench upon which a bronze statue of Franklin Roosevelt was sitting. Just next to him were engraved these words:

We have faith that future generations will know here, in the middle of the twentieth century, there came a time when men of good will found a way to unite, and produce, and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war. (February 12, 1943)

The quotation followed me through the entire tour. It was the first great lesson of the trip: Victory against tyranny is not automatic. Human beings of goodwill must find a way to unite to overcome the forces of ignorance, tyranny, prejudice, and war. It was not easy for the West to win that victory. Significant players did not always agree. There was prejudice, pride, and other temptations to be overcome. But they overcame them, and freedom was preserved.

As I pondered Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Chester Nimitz, Dwight Eisenhower, and other leaders during the tour, and as I watched the faces of hundreds of unheralded young men and women caught up in an unimaginable cataclysm, I wondered if we do not need to be such people and elect such leaders in our day and time. We face a resurgence of the same evils they fought so hard to eliminate.

The Second World War ended in 1945, nearly eighty years ago, and the world order the victors created, partially to ensure that an evil alliance like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hideki Tojo did not threaten freedom again, is in great disarray. We see another “axis” emerging, an axis determined to undermine freedom, subvert Western Democracy, and gain control of vast populations, which will end in slavery for much of the world. Terrorism and its sponsors are as significant a danger in our day as Hitler was at the beginning of 1941. The institutions created to prevent tyranny too often are run by tyrants. Worst of all, the West has lost its sense of the reality of justice and the importance of human freedom except in matters like sex that do not seriously challenge elites.

Four Freedoms

A part of the Museum featured and was organized around FDR’s famous “Four Freedoms Speech” in part because America’s participation in the war was motivated by these “four freedoms:

  • freedom of speech,
  • freedom of worship,
  • freedom from want, and
  • the freedom from fear.

As one writer put it, these “Four Freedoms gave a moral structure and symbolized America’s war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom.” [1]

The pertinent part of Roosevelt’s reads:

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 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. [2]

During our visit, I wondered if we do not need something like the Four Freedoms to guide our response to the challenges of our day. There is plenty of negative politics, but no leader has emerged to plot a course to a brighter future.

Context of Challenge

In this speech, Roosevelt, right at the beginning, faced the realities of the situation:

  1. Freedom is Being Challenged. “Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being’ directly assailed in every part of the world–assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.” [3]
  2. Appeasement of Dictators is Foolish. “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. “Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
  3. Subversion Endangers Democracy. “The first phase of the invasion of this Hemisphere would not be the landing of regular troops. The necessary strategic points would be occupied by secret agents and their dupes- and great numbers of them are already here, and in Latin America.”
  4. Maintain Core Values. “Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and dignity of all nations, large and small. And the justice of morality must and will win in the end.”
  5. Defend our Nation and its Values. “First, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to all-inclusive national defense.”
  6. Support Freedom Loving Nations. “Second, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to full support of all those resolute peoples, everywhere, who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our Hemisphere. By this support, we express our determination that the democratic cause shall prevail; and we strengthen the defense and the security of our own nation.”
  7. Move Forward in a Non-Partisan Manner. “Third, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principles of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”

There is more to dsay and o, but these seven principles might be a place to begin.


It is easy for older men to worry too much about their children and grandchildren. But I do worry. It seems that our nation is threatened, and like the comic book character, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The generation that fought the Second World War bequeathed to us a hard-won peace, unparalleled opportunity, economic and political freedom, and a position of power from which it would be difficult for an enemy to dislodge us from those freedoms and opportunities. Unfortunately, beginning with Vietnam, elites and others began to doubt the value of our way of life. Today, we see the unfortunate consequences. Some of the prescriptions we hear from political, economic, and entertainment leaders and in the media are genuinely frightening in their totalitarian and foolish disregard for the past. I am afraid, my generation and those that followed us will have some explaining to do.

A good friend and fellow retiree wrote a blog the other day, an excellent reflection on the fundamental values that characterized the American Revolution. I have written today about the Four Freedoms. I believe they are foundational and can be the foundation of a movement for freedom in our day. We need a renewed commitment to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, economic freedom from want, and an international commitment to freedom from tyranny, political, economic, and legal. At the current time, the need to defeat terrorism and hatred stands right before our eyes.

Near the end of the tour, we saw pictures of the liberation of the Nazi Concentration camps and the terrible suffering of the Jewish Holocaust. Every General and every person who saw those camps was horrified by what had been done. The sufferings of the war were justified if for no other reason than to eliminate the evil of Nazi antisemitism. Today, in other countries and in our own we see the reemergence of exactly the kind of rhetoric and behavior that allowed the Holocaust to happen. We cannot and should not permit this to happen—and we need to remember that it was not only Jews that suffered. All those who had the temerity to stand up for freedom were at risk in Nazi Germany, as the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others demonstrates. At this time we need to remember the words of Martin Niemöller:

First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [4]

We all need to speak and act to maintain the Four Freedoms in our own day and time.

Copyright 2024,  G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved, 

[1] “FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech” FDR Library and Museum (Downloaded February 2, 2024).

[2] Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State of the Union Message 1941 National Archives (Downloaded February 2, 2024).

[3] Id. The seven points below are quotes from Roosevelt’s speech.

[4] Martin Niemöller made the comment, which has been reported in many different forms. The quotation I have given is from the “Holocaust Encyclopedia,” the United States Holocaust Museum, (Downloaded February 5, 2024).

One thought on “The Four Freedoms and America Today”

  1. This is a “must share” message. I am sending it to my children and all those I love.
    Thank you for verbalizing what so many of us are thinking and worrying about.

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