The fragile condition of FDR’s ‘four freedoms’ of democracy

President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering his famous “Four Freedoms” speech to the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 1941. Also visible are Speaker Sam Rayburn, left, and Vice President John N. Garner.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering his famous “Four Freedoms” speech to the joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 1941. Also visible are Speaker Sam Rayburn, left, and Vice President John N. Garner. Associated Press

After the holidays, it is a relief to take refuge in ordinary days. Days marked by simple rhythms and routines: sleeping and waking, eating, making the drive to work or school, returning to evening rituals in towns where pretty much everything works.

It’s easy to forget that “ordinary” is precious and that the presence of everyday things like hot water and paved streets and schools ripples outward and backward in several directions and depends on an interplay of freedoms and duties we don’t often think of.

Seventy-seven years ago on Jan. 6, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his famous “Four Freedoms” speech. The year was 1941. Europe was subjugated to Hitler and in ruins. Great Britain’s survival as a nation hung in the balance and the US refused to become embroiled in the war as FDR wrote and delivered this State of the Union speech.

At that critical moment in history, Roosevelt asked what democracies must do to create and maintain a world in which basic freedoms coexist with “good business.” The world he envisioned must be “founded upon four essential human freedoms:” freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

The first two freedoms essential to a just and peaceful world — both protected by the First Amendment of our Constitution — are under attack today in our country.

The third and fourth freedoms Roosevelt articulated — freedom from want and freedom from fear — seem, on the face of it, beyond reasonable hope. To Roosevelt, freedom from want was a concrete goal, achievable when international “economic understandings ... secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.” This is the “good business” he speaks of in the speech.

The fourth freedom — freedom from fear — also seemed within reach if, and only if we could agree to enforce “a worldwide 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.”

The many drafts and measured language of Roosevelt’s speech stand in stark contrast to the boastful braggadocio of foreign-policy-by-tweet of the Trump era.

Roosevelt lays out step-by-step what is necessary to achieve these essential freedoms, focusing on the third and fourth freedoms — from want and from fear.

The reality today is that far too many people in the United States, not to mention others around the world, do not enjoy freedom from want. And are not likely to, given the increasing inequality between the wealthy and the rest of us, fueled by a lack of political will to close the gap.

More urgently, for the first time since my childhood’s “duck and cover” exercises, a mushroom cloud shadows us, portending annihilation. Though Roosevelt declared no one could be free from fear so long as any person or nation stockpiled armaments and bombs, he also sagely pointed out that “we must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”

If we wonder why we are perhaps farther today from achieving these four freedoms than we were even in the depth of the Great Depression, we can look to the connection between the uncontrolled amassing of wealth and arms and our worship of unfettered capitalism.

Seventy-seven years ago Roosevelt believed that the Four Freedoms represented “no vision of a distant millennium [but] a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Now more than ever we need to lead the world in creating the conditions in which every person on the planet might wake to ordinary days without fear and with a way to meet their basic needs.

This goal is concrete and attainable if we live, work and vote to create cities, states, and a nation where everyone can rely on the Four Freedoms — from the poorest who depend on public services to the richest among us paying his fair share. The quality of our democracy and the fairness of our laws depend on it.

Leatha Kendrick is a poet and essayist who lives in Lexington.