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Roosevelt's Four Freedoms Speech: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech was one of the most influential moments of the 20th century. In this lesson, we'll explore the content of this declaration and see how it impacted both American and world history.

The Four Freedoms

Isn't it amazing how a simple set of rules can expand into something so much more complex? Jewish law began with ten commandments and exploded into volumes of legal treatises. In a similar way, our modern notions of human rights can be traced back not to an encyclopedia of dictates, but to four simple precepts.

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his State of the Union Address to Congress. At the end of the speech, he outlined what would become known as the Four Freedoms, the four basic elements of freedom that all humans in the world ought to have access to. It may not sound like much, but these freedoms set the basis for a whole new definition of human rights.

Historical Context

To understand FDR's Four Freedoms speech, we need a little historical context. In January of 1941, the world was at war but the United States was still formally non-committed. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the USA expressed its right to remain neutral and isolated from European conflicts. Then, the Nazis conquered France and the Japanese expanded continental Asia. The United States remained neutral, but became more concerned.

FDR signs the Lend-Lease program
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By 1940, Germany was bombing London, and Americans wondered if they could really stay out of this war. President Roosevelt took the first major step towards breaking American neutrality by approving the Lend-Lease program, permitting the USA to send war supplies to England. For the most part, Americans supported England and wanted to show their support, but this action made many people nervous. If America began breaking its neutrality, would it get sucked into this war? FDR sensed the need to reassure the American people as to why greater American involvement was necessary. The 1941 State of the Union Address seemed like the best place to do that.

The Speech: Content and Analysis

FDR's speech in January of 1941 was meant to convince the American people that the nation needed to increase support to Great Britain. FDR ended strict neutrality, but he wanted it clear as to the reasons why. The USA, which he presented as still unique and different from European empires, would not become involved in an international conflict for territorial gain or conquest. American involvement was based on the defense of freedom against absolute oppression in the form of fascism.

''In the future day, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,'' Roosevelt said in his speech. He elaborated that these essential freedoms included:

  • ''The freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world''
  • ''The freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world''
  • ''The freedom from want. . . economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants - everywhere in the world''
  • ''The freedom from fear. . . a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point. . . that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor - anywhere in the world''

Those are Roosevelt's Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. This was a big deal. FDR didn't just come out and say that Americans should have these freedoms. Americans already expected these freedoms. What FDR announced was that Americans had a moral and ideological responsibility to protect these freedoms. . . everywhere.

You may have noticed that he ended each point by reiterating the concept of ''everywhere in the world.'' FDR's Four Freedoms were meant to be seen as global initiatives, which not only justified America's support of Great Britain in the war but also laid out a grander vision for the United States. In essence, FDR wasn't only breaking strict neutrality. He was breaking American isolationism as well with a message that the USA needed to take a larger role in the international community and that this role would be one of defending basic freedoms - everywhere in the world.

The Freedom of Speech by Norman Rockwell
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