Study Guide

Four Freedoms Speech

By President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Four Freedoms Speech Introduction

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Have you ever tried to convince someone to do something they don't want to do? Like, say, convince a cat that a bath is actually kind of a good idea considering it's covered in mud? Or reason with a two-year-old about why eating Play-Doh is actually not such a hot plan of action? Or get your mom to stop trying to rearrange your hair?

It's rough.

Now, imagine upgrading that scenario to a much bigger scale...a much, much bigger scale. Imagine being the president of the United States trying to convince the American people (all of them) to do something like pay more taxes or get involved in a world war—you know, presidential things. Big deal things.

Sounds daunting, right?

Well, if anyone knew how to be convincing, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was daunted by very little. Persuading people to tackle unpleasant tasks was something FDR successfully did again and again. The guy was president four times in a row, after all.

In his 1941 "Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union," otherwise known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, FDR expresses his concern for the future prosperity and safety of America.

Why? Well, it's kind of a funny story. (And by "funny story," we mean "terrifying moment in history.")

World War II was going full bore. Germany was sweeping across Europe and gobbling up as much of the continent as it could. On the other side of the world, Japan was making a mess in China, to say the very least.

Understandably, FDR was concerned that one of the aggressor countries—specifically Germany—would set its sights on taking down America. They probably wanted all those amber waves of grain for brewing beer.

Worried about a possible attack on the United States, FDR needed everyone to understand the seriousness of the situation. So, he took the opportunity to use his 1941 State of the Union address to persuade the American people and Congress that they, too, should be very concerned about this possibility—concerned enough to act.

Those Nazis Aren't Playing Around, Guys

In his speech, he argues that, as dictators waged war on democratic nations, they were waging war on the very nature of democracy itself. For FDR, an assault on democracy anywhere was an assault on democracy everywhere, including and especially America's democracy.

The purpose of FDR's speech is to urge the nation to come together and be prepared to fight for the future. He is urging the United States to prepare like never before for an invasion that might or might not be coming. However, in doing so, he is careful not to paint a picture of a scary war-torn world to come…because that might simply freak people out.

Instead, he leaves his audience with a description of the glorious global freedom that would result from America's righteous defense of itself and of democracy.

This future of liberty and justice would be based on a set of democratic principles that FDR articulates as the Four Freedoms:

  1. Freedom of speech and expression...everywhere!
  2. Freedom of religion...everywhere!
  3. Freedom from want (which means freedom from suffering for lack of things like food, shelter, clothing, security, and other basic quality-of-life things)...everywhere!
  4. Freedom from fear (by which FDR specifically means fear of military aggression from other nations)...everywhere!

We told you he was convincing, didn't we?

World War II has come and gone, with victory for America and the Allies, but struggles for human rights grievously continue to this day. For many, FDR's four principles of democracy are more relevant than ever.

Now that's an important legacy for—or should we say "four"?—you. FDR FTW.

  

What is Four Freedoms Speech About and Why Should I Care?

Fear Factor

This speech came out of the same mouth that gave us the immortal line "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

And we're not just lobbing that at you because we love FDR quotes (although we do), but because it seems like FDR loved fear. Maybe it's because he was so fearless himself. Maybe he just liked watching people squirm. Either way, he didn't shy away from using it as a great motivator.

Relying on his examination of trials and tribulations that quite literally span a couple of centuries, FDR gives his audience ample opportunity to imagine all the horrors of war that had happened, that were happening, and that could happen.

That's scarier than imagining Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers made a baby together and named it Jigsaw.

And, as a testament to the strength of his rhetorical skills and the lasting effects of World War II, we're still able to imagine situations that could have taken place…had the war unfolded differently.

The United States of Axis-erica? No, Thanks.

So, let's do it. Imagine what might have happened if the Axis had won.

First of all, the United States might be an isolated non-superpower split between Germany and Japan—carved up between them like a big ol' sheet cake. Not so bad, you say? You like apple strudel and wasabi-flavored Kit Kats, you say?

That's just the tip of the dystopian iceberg.

The impact of an Axis victory would have drastically changed the face of the globe and radically rerouted history. The Axis could have been the first to control and deploy atomic weapons—just imagine Hitler with his finger on the big red button. The same kind of genocide committed by Axis powers could have occurred in America. So could the same kind of suppression of rights. The list goes on…and it's truly wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-screaming frightening.

FDR pitches the American public on the importance of preparedness and vigilance. And, if he hadn't done such a good job of getting people mobilized, the United States might have been in a lot worse shape when war finally came a-knocking. For example, the blow of Japan's surprise strike on Pearl Harbor, an attack that dragged the United States fully into World War II, would have sunk more than a slew of ships.

Instead, the country was ready and raring to unleash the beast.

Ultimately, FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech was a wake-up call delivered close to home and one for which we can all, basically, be thankful.

Four Freedoms Speech Resources

Websites

De Vier Vrijheden van Franklin D. Roosevelt
Yeah, that's Dutch. Surprise, surprise! It means "the Four Freedoms of Franklin D. Roosevelt." The Roosevelt Foundation in Middelburg, Netherlands, presents an annual "Four Freedoms" award to people and organizations that demonstrate a dedication to FDR's principles. The Dutch are even more serious about human rights than they are about tulips.

From Middelburg to Midtown
As it turns out, supporting human rights is (tragically) a big job. Which is why the Roosevelt Foundation in Middelburg shares its responsibilities with the Roosevelt Institute in New York City. Two cool cities, one important vision.

Articles and Interviews

Muy Bueno
Here is an exciting write-up about the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park by Guía de Nueva York. Be sure to check out the Four Freedoms at the end of the article, which have been translated into Spanish...en cualquier lugar del mundo.

Superfan
Professor Harvey Kaye, of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, gives his take on the long-lasting importance of FDR's Four Freedoms in this interview with WNYC's "The Takeaway." He's really into the Big Four. He even wrote a book about them.

More Like the Forever Freedoms
Seventy-five years later, FDR's democratic principles still ring true, especially for the oppressed. This article looks at the Four Freedoms at a time when the nation was on the verge of yet another historical transition.

Oh Haaaaay-gue
From an international perspective, the Hague Institute for Global Justice offers yet another analysis of the Four Freedoms and their relevance three-quarters of a century later.

Video

Of Paramount Importance
This is a two-and-a-half minute video edited from Paramount's archival film footage of FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech. Added bonus: it comes with an awesome summary of its influence on international human rights policy after World War II.

Not Much of a Luau
The bombing of Pearl Harbor directly led to U.S. involvement in World War II. Check out this newsreel from 1942 that documents the devastating aftereffects of the attack. Fair warning: it's not pretty.

From Another Time
Many reasons have been given for the decision to understate, if not hide, FDR's paralysis during his public appearances—all of which have been tested by time. As a result, media documentation of his disability is rare. In the early 2010s, a historian came upon film footage of a public appearance by FDR in which he is in his wheelchair. The clip is only eight seconds long, and regardless of how it's treated by the media, it's an important historical document.

Movie or TV Productions

Frankly...It's Dated
What appears to be a riveting television series from the 1970s, Eleanor and Franklin chronicles the remarkably torrid personal lives of America's 32nd first family.

Double Whammy
If you didn't get enough bitterness and resentment the first time around, the producers of Eleanor and Franklin graciously provided a sequel...Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years. Better dust off the VCR if you want to watch this one.

Audio

Radio FDR
Got 30 minutes to kill? Then you're in luck because you can listen to the entirety of FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech…complete with the authentic popping and crackling sounds of early radio.

A Good Swift Kick in the Arsenal
In this short but sweet audio clip, listen to FDR introduce the "great arsenal of democracy" and set the stage for the pro-interventionist policies he would promote a few weeks later during his 1941 State of the Union address.

Harboring a Grudge
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR jumped back to the podium for yet another speech. The topic this time was a formal request of Congress to declare war on Japan, making this speech particularly infamous.

Images

Crème de la 'Merica
Franklin D. Roosevelt looked pretty much the same his entire life, even after four presidencies. Time magazine provides a short photographic tour of FDR looking fresh and dewy across the decades.

The Freedom to Have a Social Media Presence
Don't think you'll make it to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park anytime soon? No problem, it has its own Instagram account. Look at all the smiling faces. Even Kanye likes it.

Blue Hawaii
There's little doubt that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed the face of American history, but sometimes the events of World War II overshadow the changes that occurred on a more local level. Time scales down the focus of this tumultuous period to revisit the effects of the war and destruction on Hawaii.

That Personal Touch
Get into the nitty-gritty with a high-quality digital facsimile of FDR's reading copy of the "Four Freedoms" address. Notable details include stains, marginal notes, and scribbles that suggest last-minute edits. Also, the whole thing was written on a typewriter. No delete button there.