Study Guide

Four Freedoms Speech Historical Context

By President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Historical Context

The 1920s, Hear Them Roar

In 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was published. Filled with flappers, bobs, and the shim sham shimmy, Fitzgerald's famous Jazz Age classic poignantly depicts the brief period of post-World War I glamour and excess that characterized the "roaring" 1920s in America.

This golden age, however, was about as short-lived as the bubbles in a glass of Prohibition-era champagne. For a decade that began with sparkles, fizz, and (most importantly) women's suffrage rights, it ended on a flat and bitter note.

'30 Is the New '20

In late October 1929, the stock market crashed. It was the biggest economic fail the country had ever seen, and a calamity that brought the nation's economy to its knees.

The party was definitely over.

Cue the Great Depression, the era marked by financial crisis and extreme poverty that followed the collapse of Wall Street. Lasting until the United States entered World War II, the Great Depression was at its most intense during the 1930s. It impacted the lives of nearly all Americans and made activities like earning money, eating, and, well, almost everything else extremely difficult.

As if that wasn't bad enough, severe droughts in the Plains states ruined the agricultural heartland. Attempting to maintain a farm anywhere east of California was nearly impossible. Lovingly nicknamed the "Dust Bowl," the critical ecological conditions depleted food and water supplies, putting further pressure on the livelihoods of an already struggling population.

People were dirty, downtrodden, and very poor.

Here He Comes to Save the Day!

The "Dirty Thirties" were soul-crushing years, and by 1933, the United States was tired of suffering. The country badly needed someone who could come in and sweep up the mess.

Elected the same year as the Great Crash in 1929, President Herbert Hoover had been unsuccessfully grappling with the economic crisis for his entire term in office. After four years of ineffectual attempts to rejuvenate the economy, many blamed Hoover directly for the financial nightmare.

A desire for change was in the air, and even though Hoover opted to run for re-election, a second term for him was not in the cards. Widespread public disdain for the incumbent Republican candidate only served to weaken his chances of winning against the wildly popular Democratic nominee, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Smooth-faced and charming, FDR ran a campaign dedicated to not only restoring the economy, but to rejuvenating American standards of living. He outlined a plan of action that would lift up the economy, bolster industry, and enrich culture.

At a time when the public was responding to the policies of the Hoover administration with "what's the deal?!" FDR was like, "Forget that, check out this other deal...this New Deal."

Deal or New Deal

On March 4th, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt chucked Hoover out of the White House like an old vacuum cleaner bag when he was inaugurated as the 32nd president of the United States. As the new head of state, he inherited the baggage of a nation that was in a terrible state.He had declared he would pull the United States out of the Great Depression, and now he had to deliver on that promise.

The New Deal was FDR's plan to save America. It was famously comprised of three parts: relief, recovery, and reform (a.k.a. the "3 R's"). Nowadays, 3 R's sounds more like a strain of bird flu, but back in the day, this acronym signified hope for many.

Carried out from 1933-1936, the New Deal and its follow-up, the Second New Deal, resulted in many programs that stimulated and secured the economy. For example, the Public Works Administration created jobs for the unemployed, the Emergency Banking Act of 1933 led to banking reform and financial stability, and the Social Security Act of 1935 sought to minimize poverty for citizens who were unable to work. And that's only a couple of the ways that FDR patched up the wounds of a very depressed country.

As the World Turns

While the United States was going from downtrodden and dusty to new and improved, other parts of the world were responding to their own crises in different ways.

Europe was recovering from the devastation of World War I. Their economy was shot, too, and many areas were still heavily damaged by warfare. Discontent over the generally terrible quality of life (among other things) spurred the development of ultra-conservative political groups. In Italy and Germany, these groups evolved into extreme right-wing movements that gained power by the early 1930s—fascism in Italy and National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany.

On the other side of the world, Imperial Japan was intent on controlling, you know, all of Asia. In a first modest step toward continental power, Japan invaded China in 1931 with the intention to stay and cause trouble (which they, um, did).

Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

By the end of 1936, Germany, Italy, and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact and basically become an international mean girls' club called the Axis powers. They wanted to dominate the world in a game of winner-takes-all, and they started World War II by invading their neighboring countries.

After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the situation in Europe went from bad to worse. On September 3rd, 1939, Great Britain declared war on Germany, along with France. In May 1940, Germany took control of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Then, in June of that year, Germany goose-stepped all over France and captured Paris, leaving Britain as the only nation opposing German forces on the Western Front. (Source)

A World War II Bromance

FDR was rounding out his second stint as president and gearing up for an unheard-of third term, (which, of course, he won—we're talking about FDR here). With the economy vastly improved and standards of living on the rise, FDR turned his attention to international matters, specifically those of Great Britain.

At about the same time that Germany invaded the Low Countries, Britain was undergoing some inconveniently timed political turnover. General dissatisfaction with the leadership abilities of Neville Chamberlain resulted in his replacement as prime minister with everybody's favorite bulldog lookalike, Winston Churchill. Also the minister of defense, Churchill wasn't only in charge of the country—he was in charge of the country at war.

Knowing Great Britain couldn't last forever against German forces, he sought outside help from the United States. Luckily, Churchill and FDR were super buddies, who would often write each other, chat on secure diplomatic lines, and frequently meet all over the world during the war. So when it came time to request assistance, Churchill knew he would get a solid "yes" from the American president.

There was just one catch: the rest of America.

Uh, Could We Just Watch?

The United States was still tender from its involvement in World War I—you know, like the rest of the world. Combine that with the economic and infrastructural turmoil at home caused by the Great Depression, and no one was terribly eager to get involved in "foreign affairs" again any time soon.

This reluctance expressed itself in a sort of social and political "turning inward" known as isolationism or non-interventionism, and it was very popular. So popular that it was made official starting in 1935 with the passing of several Neutrality Acts, which legally prevented the United States from participating in international matters of conflict.

To help Britain would mean abandoning the country's official stance of non-interventionism and possibly get embroiled in the war. Obtaining public and congressional approval would not be easy, and would require some major sweet talking from FDR.


No stranger to public speaking, FDR considered speeches super important. He gave a lot of them throughout his time in office, and he used radio technology to broadcast his ideas into cozy (and some not so cozy) living rooms across the nation. This made him very popular…even when he had to talk about not-very-popular topics.

It was during these broadcasts, which became known as "fireside chats," that he'd present his ideas and policies for running the country. It was a strategy that made people feel personally involved, and it often resulted in a high degree of public response to governmental decision-making.

One such fireside chat, which is known as the "Great Arsenal of Democracy," was about how fast warfare occured in the 1930s and 1940s. It suggested a very possible attack on the United States by the Axis powers if they won the wars in Europe and Asia. It also introduced the idea of supporting Great Britain as a defensive maneuver against German aggression.

This more casual, unofficial speech set the stage for FDR's very official State of the Union address on January 6th, 1941—his legendary "Four Freedoms" speech.

Stirring to the core, "Four Freedoms" persuaded America to high five their allies in the old world and prepare their own defenses in case things took an ugly turn (which they did).

Three months later, Congress and the public approved the Lend-Lease policy, which involved loaning American war materials to nations fighting the Axis powers. The nations that received the most support were Great Britain, the Republic of China, the French government-in-exile known as Free France, and, eventually, the USSR.

"Aloha" Means Hello and Goodbye

FDR's insistence on defensive preparedness could not have come at a better time. Almost exactly 12 months later, the Japanese made a surprise visit to Hawaii. Not exactly a diplomatic mission to a fellow group of islands, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

The attempt to cripple America's military strength in the Pacific was an all-out act of military aggression that proved deadly, and it was a tragedy that FDR famously referred to as "a date which will live in infamy."

How much infamy, exactly? Well, it not only resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans, but it forced the United States into joining the Allies in World War II. America officially declared war on Japan the next day.

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