Study Guide

Four Freedoms Speech Main Idea

By President Franklin D. Roosevelt

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  • Main Idea

    Freedom Ain't Free

    The phrase "freedom is not free" appears in a lot of places. It's emblazoned in silver on one wall of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, and it's been a major part of popular rhetoric in post-9/11 politics. (We're guessing you've heard it thrown around at least a few times.)

    It can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but it comes down to recognizing that sometimes the "f" word (that would be "freedom") is truly threatened in a very real way, and the cost of protecting it is sometimes extremely high.

    Though speaking many decades earlier, FDR is basically delivering this message. Yeah, the delivery is a lot less succinct…but the sentiment is the same.

    He explains that democratic freedoms are precious and shouldn't be taken for granted. Playing to the patriotic strength of the country, he indicates that the time has come to secure and defend those vulnerable freedoms. And that formidable—yet necessary—task is the duty of the very people who both live by those freedoms and make them possible: Americans themselves.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. In what way does FDR call to the national pride of Americans? What kind of language does he use?
    2. FDR valued radio technology for its ability to reach Americans in their own homes. How might the impact of his "Four Freedoms" speech have been different if it were delivered only to Congress? What if it had been submitted only in writing, as State of the Union reports sometimes are?
    3. Do you think FDR adequately defines the term "democracy"? Why or why not? What effect does that have on your interpretation of his speech?
    4. FDR never directly names the Axis powers. What contextual clues tell us he's talking about the belligerent nations of Germany, Italy, and Japan?

    Chew on This

    With carefully chosen language and a strategic use of radio broadcasting technology, FDR successfully addressed Congress and the American public, convincing the country to righteously pursue its role as a world power and participate in World War II.

    FDR's 1941 State of the Union address is an elaborate speech that uses fear-mongering to scare the country into abandoning neutrality and entering World War II.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    After Germany goose-stepped all over Europe and crushed France, President Franklin D. Roosevelt got nervous that they (or another Axis power) were coming for the United States. He uses the opportunity of his third SOTU address to scare the bejeezus out of Americans and prepare them for possible war.

    The Text

    European nations were falling like dominoes to the tyrannical powers of Germany and Italy, so FDR employs his 1941 SOTU address to warn Americans of the possible military threat headed their way.

    He references military conflicts of the country's past to highlight the unusually frightening circumstances of World War II…and coax people out of their complacent, isolationist mindsets.

    FDR also demonizes the Axis powers (not that they need much help in the demonizing department) and their agenda to rule the planet. In doing so, he makes the situation seem really, really real (again, because it was). The message: the United States needs to be prepared because its democracy is under threat just like that of other countries in Europe.

    P.S. They need America's help.

    After a bit more fear-mongering, FDR expresses confidence in the integrity of the American people, but he again calls for a realistic perspective on the country's ability to defend itself and its values...especially in the event that the United States is the only democratic power left standing.

    He suspects that spies and espionage will be the enemy's main method of infiltration (boy, was he wrong), and he delivers a series of requests to mobilize U.S. defenses. He also asks permission to end the policies of neutrality in order to assist other countries that are fighting the Axis and need help in the form of war materials.

    In conclusion, he offers a vision of the future in the form of the Four Freedoms, where everyone everywhere enjoys a higher standard of living. These are the freedoms of speech and religion, and the freedoms from want and fear.

    The fifth freedom, fun, never made it into the final draft…because FDR was stuffy like that.


    Dear America,

    Things are about to get infamous, so it's time to batten down the hatches, make more guns than we know what to do with, and be prepared to fight, fight, fight for democracy until the war is won.


  • Questions

    1. Why did FDR find it necessary to spend so much time reviewing moments of American history in his lead-up to revealing the Four Freedoms? What was his purpose? What does that imply about his audience?
    2. In the "Four Freedoms" speech, FDR asks a lot of people to make a lot of sacrifices. Does he adequately justify and explain his request? It might seem obvious to us now, knowing the history of World War II, but try to imagine being an American in 1941 who'd lived through the Great Depression.
    3. How do you think FDR determined exactly what the Four Freedoms are? Did he leave anything out?
    4. FDR often uses vague language to refer to very real events. Why does he do this? Is it just his personal style? Does it add to or take away from the impact of his speech?
    5. Pretend you're a supporter of U.S. isolationism in 1941. How might you respond to FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech? What kind of counter arguments can you make?
    6. If FDR suspected that spies had already infiltrated the United States, why did he still broadcast a speech about providing war materials to democratic nations? What kind of effect would this have had on the American public?
    7. What does FDR mean when he says, "The best way of dealing with the few slackers or trouble makers in our midst is, first, to shame them by patriotic example, and, if that fails, to use the sovereignty of government to save government" (108)?

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