Study Guide

Four Freedoms Speech Themes

By President Franklin D. Roosevelt

  • Warfare

    In America during the late 1930s and early 1940s, the topic of World War II was sort of like the big, looming elephant in the room. Everyone was thinking about it, but no one wanted to talk about it—at least not as a possibility for the United States.

    Even after two decades of cultural and political isolationism, Americans were still cagey about getting involved in international conflicts. However, it was hard to ignore the fact that Europe was getting pummeled right, left, and center by the Germans, and China was contending (unsuccessfully) with the Japanese. War touched all parts of the world, even those parts that wanted nothing to do with it...like the United States.

    In "Four Freedoms," FDR argues that warfare is unavoidable and everywhere. He predicts military conflict is likely. He even uses examples from history to buttress his arguments. This explains why warfare itself is the most prominent theme throughout the "Four Freedoms" speech. FDR is, in effect, calling to the nation to recognize that it's already entangled in World War II—at least indirectly.

    Like a concussion, a toothache, or a homemade perm, it just can't be ignored.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Do FDR's multiple references to historical military conflicts adequately succeed in proving his point about the extreme nature of World War II?
    2. Imagine being a member of Congress in 1941. How might you respond to FDR's requests for preemptive military mobilization? Would a member of the Republican Party respond differently than a member of the Democratic Party? If so, how?
    3. What are some of the ways that FDR sees World War II as being different from previous wars?
    4. Does FDR do an adequate job of arguing in support of military intervention in the form of aid to other countries? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    FDR's many historical references are deliberately confusing, and they're simply rhetorical cushions he's using to soften the blow of his request for increased taxation in the name of the war effort.

    FDR's carefully constructed speech follows a thoughtful and logical progression of ideas that invalidate the notion of isolationism and highlight America's responsibility as a world power to defend democratic freedoms at home and abroad.

  • Happiness

    FDR addresses happiness in two ways…and neither of them, mysteriously, has anything to do with bubble baths, pints of cookie-dough ice cream, or using a new toothbrush for the first time.

    First, he asks his audience to recognize the happiness they have known as citizens who thrive under conditions that support "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." (No one's talking about the hardships of the Great Depression here, but the implication is that joy and hope spring eternal despite harsh living conditions, thanks to American civil liberties.)

    He then claims that that happiness is potentially a thing of the past because tyrants are coming to take it away. Dum dum dummm.
    This frightening thought opens the gate for FDR to discuss happiness in another way—as something worth saving and protecting. He characterizes it as a fragile thing, like a little bunny that should be carefully stashed away until danger has passed. The idea is that to fight for a precious and delicate happiness in the present would result in an abundance of happiness in the future.

    Of course, both of these ideas are linked to American democracy, the virtues of which he believes directly lead to happiness itself. Still, we think no mention of bubble baths = happiness is a complete oversight on FDR's part.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. What are some examples from the speech where FDR correlates happiness with democracy? Do these examples relate to the Four Freedoms, and if so, which ones?
    2. Yes or no: is FDR saying no one should be happy until World War II is over? Explain your answer.
    3. According to FDR, does it seem that happiness is attainable without democracy?
    4. During wartime, is unhappiness in the present acceptable in the name of happiness in the future? Looking at the speech, what does FDR think? What do you think?

    Chew on This

    FDR doesn't directly tell his audience that they can't be happy during wartime, but he does suggest that there are more important and even more gratifying emotional experiences than happiness, e.g. patriotism, loyalty, and a sense of unity.

    FDR's Four Freedoms are the seeds from which happiness grows because happiness is much more than laughter and smiles—it's the result of unwavering human dignity.

  • Loyalty

    For FDR, the notion of loyalty is closely tied to patriotism on the home front and responsibility on the international scene. He spends a fair amount of time promoting the benefits of brotherhood and unity among American citizens, and he considers loyalty important for the continuation of America's society, industry, economy, and overall ability to have a good time.

    And at this point, the early 1940s, everyone could use a good time.

    Take a look at Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" series of paintings. You'll notice the prominence of community and the sense of moral support depicted in each image. These painting are illustrations not just of the Four Freedoms but of patriotic loyalty as well. (They're also just so, so completely kitchy.)

    FDR also sees loyalty as extending beyond the borders of the United States. His argument is that as a world power America has a responsibility to assist other democratic nations that are struggling against tyranny. It's a loyalty to like-minded nations of the world who are also fighting for the greater good of human dignity.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. How might the concept of loyalty in a democratic nation be different from loyalty in a fascist nation? Can loyalty, as FDR perceives it, exist under fascism?
    2. What are some examples of how FDR discusses loyalty and patriotism as one and the same? What might be some of the effects of FDR's warning that spies had already arrived in the Americas? Think of both positive and negative examples.
    3. Think about FDR's notion of international loyalty. Is it truly loyalty if there is a self-serving aspect to it as well? If so, cite examples from the text.

    Chew on This

    FDR's notion of international loyalty is just the United States asserting its own control over other nations in their times of need.

    Loyalty, as FDR defines it, can only exist in a context of democratic freedom. Because within a democracy, people choose to be loyal, which makes it all the more powerful.

  • Sacrifice

    Bring us the fatted calf. (Well, no, not exactly...there was no such thing as a fatted calf after the Great Depression.)

    The theme of sacrifice is present from the beginning to the end of this speech, but for most of the time, it's really only implied. Transitioning from peacetime to wartime would have inevitably required sacrifices in the form of food rations, restrictions on luxury items, and even reorganizations of time and energy to bolster defenses. With World War I lingering in recent memory, people would have known what lifestyle changes were in store.

    It's not until near the end that FDR gets specific about exactly what he means by "sacrifice." And, not unexpectedly, he means money. So on top of all the restrictions that come with life during wartime, financial limitations are included. Perhaps this is why FDR so heavily emphasizes the gravity of wartime and the sanctity of happiness...people probably weren't happy to hear that sacrifice also included a chunk of their piggy banks.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. What might be a reason that someone might not want to make sacrifices for the war effort? Try to think of an example other than being an enemy of the state.
    2. Is FDR's request for tax money to fund preemptive defense activities fair? Image having been born in 1900 and having lived through World War I and the Great Depression.
    3. Why does FDR place so much emphasis on a streamlined, unified war effort? Does the degree of focus he calls for really require major sacrifices to be made?
    4. What kind of sacrifices is FDR asking of Congress?

    Chew on This

    Even though the United States wasn't yet directly involved in World War II, times were still desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. FDR's requests for public and congressional sacrifices for the good of the country were a wise choice…and a mark of good leadership.

    FDR is requesting too much from Congress because it requires the sacrifice of its constitutional powers of checking and balancing the executive powers of the president.