Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
Less than a month after FDR gave his "Great Arsenal of Democracy" speech, he stood in front of Congress and spoke of the four fundamental freedoms everyone deserved to have, no matter what. They were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
You tell 'em, FDR.
Just like his discussion on America acting as the arsenal of democracy, FDR's State of the Union address in 1941 was all about U.S. defense, and the very real threat to democracy and freedom with the Axis running amok in Europe and Asia. It also served as FDR officially putting the kibosh on isolationism, as he outlined what the U.S. was going to do to help the Allies win the war.
This speech is called "Four Freedoms" because it spoke of the importance of fighting the bad guys with ideas, not just with weapons. Freedom of speech and freedom of worship are protected by the U.S. Constitution, the cornerstone of democracy, which lists the basic rights guaranteed to all Americans.
Democracy does lots of good for lots of people, but FDR went a step further to include freedom from want and freedom from fear. You won't find those freedoms in the Constitution, but FDR believed they should be a small part of the basic rights guaranteed to all people, no matter their government. As the U.S. already had some experience in fighting for freedom, FDR wanted the American people to be aware they had a role to play in this conflict, too—be it with industrial power or military force.
Aw, shucks. Now we're all fired up.
Even though World War II didn't technically begin until Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, the storm was definitely a-brewin' as early as 1930, and the Americans were not at all looking forward to being involved in another conflict.
In efforts to avoid that all together, the U.S. government signed a number of neutrality acts, the first in 1935 under FDR. After Congress rejected a proposal that would allow the U.S. to pick and choose who to help and who to, well, not help, they proposed a general embargo, or block, on trading all war materials with all countries involved in the war.
You probably figured it out by the name, but the idea was to remain neutral in the conflict and hopefully avoid any unsavory consequences, like having to send troops overseas. But it didn't quite work out as intended. The U.S. wasn't able to send anything to the Allies that could be construed as war materials, and when Germany invaded France—our oldest ally—in 1940, under the Neutrality Act, there was nothing the U.S. could to do help.
For the most part, the Neutrality Act of 1935 started to dissolve in 1941, when Nazi Germany started to attack American ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It was repealed officially in 1941 when FDR signed the Lend-Lease Act. (For more info, check out the Timeline section of this guide.)
When FDR stood in front of Congress to address the nation following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, everyone was still in shock. Never in history had the U.S. been the victim of an unprovoked attack.
In a show of support that was quite a bit different from a year earlier, when FDR gave his "Great Arsenal of Democracy" speech, Americans wanted justice, and they were ready to go to war to get it.
This speech was significant for a number of reasons. Congress declared war less than an hour later, with only one person voting against it, and the audience was the largest in radio history. Plus, the speech emphasized FDR's role as the kind of leader American citizens could count on, and the perfect person to lead the U.S. and avenge those lost at Pearl Harbor.
FDR's speech acknowledged the tragedy, but also focused on the way the American spirit would persevere and win against the kind of enemy that would attack when nobody was looking. It also put a firm end to any doubt that the U.S. could or would stay out of the fighting in Europe and the Pacific.
Within days, millions of young men enlisted in the military, and production of weapons and other war materials increased even more. (Thanks, Rosie the Riveter.)