When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his State of the Union address in 1941, the United States was once again on the brink of a world war. In the devastating aftermath of World War I, the United States adopted an isolationist stance, declining to join the League of Nations, refusing to sign the Versailles Treaty, and implementing the Neutrality Acts. All of these steps were taken to avoid any future US involvement in another Great War. By 1940, however, France had fallen to Germany, and the Axis Powers’ domination of Europe was nearly complete. Roosevelt, who was strongly opposed to the isolationist stance of the US, had been providing Great Britain with supplies but was prevented from openly declaring war or sending in troops. Roosevelt’s carefully crafted State of the Union speech was designed to outline the justifications for the direct involvement of the United States in World War II—a conflict he believed the US would eventually be forced to enter regardless. In his address (which would later be known as the Four Freedoms Speech), Roosevelt pointed to “four essential human freedoms” that the United States should fight to protect. Roosevelt’s speech resonated very deeply with the American public and his four freedoms came to represent both America’s wartime goals and the core values of American life.
Roosevelt began the speech by critiquing America’s commitment to international neutrality in the face of fascism. He framed the spread of European fascism as a direct threat to the United States by arguing that Americans cannot expect lasting security, peace, or even good business from a dictator. Roosevelt stressed the importance of standing up for American ideals with the famous saying: “Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” To respond to the impending threat of war, Roosevelt declared that the United States must begin wartime preparations in earnest. As part of this push, the US would need to actively aid countries who were already at war with the aggressor nations. Roosevelt’s speech coincided with the introduction of his Lend-Lease bill to Congress; this policy would allow the US to send essentially free weapons, food, and oil to countries resisting the Axis Powers in return for leases on army and naval bases in Allied territory. Congress’s adoption of the Lend-Lease policy marked the official end of US neutrality in World War II.
Though he outlined wartime policies, Roosevelt’s speech is primarily remembered for his articulation of the four freedoms every person is entitled to: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt hoped that Americans would support the attainment of these freedoms, not only for those in the US but for people everywhere.
The four freedoms went on to become a symbol of the American way of life and were frequently referenced in advertisements meant to galvanize the war effort. Though Roosevelt presented the four freedoms as a goal rather than an acknowledgement of freedoms that everyone in the US actually enjoyed, many critics pointed out the hypocrisy of exporting these freedoms to the rest of the world while most minority groups in the US did not possess them. It is notable that despite these public commitments to freedom, Roosevelt would later issue Executive Order 9066, which allowed for the internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Despite the inconsistencies in America’s adherence to these principles, many scholars recognize Roosevelt’s promise to export American freedoms to the rest of the world as the beginning of America’s role as the “world’s policeman.”
Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Speech remained significant even after World War II had ended. By including freedom from want and freedom from fear, Roosevelt had recognized freedoms beyond constitutional rights. This expanded notion of freedom—particularly freedom from the fear caused by aggressive nations—became a primary justification for the creation of the United Nations, which Roosevelt helped establish after the war. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, pushed for the four freedoms to be included in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, resulting in their explicit mention in the document’s preamble: “...the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed the highest aspiration of the common people.” Roosevelt’s speech remains most significant, however, for its role in shifting the perception of the US on the international stage. Though the notion of “American exceptionalism” has existed since the founding of the country, this was one of the first times that the United States consciously positioned itself as not only a powerful country but a country to be emulated. Today, this speech is remembered for its compelling depiction of American values and the role it played in redefining America’s global identity.