"The Four Freedoms" Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(American Decades Primary Sources: 1940-1949)

World War II poster inspired by President Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech. COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES (NWDNS-44-PA-2066). World War II poster inspired by President Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech. COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES (NWDNS-44-PA-2066). Published by Gale Cengage COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES (NWDNS-44-PA-2066).


By: Franklin D. Roosevelt

Date: January 6, 1941

Source: Roosevelt, Franklin D. "The Four Freedoms." State of the Union speech, January 6, 1941. Available at the Institute for the Study of Civic Values online at ; website home page: http://www.libertynet.org (accessed August 28, 2002).

About the Author: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), born in Hyde Park, New York, served as the thirty-second president of the United States, from 1933 to 1945. He became the only person in the nation's history to be elected to the presidency four times. Roosevelt is best remembered for leading the nation through two of its greatest challenges, the Great Depression and World War II (1939–1945). He died in office in April 1945.


When President Roosevelt made his State of the Union address to Congress on January 6, 1941, he did not know that within the year Japan would attack Pearl Harbor and the United States would be drawn into World War II. He considered the nation in a state of emergency nonetheless. He spoke of national defense and the support of U.S. allies but focused mainly on a broader picture. Roosevelt believed that democracy was in danger not only from military power but also from social revolution, namely the spread of dictators and philosophies that threatened individual freedom. He outlined national policy in his speech, urging citizens to place unnecessary domestic concerns behind the larger cause of democracy and warning them that sacrifices were necessary to maintain the American way of life.

The most significant part of the address, which became known as the "Four Freedoms Speech," was not Roosevelt's outline of U.S. policy, however. Roosevelt also presented four goals he hoped the United States would support and foster across the globe. He identified four freedoms to which he believed all people were entitled: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. He admitted that not all American citizens enjoyed these freedoms and explained ways in which the U.S. government could provide and protect them. The president also expanded notions of American duty. According to Roosevelt, the country had the obligation to export these freedoms elsewhere as well as to defend them at home. His ambitions for freedom did not stop at the U.S. borders.


Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms Speech" was important in four main ways. First, it prepared the American public for the possibility of war. Although the United States had been committed to noninterference, Roosevelt's speech planted a seed in the public's mind. It helped to increase U.S. military activity and pave the way for the declaration of war against Japan that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Second, Roosevelt's emphasis on the plight of democracy set the stage for the Cold War. After World War II, dictators such as Germany's Adolph Hitler no longer threatened democracy, but communist regimes such as that in the Soviet Union remained. Roosevelt's warning about international challenges to freedom helped to justify the United States' part in the Cold War, the clash of superpowers that defined world politics through the 1980s.

Third, the goals Roosevelt described served as a foundation for the post-World War II creation of the United Nations, in which the United States played a key role. Roosevelt's four freedoms informed the purpose and policy of this international organization. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the president's speech expanded traditional notions of U.S. responsibility. According to Roosevelt, the United States had a duty to the entire world as its primary example of democracy and freedom. Although the idea that the United States was exceptional had existed for some time, the concept of the nation as the world's leader and model was significant. Later perceptions of the United States as "the world's police" owe much to Roosevelt's belief in America as the defender of democracy across the world. The "Four Freedoms Speech" was more than a simple summary of domestic and international policy. The speech redefined Roosevelt's, and ultimately the nation's, understanding of U.S. identity.

Primary Source: "The Four Freedoms" [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this State of the Union address, President Roosevelt outlines his social and political goals not only for the United States, but also for the world. His objectives were a major factor in the U.S. entry into World War II and, even more importantly, strongly influenced post-war foreign policy. Roosevelt's idealism, however, contrasted sharply in some cases with World War II and Cold War realities.

Mr. Speaker, members of the 77th Congress:

I address you, the members of this new Congress, at a moment unprecedented in the history of the union. I use the word "unprecedented" because at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.…

As long as the aggressor nations maintain the offensive they, not we, will choose the time and the place and the method of their attack. And that is why the future of all the American Republics is today in serious danger. That is why this annual message to the Congress is unique in our history. That is why every member of the executive branch of the government and every member of the Congress face great responsibility—great accountability.

The need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily—almost exclusively—to meeting this foreign peril. For all our domestic problems are now a part of the great emergency. Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all of our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all nations, large and small. And the justice of morality must and will win in the end.

Our national policy is this:

First, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to all-inclusive national defense.

Second, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to full support of all those resolute people everywhere who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our hemisphere. By this support we express our determination that the democratic cause shall prevail, and we strengthen the defense and the security of our own nation.

Third, by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship, we are committed to the proposition that principle of morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people's freedom. In the recent national election there was no substantial difference between the two great parties in respect to that national policy. No issue was fought out on the line before the American electorate. And today it is abundantly evident that American citizens everywhere are demanding and supporting speedy and complete action in recognition of obvious danger.…

In fulfillment of this purpose we will not be intimidated by the threats of dictators that they will regard as a breach of international law or as an act of war our aid to the democracies which dare to resist their aggression. Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be. And when the dictators—if the dictators—are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part.

They did not wait for Norway or Belgium or the Netherlands to commit an act of war. Their only interest is in a new one-way international law which lacks mutuality in its observance and therefore becomes an instrument of oppression. The happiness of future generations of Americans may well depend on how effective and how immediate we can make our aid felt. No one can tell the exact character of the emergency situations that we may be called upon to meet. The nation's hands must not be tied when the nation's life is in danger.

Yes, and we must prepare, all of us prepare, to make the sacrifices that the emergency—almost as serious as war itself—demands. Whatever stands in the way of speed and efficiency in defense, in defense preparations at any time, must give way to the national need. A free nation has the right to expect full cooperation from all groups. A free nation has the right to look to the leaders of business, of labor and of agriculture to take the lead in stimulating effort, not among other groups but within their own groups.

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. As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone. Those who man our defenses and those behind them who build our defenses must have the stamina and the courage which come from unshakeable belief in the manner of life which they are defending. The mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all the things worth fighting for.

The nation takes great satisfaction and much strength from the things which have been done to make its people conscious of their individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America. Those things have toughened the fiber of our people, have renewed their faith and strengthened their devotion to the institutions we make ready to protect. Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy.

The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.

Many subjects connected with our social economy call for immediate improvement. As examples:

We should bring more citizens under the coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

We should widen the opportunities for adequate medical care.

We should plan a better system by which persons deserving or needing gainful employment may obtain it.

I have called for personal sacrifice, and I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call. A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my budget message I will recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying for today. No person should try, or be allowed to get rich out of the program, and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.

If the Congress maintains these principles the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause. In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression— everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called "new order" of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception—the moral order. A good society is able to face schemes of world domination and foreign revolutions alike without fear. Since the beginning of our American history we have been engaged in change, in a perpetual, peaceful revolution, a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly, adjusting itself to changing conditions without the concentration camp or the quicklime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands, heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

To that high concept there can be no end save victory.

Further Resources


Davis, Kenneth Sydney. FDR—The War President, 1940–1943: A History. New York: Random House, 2000.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 1991.

Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Touchstone Books, 1995.


Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Digital Archives. Available online at http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ (accessed May 9, 2002).

"Powers of Persuasion: Poster Art from World War II." National Archives and Records Administration. Available online at http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/powers_of_persuasion/f... ; website home page http://www.archives.gov/ (accessed March 14, 2003).