In his State of the Union Address of January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for authority to provide Lend-Lease assistance to the United Kingdom. To strengthen his appeal, FDR traced a vision of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”
“The Four Freedoms” eventually became shorthand for the war aims of the Allies in their struggle with fascism. The power of The Four Freedoms did not, however, rest on the President’s words alone. They were elaborated in speeches, articles, sermons, books, music, and paintings, and a private-public campaign brought them to millions at home and abroad.
There are two reasons for Public Diplomacy to look back on The Four Freedoms. First – although the social and communication environments have profoundly changed since World War II, looking back at how The Four Freedoms were spread still has lessons for today. Second – when Americans must articulate “what we’re for” (rather than “what we’re against”) in the war on terrorism, it’s worthwhile to examine whether The Four Freedoms still usefully express American values.
This first essay provides background and describes how The Four Freedoms developed as a wartime opinion campaign. In later essays I’ll address each of the President’s Four Freedoms, Norman Rockwell’s four famous paintings, and the nearly-forgotten essays that accompanied publication of the paintings in 1943.
President Roosevelt’s Insight
In our own time, each annual State of the Union Address is months in the making. Speechwriters prepare drafts that are reviewed by the President’s inner circle. Cabinet secretaries and agency heads provide input. Word choices in the speech may have been focus grouped. There are many personal reviews of drafts by the President.
In 1941, however, these four freedoms were not formulated by a White House speechwriting staff or the President’s brain trust. President Roosevelt dictated them personally late in the evening of New Year’s Day, 1941.
FDR may have borrowed the “four freedoms” label from Leo Friedlander’s giant sculptures – “Speech,” “Press,” “Religion,” “Assembly” — at the recent New York World’s Fair, though the President’s list was a different one. FDR named and explained them in twelve sentences at the end of the address.
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.
Presidents launch many slogans while campaigning and governing. Most prove ephemeral. The Four Freedoms, however, took hold in the public mind, and, when war came, they became shorthand for the war aims of the Allies. They helped shape the Atlantic Charter of August 14, 1941.
In the months and years after President Roosevelt first articulated them, other Americans spontaneously fleshed out The Four Freedoms in magazine articles, essays, sermons, books, and art. The repeated public reference to The Four Freedoms, their expression in many forms, and a campaign gave them a long influence.
In 1941, when the architect Kindred McLeary won a competition to paint a mural, “Defense of Human Freedoms,” at the entrance of the new War Department Building (now the State Department’s Truman Building), he organized the motifs around The Four Freedoms. During the war, other Four Freedoms murals were painted in Burbank, California (by Hugo Ballin) and Newark, New Jersey (by Michael Lenson). Postwar works can be seen in San Francisco (Panel 25 of Anton Fefegier’s “History of San Francisco”), Richton, Mississippi (by Mildred Nungester Wolfe), the House of Representatives (by Allyn Cox), and Silverton, Oregon (by David McDonald).
Irving Berlin’s “Song of Freedom” was sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn.” Composer Robert Russell Bennett wrote a “Four Freedoms Symphony” the next year.
In February, 1943, the Postal Service printed nearly 1.3 billion one-cent Four Freedoms stamps, and another was issued after the President’s death.
Norman Rockwell portrays the Four Freedoms
In Vermont after the attack on Pearl Harbor, an American artist known for his magazine covers and posters was possessed by a desire to “take the Four Freedoms out of the noble language and put them in terms everybody can understand.” The result was Norman Rockwell’s four famous paintings.
Rockwell failed to find a sponsor for his project among the wartime agencies in Washington, but the Curtis Publishing Company agreed to run the paintings in four consecutive issues of The Saturday Evening Post in February and March of 1943. On its own initiative, the magazine commissioned four essays to accompany the paintings.
The paintings made publishing history. More than 25,000 readers purchased sets, suitable for framing, from the magazine. So deeply did the paintings affect the American public that Rockwell received 60,000 letters offering thanks, reflections, and suggestions.
It was the paintings that became the core of a major opinion campaign launched in wartime. The Treasury Department and the magazine sponsored a Four Freedoms War Bond Show, exhibiting the paintings around the nation. The opening of the tour at Hecht’s department store in Washington was broadcast nationwide, with Lowell Thomas as master of ceremonies and Justice William O. Douglas as the main speaker. Each person who bought a War Bond received a set of Four Freedoms prints. The campaign raised $130 million.
The Office of War Information (OWI) belatedly realized the power of the project it had once dismissed and printed another 2.5 million copies, accompanied by a long OWI essay. It began:
Beyond the war lies the peace. Both sides have sketched the outlines of the new world toward which they strain. The leaders of the Axis countries have published their design for all to read. They promise a world in which the conquered peoples will live out their lives in the service of their masters.
The United Nations, now engaged in a common cause, have also published their design, and have committed certain common aims to writing. * * * The freedoms we are fighting for, we who are free: the freedoms for which the men and women in the concentration camps and prisons and in the dark streets of the subjugated countries wait, are four in number.”
Note how both the President and the Office of War Information placed the freedoms ahead of the atrocities that violated them. This surely helped frame many awful events for ordinary Americans. Until war came, most were coping with the down home problems of the Depression. When international events intruded on their lives, The Four Freedoms gave Americans four lenses to interpret what they learned.
Thus Nazi book burnings and executions of political opponents violated Freedom of Speech. There was no Freedom from Fear when bombs fell in London and Chungking. When Americans saw films of hungry Chinese refugees, they felt more keenly their own Freedom from Want. And when Hitler’s “Final Solution” became known, Americans knew the meaning of Freedom to Worship.
A review of the Four Freedoms as an opinion campaign can still offer lessons for Public Diplomacy. Consider its different phases.
- Ideas. A Presidential statement. The elaboration of the themes in yet other speeches, essays, music, radio scripts, and paintings.
- Audiences. The media. Citizens. War bond purchasers. Allied governments and publics.
- Programs. Speeches. Rallies. A touring show of the paintings. Broadcasts. Distribution of prints of the paintings, accompanied by copies of the President’s speech and the OWI essay. Tailored materials for foreign audiences.
So powerful were Rockwell’s portrayals and so extensive was the campaign that The Four Freedoms were mentioned in the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The paintings became American icons — recognized as instantly as the Rosenthal photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” or the video images of the falling twin towers on September 11, 2001.
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For decades critics have judged Rockwell as a mere “illustrator” rather than an artist. As times, tastes, and moods changed, many dismissed him and his portrayals of America in decades from the 1920s to the 1950s as sentimental, smug, and sterile. Over the years the Four Freedoms paintings perhaps become overfamiliar images. They come to us, moreover, separated from the other creative work that gave them depth and resonance. So we say America has changed.
But I submit that a continuity of American ideals — the “why we fight,” perhaps — joins, rather than divides, World War II and the current conflict. Here and there Norman Rockwell and The Four Freedoms seem to hearken back to a passed yesteryear. But deeper contemplation shows how well they endure.
The totalitarian evils addressed by the Four Freedoms are still recognizable sixty years later. Then, the aircraft were Heinkels and Bettys. Now they are hijacked airliners. President Roosevelt spoke of “the quick lime in the ditch.” There are still ditches for the victims of ISIS. It may be that the President’s and the artist’s expression of free values meets the needs of a new century.
(This essay first appeared on the Public Diplomacy Council website on January 6, 2016.)
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.