Preamble section 2:
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and 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 as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Concepts and Ideas

  1. Nuremberg Trials
  2. Rwanda/Yugoslavia
  3. Four Freedoms (1)
  4. Four Freedoms (2)

The Four Freedoms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt talked for the first time about the idea of four freedoms in his State of the Union address of January 1941 at the start of his third term as US president. In that speech, less than a year before the US would enter the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he proposed an ambitious lend-lease program whereby the United States would become the arsenal of democracy by bolstering Britain against the Third Reich:

Let us say to the democracies: We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our recourses and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you in ever-increasing numbers ships, planes, tanks, guns. That is our purpose and our pledge.

FDR’s lend-lease programs ran contrary to the tenor of the American majority. US isolationist sentiment was then at its zenith, attracting enormous crowds to rallies where they were reminded of “Washington’s legacy.” In his Farewell Address, President Washington had cautioned his fellow citizens that:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves to artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

The challenge that Roosevelt faced, therefore, at the commencement of his third term, was to convince a reluctant republic that a threat to democracy elsewhere is a threat to democracy everywhere. “Enduring peace,” FDR reminded the nation in 1941, “cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom …. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” The economic benefits that a massive aid program such as lend-lease had on a still sluggish American economy can nevertheless – from a purely pragmatic and historical point of view – never be overlooked.

By elevating the lend-lease program into democracy’s last stand against totalitarianism, Roosevelt set the tone for post-war American policy. In the aftermath of WWII, cold-war warriors would build upon the link Roosevelt forged between American democracy and the cause of democracy world-wide, to justify American intervention on foreign shores to counteract the spread – real and perceived – of communism.3

That the United States would be drawn into the conflict between fascism and freedom, Roosevelt never doubted. His aim in drawing the United States out of its carefully preserved neutrality by aiding Britain, and later the Soviet Union, was to ready the American people for the gathering storm. Europe had fallen so suddenly to the forces of terror because its leaders had blinded themselves to the threat of fascism, choosing the path of appeasement over the pragmatic path of preparedness. Upon his election in 1932, Roosevelt had inherited a country which had similarly blinded itself to the perils of over-speculation and laissez-faire economics. The result had been chaos in the face of a sudden and dramatic economic collapse. By easing America into the anti-fascist fray through lend-lease, FDR was readying the United States for active participation in the war.

In his State of the Union Address, Roosevelt painted a picture of a better future, founded upon Four Freedoms, the “four essential human freedoms,” some traditional and some new ones:

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 freedom 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 aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.

Jobs, social security and education were for Roosevelt the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy as much as the preservation of civil liberties. This was also central in his New Deal policy. In the report of the National Resources Planning Board, which FDR presented to Congress in early 1942, just a month after Pearl Harbor, it was said that new freedoms had to be added to the US Bill of Rights, the great manifesto which had stood unshaken for 150 years. Those new rights, such as the right to adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, were rights which went

beyond the political forms and freedoms for which our ancestors fought, and which they handed down to us, because we live in a new world in which the central problems arise from new pressures of power, production and population, which our forefathers did not face …. Their problem was freedom and the production of wealth, the building of this continent with its farms, industries, transportation, and power; ours is freedom and the distribution of abundance, so that there may be no unemployment while there are adequate resources and men ready to work and in need for food, clothing and shelter. It is to meet this new term of events that the new declaration of rights is demanded.4

Later in the report this declaration was cited as “A New Bill of Rights.” When President Roosevelt returned to this subject in 1944, he called the proposal “A Second Bill of Rights” and an “Economic Bill of Rights.”



3. Rosmaita, Gregory J. (1995), The Four Freedoms at Home and Abroad,, at 3.
4. National Resources Planning Board, National Resources Development: Report for 1942, at 4.

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Peter Danchin, Columbia University