Today In History – January 6

Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom of want. Freedom of fear.

These were the four freedoms that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said were every human being’s right. Not just every Americans, but every human. These four freedoms were his reasons for believing that the American people needed to enter World War II.

FDR’s Four Freedoms speech was his 1941 State of the Union speech, delivered on January 6, 1941. At this point, WWII was raging over in Europe. However, America at this time was perceived as an isolationist country, believing that Europe’s problems were its own. History books record a general sense of a country that did not feel they should put their own lives at risk for others located across a vast ocean.

However, the country that FDR spoke to and the one that our history books remember are vastly different. America was only isolationist in the sense that they were anti-war but pro-fascist. Following the war’s outbreak, many Congress members visited Fascist Germany and Italy. The America First Committee had between 800,000 and 850,000 members. Only a year earlier, in January of 1940, a plot to overthrow the government and install a fascist regime had been foiled.

FDR knew what he was up against. Those men who had attempted to overthrow the government had intended to make an example of the President. It was only by chance that the attempted coup was foiled. By January 1941, the President knew that Hitler would not hesitate to target the United States. If America were to survive they would need to help Europe survive.

This 1941 State of the Union Address was Franklin Roosevelt’s appeal to the humanity within the American people. He stressed freedoms that all humans had a right to. Roosevelt told the people that “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone.”[1] He went on to list freedoms that would be recognizable to most:

“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.”[2]

Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are both Protected within the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Freedom of want and freedom from fear were new but relatable. The speech was meant to pull at the heartstrings.

The United States would not join the war because of FDR’s speech. Eleven months later, on December 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It was then that the United States of America declared war on Germany and Japan.

[1] “President Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual Message (Four Freedoms) to Congress (1941) | National Archives,”
[2] “President Franklin Roosevelt’s Annual Message (Four Freedoms) to Congress.”

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