Bill Moyers
April 11, 2014 | Updated January 5, 2016
Fighting for the Four Freedoms

BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…

HARVEY J. KAYE: We need to remember that we’re the children and the grandchildren of the generation that beat the Great Depression and defeated fascism and imperialism in World War II, and went on to create the strongest and most prosperous country in human history. And how did they do that? By making America freer, more equal, and more democratic.

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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. If you’re still reeling from the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, giving corporations and oligarchs even more power to corrupt democracy with impunity, and if the greatest income inequality since the first Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties has you gasping at the realization that it’s happening in America – again, and if you have trouble reconciling the promise of America – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for every citizen – with the facts of America, including the fact of immense power and privilege in the hands of so few; if all these bad tidings have you down in the dumps I have an assignment for you.

Read this book; “The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great,” by Harvey J. Kaye, published this very week, on the 69th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the 12th of April, 1945.

At its core is the famous speech FDR made to America less than a year before Pearl Harbor, in 1941, calling on the nation to prepare to protect and defend the four essential freedoms: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear.

It’s not the first time this historian has reached into the past to find inspiration for our troubled present. His book "Thomas Paine and the Promise of America" was a rousing invocation of the radical patriot who became the conscience of the American Revolution.

Harvey J. Kaye joins me now. He’s a professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and director of that school’s Center for History and Social Change. Harvey, welcome back.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Thank you. It's always great to be here.

BILL MOYERS: You opened fire in the very first sentence, we must remember, and then over and again, we must remember, we must remember, we must remember. What exactly are you asking us to remember?

HARVEY J. KAYE: We need to remember what our parents and grandparents did. We need to remember that they didn't just beat the Great Depression. They didn't just defeat fascism and imperialism. What they actually did is, to go about doing that, inspired by FDR's words, they made America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.

BILL MOYERS: And aren't we living in their long shadow?

HARVEY J. KAYE: Long, long shadow. Absolutely. Look around. Look around America today. So much of what we benefit from, of what we enjoy, which is under siege, we owe to that generation.

What it comes down to is that we've seen that the four freedoms as they're embodied in social security, the rights of labor, in the advances for women's equality and rights in the '60s. I mean, I love to tell my students, all the things that were accomplished in the '30s and all the things were accomplished in the '60s, and you can go one by one and it's an arc. It's an arc. A fulfillment. Okay?

Roosevelt actually on the campaign trail was very revealing. I think most historians underestimate just how progressive he was on the campaign trail. There were no surprises. He didn't come in unaware of what he was going to do. And when he takes office and he begins this hundred days, and he goes on, First New Deal, Second New Deal, he is constantly inviting Americans not just to take up the labors of the New Deal, but essentially to get organized. One of the lines that very few people come across, but it's the line, something like, laws in themselves do not create the new millennium. And what he meant by that is of course that we can pass laws, you're going to have to fight. This fight is not only mine, it's ours.

BILL MOYERS: And he was a fighter. He took on the oligarchs, he didn't mince words. He warned against the economic autocracy, he said, a new despotism had arisen. An industrial dictatorship. He called them economic royalists. He denounced, quote, those few selfish citizens who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nest. I mean, no president's talked like that since Roosevelt.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Absolutely not. I mean, I have my students read through inaugural addresses, State of the Union addresses, and I start them off with, you know, the 1936 Roosevelt, one speech where he talks about economic royalists. And you know, basically he's saying, they complain that we’re out to, you know, overturn American institutions, what they're really complaining about is we want to overturn their power.

And guess what? They're right. Now what president, other than FDR, would've said that? That's magnificent. I mean, it’s the kind of thing you could just listen to over and over again, and then he goes off to say, I welcome their hatred.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, he was a tough fighter, against the economic royalists, against the aristocracy of wealth. And he came from that part of the country. And I was taken, although I've read this before, I think you said it so concisely, that as a young man growing up, he wasn’t particularly sensitive to the poor or sensitive to minorities or sensitive to the marginalized. But that as a victim of polio, he came to possess this great empathy.

HARVEY J. KAYE: His labor secretary in her memoir of Roosevelt--

BILL MOYERS: Frances Perkins.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Frances Perkins, thank you. She says, knowing him early on, around 1912, and knowing him later, after he was stricken with polio, it was a changed man. A man filled with a new kind of sensitivity and a sensibility. I also think, and I think she mentions it, Frances Perkins, that Eleanor plays a really fundamental role during the 1920s in introducing him to the women that she's meeting down here in New York City, labor organizers, and others. And he's all of a sudden coming to grips with the struggles of working people in the cities. And I think that registered in him.

BILL MOYERS: Why was the Four Freedoms speech so important?

HARVEY J. KAYE: I think the Four Freedoms speech is important in the most immediate sense of 1941, and that's really the call to war. Americans know what's coming. The call to war is we need to create an arsenal for democracy. We need to create a lend-lease program to secure Britain and its allies against Nazi Germany.

And then he says, but don't misunderstand. We have to appreciate that if we're going to prepare ourselves for defense that we don't give up what we've achieved these last eight years. And he lays out new initiatives. What he knew, and what he knew a generation knew, was the only way to defend, secure, and sustain American democracy is you constantly press to enhance it. You test the limits.

We’re the great experiment in democracy. And he knew that. He knew American history. So here he appears. And how does he close the speech? The Four Freedoms. And he actually says that these four freedoms are at the heart of American life. They're at the heart of this ongoing, perpetual, and peaceful revolution dating back to the time of the revolution.

BILL MOYERS: I didn't realize until I read your book, what the importance of the victory medal that every soldier, sailor, marine--

HARVEY J. KAYE: Airman, all them--

BILL MOYERS: --airman received in World War II. And, tell me about that.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, this was a medal awarded at the end of the war, to everyone who served in uniform. And this was a medal that on the front looks just like any other war medal. And when you flip it to the backside, it says--

BILL MOYERS: Freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, freedom of religion.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Yes. And it isn't that this was issued as a propaganda device. The war is over. This was issued because the Roosevelt administration knew that this is what Americans were fighting for. It was in any number of venues that you could see the evidence, letters to newspapers by the wives who stayed home and went to work in the war factories and the men who went off to service. Americans couldn't always recite those four freedoms. But they knew exactly what they were fighting for.

BILL MOYERS: I had to shake my head when I came to that moment in your book when you say that when Roosevelt delivering the speech got to freedom from want no Republicans applauded and some--

HARVEY J. KAYE: At least--

BILL MOYERS: --Democrats didn't applaud.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Right. I think that shook up the Republicans. Samuel Grafton, the New York, the then liberal "New York Post" columnist said, they sat on their hands. And then he got to, freedom from fear, and that was when he said, and I think a good number of Democrats. And you know who those were. They were the white supremacist Democrats in the South.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, because he was talking about freedom from persecution and discrimination.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Right, exactly.

BILL MOYERS: And that's when the Dixiecrats would’ve sat on their hands, the Democrats.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Yes, right. You know what's interesting, Bill, is if you read the exact wording of the speech and his idea of the four freedoms, Roosevelt states them in a way that might not have been so scary to the well-off. But Americans knew they were talking to-- that he was talking to them. And when they said, when they heard, freedom from want and freedom from fear, they had absolutely no doubt what he had in mind.

BILL MOYERS: I remember your quoting something that FDR said to a friend of his I think in--


BILL MOYERS: --1930. What was it?

HARVEY J. KAYE: He said to a friend, looking all around him with the devastation of the Great Depression, I think it's time that we make America fairly radical for a generation.

BILL MOYERS: Fairly radical?

HARVEY J. KAYE: Fairly radical. Fairly radical.

BILL MOYERS: Reminded me of Walt Whitman, be radical, be radical. Be not too damn radical. What do you think he meant by that?

HARVEY J. KAYE: I think he meant that it was time to free ourselves of the conservative shackles of the 1920s. That it was time to enable working people to organize. It was time to provide old age pensions. I'm actually reading in my head from his campaign speeches. We needed to create public works projects. We needed to address the environment. Soil erosion. He, agriculture was fundamental to Franklin Roosevelt. Over and over again out on the campaign trail that year, contrary to what historians seem to say, Roosevelt was saying, we need to do these things. That's what he meant by radical. But he didn't mean merely that he would do it or the Democrats in Congress would do it. As we saw in the coming years, he meant we will make America fairly radical for a generation.

BILL MOYERS: Roosevelt didn't call for a revolution although--


BILL MOYERS: --many people thought one was imminent--

HARVEY J. KAYE: No. Yes, they did.

BILL MOYERS: --or possible.

HARVEY J. KAYE: And look, the wealthy were talking about maybe a Mussolini.

BILL MOYERS: Positive--

HARVEY J. KAYE: But not the American--

BILL MOYERS: --positively.

HARVEY J. KAYE: --positively. Absolutely. "Vanity Fair." "Vanity Fair" ran an editorial wondering if we didn't need a strong man like Mussolini in that year. The president, whose name I'm forgetting, of the American Political Science Association gave his annual address and said, perhaps we're going to become fascist or even communist.

You know, Roosevelt in many ways, I have a feeling this goes back to his reading of Jefferson. Jefferson said, in every generation, Americans need a bit of rebellion. Okay? And I think Roosevelt understood that. You know, in 1938 just before the Congressional midterm election, you know, the midterm elections he did a speech on the radio. And Roosevelt said, you know, if we don't keep pushing forward, Tory Republicanism will. And if Tory Republicanism does then communism and fascism have greater chance of taking root in this country.

You know, in 1926, it's not even the Depression, his greatest worry was that if America didn't escape the conservative hold that it was in that he worried for the nation's future. I think there's a trajectory in Roosevelt that's astounding. And I think historians ignore it. In 1932 he talked about an economic declaration of rights. In 1941 he declares, proclaims the four freedoms. In 1944 he calls for a second bill of rights, specifically an economic bill of rights. There’s a tremendous continuity in his thought. He's just articulating it more clearly.

BILL MOYERS: So if he were not calling for a revolution, what was he calling for?

HARVEY J. KAYE: I think he knew that certain ills and injustices needed to be addressed. At one point he gave a speech, I think it was in 1934. He says, real patriotism requires us to make an America where more of us get to share in what this country is about. And he said, real patriotism is about combating the evils and injustices. Now he did that at a World War I memorial. He didn't, you know, try to rally people into some kind of military fever or, he knew. But he had this incredible confidence in his fellow citizens.

He believed that if you could empower working people, if you could afford the necessities to people, that if you could do these things, you create, and I know this sounds cliché, a better America. That, he knew that this country was a grand experiment in democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Going all the way back to 1776.

HARVEY J. KAYE: All the way back. You know, Bill, you and I have this affection for Thomas Paine. And I could tell you, one of the reasons I wrote this is that it was Franklin Roosevelt who was the first president since Thomas Jefferson who, while in office, openly quoted and cited Thomas Paine's name.

BILL MOYERS: But you know that conservatives claim Thomas Paine too. You do know that.

HARVEY J. KAYE: I know that all too well.

BILL MOYERS: And the Tea Party did not come from the left. It came from ordinary people out there on the conservative side of things.


BILL MOYERS: There’s a paradox here.

HARVEY J. KAYE: --I have a theory. I have a theory.

BILL MOYERS: Historians are not supposed to have theories.

HARVEY J. KAYE: I know, I know.

BILL MOYERS: You're supposed to have facts.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, I have a theory and here's my theory. I believe that, I say that Reagan could never have become president if we, if Democrats, progressives and liberals, had not already forgotten and forsaken the four freedoms. The only thing that enables conservatives to appeal to the vast majority of American working people is when that vast majority is disappointed and frustrated and angry.

BILL MOYERS: You write, we have been led to forget. And who has led us to forget?

HARVEY J. KAYE: So over and over again, we saw from right through the '30s, right through World War II, we saw corporate interests constantly trying to either directly suppress the ideas that are going to become the four freedoms, okay? By saying, private enterprise, that's what makes America great. Forgetting the struggle for freedoms, speech, expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear that Roosevelt put into words.

For example, Ronald Reagan. If you look closely at what Reagan does in the course of his presidency, he appears on July 3rd, 1987, at the Jefferson Memorial, at an event sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And he says that he wants to advance four freedoms.

He says, you know, we Americans need to cultivate, we need to remember. He says, we need to remember. And we need to teach our children history and make sure they remember America is about freedom. And what does he say? Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of enterprise. He literally expunges freedom from want and freedom from fear.

BILL MOYERS: So you say in here, "…after so many years of conservative political ascendency and concerted class war from - above more than thirty years of deregulating corporate activity, reducing the taxes of the rich, assailing labor unions, shuttering industries and neglecting the public infrastructure - the democratic legacy of that generation,” Roosevelt's generation, “continues to nourish us." Where do you see evidence of that?

HARVEY J. KAYE: Nourishing us?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you say that--

HARVEY J. KAYE: Well, you're over 65, you get social security?

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. I do.

HARVEY J. KAYE: I could take my students on a little field trip. CCC built that. The WPA built that. Milwaukee, the Metropolitan Sewerage District built by the New Deal. Over and over again, hospitals, schools, libraries, parks, I mean, the very things that we take for granted are the very things that young people were mobilized to make happen in the 1930s.

BILL MOYERS: I think this is a very important point you make in here that his genius as a leader was not so much the exact legislation or the particular things that came out of it, but his power to mobilize workers, women, minorities, students, intellectuals, all these people you mentioned in the book. That was the power of rhetoric and empathy, right?

HARVEY J. KAYE: The democratic surge of the 1930s, that in many ways, he calls forth with his rhetoric and his speeches that say, here's what we need to do. That democratic surge when would you find that before on that scale? Civil war to defend the union? Yeah. The American Revolution. Maybe even, maybe it was the greatest democratic surge in American history.

BILL MOYERS: So is this-- have you written this as an agenda for the Democratic party?

HARVEY J. KAYE: I don't know if the Democratic party will attend to it. I want all of my fellow citizens to attend to this argument because I think Americans would respond if they heard it. Over and over again what they hear from leaders is, yes, we can. And then at the moment of, now what are we going to do, they get left behind in favor of Washington, DC politics. Washington, DC politics.

BILL MOYERS: Talk to me as a conservative who has real doubts about the efficacy of government, who really believes that there's a threat from unlimited government and who thinks the New Deal didn't work the way you think it did.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Two things, first of all, let's imagine we're both conservatives, wealthy conservatives. And you know what I would say? I'd say we don't really hate government. It's working perfectly for us. Why should we hate government? Out in public, why do they have this animosity towards government?

Because what this generation did, what this generation did is they harnessed the powers of democratic government to make America freer, more equal, and more democratic. They harnessed the powers of democratic government. You know, they knew how to go about doing it because Roosevelt invited them to do so. And he brought to Washington these new dealers and sent them out around the country. I mean, opened up Washington to Catholics, Jews, African-Americans, women. He made Washington connect with Americans, not simply to have a better political funnel sending out the messages. But to get those people out in the field going.

He would call his friend, Felix Frankfurter, up at Harvard University and say, I need some New Dealers, send them down. And all these young Catholic and Jewish lawyers would come in to see Frankfurter and say, I want to be a New Dealer.

BILL MOYERS: It had been a WASP country up until then.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Absolutely, absolutely. White Anglo-Saxton Protestant. And what was funny was these young Catholic and Jewish lawyers, Frankfurter would say to them, go to Wall Street for two years. Learn about them so you can control them. It was great, right? And they became known as the hot dogs.

BILL MOYERS: Did you write this book to make people fighting mad? Because they're going to be fighting mad on either side of the political spectrum when they read it.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Yes. Absolutely. I want them to be fighting mad. I want them to be fighting mad like Roosevelt was. I want them to say, we need to make America fairly radical for a generation. What we need to do is we need to go back and remember the kinds of things that Roosevelt knew, that there's deep in every American this desire to redeem the meaning of America. And he knew that there are ways of getting people to act because if you can speak to them as an American, remind them of who they are, invite them to offer their labors, invite them to organize.

In the 1930s, organizers went out and said, you’ve got to organize. The president wants you in a union. It worked. Millions joined. And, by the way, living standards rose, workers security improved. We get social security. I mean, look what we've done and look what we're allowing to happen now. This cannot be the America that I imagined and most of my fellow Americans imagined. But they have forgotten not the four freedoms as ideals. They have forgotten what it takes to realize them that we must defend, sustain and secure democracy by enhancing it. That's what Roosevelt knew. That's what Jefferson knew. And no one seems to remember that today. That's what we have to remind people of.

BILL MOYERS: And that's what “The Fight for the Four Freedoms” does, “What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great.” Harvey J. Kaye, thank you for being with me.

HARVEY J. KAYE: Thank you, it's always a pleasure to be with you, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: I remember that day well: the 12th of April 1945. The day Roosevelt died. I was eleven years old and FDR had been president since before I was born. 

My father came home early from work. He had been sitting high in the cab of his truck waiting for the red light to change when he heard someone on the street shouting: “The President is dead. The President is dead.”  He immediately headed back to the garage, left the truck, and walked home in a hurry. Like so many Americans, he sat late into the evening, close to the console radio in our living room, listening for news about the president’s death. 

It was the only time I had seen tears in his eyes, and it was years later before I understood. My father had left school in the fourth grade to pick cotton. His family needed his labor. After they married, he and my mother spent a year as itinerant field hands in West Texas, then returned to Oklahoma as tenant farmers, until they were driven from the land when the bank foreclosed on its owner during the great depression.  It was never apparent that FDR’s New Deal materially made a difference in my father’s life, but this I know, and I know it for certain: he believed President Roosevelt was on his side, fighting for common people like him. This man with a fourth-grade education and calloused hands and fingers with nubs from an accident at the cotton gin—he thought “that fella in the White House” -- born in New York’s lush Hudson Valley, the son of landed gentry, Harvard educated, with pince-nez glasses and a long, slender cigarette holder aloft above his jutting jaw – he knew “that fella in the White House” was his friend and champion. They, of course, never met.  But on that Thursday afternoon in April, my father wept.   At our website,, Harvey J. Kaye will be joining us for a web chat this coming Tuesday at 2:00PM Eastern time. Send us your questions in advance, and join the conversation. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.

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