The following is an excerpt from The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great by Harvey J. Kaye.
We need to remember. We need to remember what conservatives have never wanted us to remember and what liberals have all too often forgotten.
Now, after more than 30 years of subordinating the public good to corporate priorities and private greed, of subjecting ourselves to widening inequality and intensifying insecurities and of denying our own democratic impulses and yearnings, we need to remember.
We need to remember who we are.
We need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who rescued the United States from economic destruction in the Great Depression and defended it against fascism and imperialism in World War II.
We need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who not only saved the nation from economic ruin and political oblivion, but also turned it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth.
And most of all we need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the men and women who accomplished all of that – in the face of powerful conservative, reactionary and corporate opposition and despite their own faults and failings – by making America freer, more equal and more democratic than ever before.
Now, when all that they fought for is under siege and we too find ourselves confronting crises and forces that threaten the nation and all that it stands for, we need to remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the most progressive generation in American history. We are the children of the men and women who articulated, fought for and endowed us with the promise of the Four Freedoms.
On the afternoon of January 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went up to Capitol Hill to deliver his State of the Union. Just weeks earlier, he had defeated Republican Wendell Willkie at the polls and won re-election to an unprecedented third term. But Roosevelt now faced a far bigger challenge, one even more daunting than those he confronted in his first and second terms. Still stalked by the Great Depression, the United States was also increasingly threatened by the Axis powers – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan. And with war already raging east and west, Americans had yet to agree about how to respond to the danger. The president, however, did not falter. He not only proceeded to propose measures to address the emergency. He also gave dramatic new meaning to All men are created equal… Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… We the People of the United States… A new birth of freedom… AND Government of the people, by the people, for the people…
FDR knew about crises. But he knew as well what Americans could accomplish, even in the darkest of times. Born in 1882, he had grown up privileged, the son of New York Hudson River gentry. Yet long before becoming president, he had suffered serious defeats and setbacks, none more devastating than contracting polio in 1921 at the age of 39. The disease had left him permanently unable to stand up or walk without assistance. However, supported by his wife, Eleanor and other family members and friends, he had risen above the paralysis to become the most dynamic political figure in the United States. Moreover, his experiences and encounters in the course of doing so had reaffirmed and deepened his already powerful faith and confidence in God, in himself and in his fellow citizens – all of which had enabled him, in the face of the worst economic and social catastrophes in the nation’s history, to defiantly state that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and to go on to proclaim, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”Armed with this faith and confidence and propelled by the popular energies that his words and actions elicited, he determinedly pursued the initiatives of relief, recovery, reconstruction and reform known as the New Deal. [i]
Together, president and people severely tested each other, made mistakes and regrettable compromises and suffered defeats and disappointments. Nevertheless, challenging each other to live up to their finest ideals, Roosevelt and his fellow citizens advanced them further than either had expected or even imagined possible. Confronting fierce conservative, reactionary and corporate opposition, they not only rejected authoritarianism, but also redeemed the nation’s historic purpose and promise by initiating revolutionary changes in American government and public life and radically extending American freedom, equality and democracy. They subjected big business to public account and regulation, empowered the federal government to address the needs of working people, mobilized and organized labor unions, fought for their rights, broadened and leveled the “We” in “We the People,” established a social security system, expanded the nation’s public infrastructure, improved the environment, cultivated the arts and refashioned popular culture and – while much remained to be done – imbued themselves with fresh democratic convictions, hopes and aspirations.
Standing before the American people and their assembled representatives that early January day, the president surely believed their rendezvous with destiny had come. He told them straightforwardly that Americans were now confronting a “moment unprecedented in the history of the United States” – “unprecedented” because never before had “American security been as seriously threatened from without.” And he refused to appease those who threatened the nation’s safety or defer to isolationist arguments that the country could avoid war by constructing a “fortress America” behind which it might hide. [ii]
Referring to the Axis powers’ global ambitions, the president stated: “I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events beyond our borders.” He knew the defense of the United States and everything for which it stood would soon require it to enter the war directly, but he did not then request a declaration of war. At this moment, he called upon Congress and the people to turn the country into the “Arsenal of Democracy” and to enact a lend-lease program that would afford Great Britain and its allies the wherewithal to sustain their struggle against fascist Germany and Italy. [iii]
Yet Roosevelt did not leave it at that. Counseling that “When the dictators are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part,” he warned against those few selfish citizens who “would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests” and enjoined that “We must all prepare to make the sacrifices that the emergency – almost as serious as war itself – demands.”
However, convinced that Americans had to equip themselves with not only arms but also “the stamina and courage which come from unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending,” he neither called for giving up, nor for suspending, what the men and women of the Great Depression had recently struggled so hard to achieve. Far from it. Instead, he called for strengthening “democratic life in America” by actually enlarging their newly won “social economy,” citing as fundamentals “equality of opportunity for youth and others,” “jobs for those who can work,” “security for those who need it,” “the ending of special privileges for the few,” “the preservation of civil liberties for all…” And he specifically proposed expanding the “coverage of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance,” providing “opportunities for adequate medical care” and creating a better system to assure “gainful employment” to all who needed it.
Finally, articulating Americans’ grandest ideals and strivings past and present, Roosevelt defined a cause and a generation:
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.[iv]
Isolationists denounced the president’s call to turn the United States into the “Arsenal of Democracy” and conservatives rejected his expansive democratic vision. But most Americans responded otherwise. They backed the call to action, affirmed the promise pronounced and in the wake of Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, made “Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear” the nation’s war aims.
In the name of democracy and the Four Freedoms, 16 million Americans would put on uniforms and pursue a global struggle we would come to call the “Good War” – not for the character of the combat, but for the rightness of the cause and the unity of purpose in which the nation pursued it. With their allies, they would storm beaches, slog through jungles, tramp across icy fields, sail through submarine-infested waters, fly missions over heavily fortified territories and punch, push, claw and ultimately power their way to victory. At the same time, their fellow citizens would not only pray for them to return safe and sound, but also go “All Out!” both to provide the arms and material required for victory and to protect and improve what those millions were defending.
President and people once again were to test each other, make mistakes and compromises and suffer defeats and disappointments. Nonetheless, they not only prevailed over their enemies, but also, as before, compelled each other to enhance American democratic life in the process. Despite continuing antidemocratic opposition, Americans expanded the labor, consumer and civil-rights movements, subjected industry and the marketplace to greater public control, reduced inequality and poverty and further transformed the “We” in “We the People.” Moreover, they embraced new initiatives to expand freedom, equality and democracy at war’s end.
Roosevelt passed away in April 1945. Germany and Japan surrendered in the months that followed (Italy had done so in 1943). And yet the promise of the Four Freedoms did not expire. Even as the United States began to “take off” in an unprecedented economic expansion and enter into a “Cold War” struggle with the Soviet Union, most Americans set out to make that promise all the more real.
But not all Americans. Not everyone wanted to enhance American democratic life. Conservatives, reactionaries and corporate bosses had their own ideas for postwar America. Determined as ever to reverse the progressive accomplishments of the Roosevelt years and cancel out the promise of the Four Freedoms, they set themselves anew to suppressing if not extinguishing Americans’ democratic aspirations and energies. And they enjoyed successes. By the early 1950s, they had tamed liberals, marginalized progressives and radicals and stymied the democratic campaigns of labor and the civil rights movement – not to mention effectively effaced FDR’s Four Freedoms from public debate.
And yet, for all of their efforts, this powerful minority could not get Americans to forget their hard-won victories or the promise that encouraged them. In fact, as Americans continued to make the nation ever stronger and more prosperous, they also pushed freedom, equality and democracy forward. Never as quickly or as completely as some wished, but always forward. They built new communities and new churches, schools and civic associations. They secured higher living standards for themselves and their families. And they not only expanded social security, but also began to enact laws against racial and religious discrimination. And when they were seriously challenged in the 1960s to live up to the promise that so many of them had struggled to articulate and advance, they recommitted the nation to doing so.
The power of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms endured.
Those who marched for civil rights, campaigned to end poverty, organized public-employee unions, pushed to enact healthcare for the elderly and poor, demanded equal rights for women, reformed the nation’s immigration law, expanded public education and the arts, pressed for greater regulation of corporate activity to protect the environment, workers and consumers and protested the Vietnam War did not regularly recite those freedoms. But they were inspired and informed by the struggles and achievements of the president and people who first proclaimed and fought for, them – and were most often called to act anew by veterans of that fight.
Undeniably, the “Age of Roosevelt” and the progressive pursuit of the Four Freedoms can seem a very long time ago. But even now, after so many years of conservative political ascendancy and concerted class war from above – more than 30 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 continues to nourish us. We all live in the long, long shadow of those men and women, of what they did and what they afforded us. And in the intervening decades, the Four Freedoms and what they encompass have actually broadened. Pick any area of American life. The consequences of that generation’s commitment to the promise of those freedoms are evident. Moreover, our most volatile political and cultural contests often fall precisely along the fault lines of those freedoms.
All of which renders it all the more remarkable that we do not honor those men and women for their progressive struggles and achievements. That the right and conservative rich continue, as they always have, to work at delaying, containing and rolling back that generation’s greatest democratic accomplishments is not remarkable. But that liberals and leftists have lost their association with that generation is. How is it that the most celebrated generation in American history is not remembered for its most enduring accomplishment and greatest gift to the nation, the embedding of FDR’s Four Freedoms in the very bedrock of American life?
In 1997, the FDR Memorial was unveiled along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC, and in 2004, the National World War II Memorial was opened on the National Mall directly between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. At the same time, millions of Americans not only snatched up books like Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers, but also went to see Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, sat for hours watching programs such as HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary The War and turned out for events both grand and intimate commemorating a generation’s labors and sacrifices. [v]
The memorials, histories and public speeches and ceremonies beautifully honor those who prevailed against depression and total war. And yet, even as we have proclaimed our eternal gratitude and promised never to forget them and all that they did, we have failed to remember what made the “Greatest Generation” and its “greatest leader” truly great.
At serious cost to the memory and legacy of that generation and to our own shared prospects, we have allowed the public telling of their lives and struggles to be drained of its most progressive, democratic and inspiring content.
Consider that in their otherwise moving works, the Greatest Generation’s tribunes, Ambrose, Brokaw, Bradley, Spielberg and Burns, make no mention of FDR’s pronouncement of the Four Freedoms. They utterly ignore how a president and people articulated anew the nation’s historic promise in “Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear,” and went “All Out!” in their name not only to defend American democratic life, but also to enhance it. And they utterly ignore how a president and people not only saved the United States from economic destruction and political tyranny and proceeded to turn it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth, but did so by harnessing the powers of democratic government and making America freer, more equal and more democratic than ever before in the process.
Journalists and columnists of every political stripe compounded our amnesia. Like the storytellers, they, too, wrote and spoke as if the lives and histories memorialized in the FDR and World War II monuments had nothing to do with each other. They made no mention of how Roosevelt and his fellow citizens fought the Great Depression not by retreating from America’s finest ideals, but by rejecting the sirens of reaction and defeatism and working to make those ideals all the more real. They made no mention of how those Americans not only proved to themselves that they could transcend their faults and failings and prevail against daunting challenges, but also both reaffirmed what it meant to be American even as they prepared to confront the evils of Nazism, fascism and imperialism. And they made no mention of how Americans, seared in the manifold failures of the 1920s, made the pursuit of the Four Freedoms their own even before they went to war in Europe and Asia.
Moreover, even as intellectuals and pundits right and left marveled at the intensity of their fellow citizens’ fascination for the Greatest Generation, they never addressed the democratic significance of it all. Ever attentive to America’s democratic impulse, those on the right recognized it and instinctively sought to counter it. Sadly, writers on the left missed it entirely. They not only failed to appreciate the democratic longings that Americans’ admiration for the Greatest Generation signaled. They criticized the celebrations and the popular response to them.
Having sought to rein in Roosevelt even before he was elected, the right and conservative rich have been working ever since to roll back the progressive achievements of the generation that embraced the four-time elected president. And knowing the powers of the past in shaping our political and cultural imaginations they have never failed to realize that doing so required suppressing, obscuring, or manipulating and, when possible, appropriating the story of the making of American freedom, equality and democracy. Echoing their political ancestors of the 1930s, they responded to the renewed interest in Roosevelt by once again vehemently accusing him and his “New Dealers” of imposing policies not simply inimical to American life, but inspired by fascism and communism; of not just failing to end the Great Depression, but of actually prolonging it; and of not simply enlarging the federal government at the expense of individual and corporate enterprise, but of hijacking the constitution and trampling on American freedoms. Even as they have strenuously endeavored to disassociate the men and women of the Greatest Generation from the progressive achievements of the Roosevelt presidency, they have enthusiastically celebrated the veterans of the Second World War for their patriotism and laid claim to their legacy in those narrowed terms. [vi]
Meanwhile, liberal and progressive intellectuals reacted to what historian Emily Rosenberg referred to as the “memory boom” with criticisms bordering on condescension. Yes, the Greatest Generation phenomena entailed lots of commercial and patriotic hype. And yes, both isolationism and racism marked American attitudes and actions in the 1930s and 1940s. But liberal and progressive commentators ignored the democratic legacy and appeal of the men and women of that generation. Indeed, they failed to see that the tribunes of the Greatest Generation were not making too much of what those men and women accomplished, but rather too little – and consequently they did nothing to respond to the right’s erasure of a generation’s progressive struggles and achievements. [vii]
We Americans did not turn to the past in the 1990s because we wanted to escape the present or because we were fooled into doing so. In the wake of a dozen years of Republican presidential administrations and in the midst of the most conservative era since the 1920s, we did so to recall and engage it.
Sensing that the very meaning of America was in jeopardy, we instinctively did what Americans have always done at such moments. We looked back, back to those who most powerfully expressed what it means to be an American, most particularly to those who, confronting crises, made American life freer, more equal and more democratic in the process.
Some of us did so in the clearest of terms. Responding to the spread of rightwing militia groups and the horrific 1995 attack on the Oklahoma City federal building, political activist Chip Berlet recalled his father’s military service and postwar commitments to urge renewed respect for “civil liberties, civil rights and civil discourse.” He acknowledged that his father, a decorated veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, a lifelong Republican and an ardent anti-Communist, had his prejudices; and yet, he noted, the same man refused to allow those attitudes to override the ideals for which he had fought. Berlet proudly recounted that his dad, while serving as a Little League coach in their suburban New Jersey town in the 1950s, recruited an interracial team and a Jewish assistant coach and, when acting as the Grand Marshall of the Memorial Day parade in the early 1970s, insisted on the right of peace marchers to join in the procession. And he proceeded to relate an exchange that he had had with his father not long before he was to die of cancer: “My Dad was determined to don his uniform one last time on Memorial Day. As I helped him dress, I asked him about the war. His only reply was to hand me one of his medals. Inscribed on the back were the words ‘Freedom from Fear and Want. Freedom of Speech and Religion.’ The four freedoms.” As Berlet put it, “My Dad fought fascism to defend these freedoms, not just for himself, but for people of different religions and races, people he disagreed with… even people he was prejudiced against. Today, the four freedoms are under attack – in part because we forget why people fought World War II.”[viii]
Other Americans spoke less politically, though no less meaningfully. In November 2000, when the outcome of the presidential election had yet to be resolved, Lorrie Young, a self-described 40-year old southern California homemaker, felt compelled to write a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune telling of her experience after reading The Greatest Generation. Wanting more “Americana,” and seeing that the San Diego Museum of Art had a Norman Rockwell exhibit underway, she headed downtown to take in the show. Rockwell’s famous “Four Freedoms” paintings – works produced in 1943 to visually represent FDR’s words – incited much more than admiration in her. Standing before Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” – the picture of a “Lincolnesque laborer standing in a town hall meeting having his say” – Young said: “The World War II stories I’d been reading about in Brokaw’s book hit [me] like a rock. I was embarrassed to be tearing up. But, looking around me, I saw four other people, young and old, in the same state. Some were softly sobbing, some just sat, taking it all in.”
As much as Young found herself “overtaken by sadness,” she did not speak nostalgically. Responding to the most expressively democratic of Rockwell’s works, she did not long for the past. Rather, she voiced her appreciation for those who had fought for the Four Freedoms and her own worries about the state of her America: “It is profoundly sad to realize that so many incredibly brave men and women gave so much to preserve what has become an embarrassment to their offspring and their country. We once stood for courage, strength, dignity and honesty.” More than wishing to return to the supposed “good old days,” Young expressed a desire to reinvigorate America: “Maybe this exhibit captures a version of our American culture that those of us forty and under missed out on, a time when dignity and integrity were more important than winning at all costs … I am ashamed of my ingratitude and wish to give back something to my country – a country where ‘the four freedoms’ still bring people to tears in a museum.”[ix]
After the past decade and a half that witnessed not only the tragedy of 9/11 and the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina, but also prolonged wars in Central Asia and the Middle East, the restriction of civil liberties, spying on American citizens, the abuse of human rights, the breaching of the wall separating church and state, massive tax cuts for the rich, the further disabling of labor unions, the targeting of Social Security for privatization, a disastrous financial crisis and economic downturn that we will forever refer to as the Great Recession, massive bank bailouts, the continued widening of wealth inequality, the loss of jobs and homes and an exasperating politics of obstruction and deference, it becomes all the more critical that we recall the progressive lives and labors of the men and women of the 1930s and 1940s and the president who led them. [x]
We need to remember. We need to remember what we have been trying so hard to remember. But doing so is not easy. We have been led to forget. As powers-that-be have been ever wont to do, our own have regularly sought to shape the telling of the past in favor of controlling the present and future. And sometimes even those who seem most eager to remember the nation’s democratic history have contributed to a kind of amnesia. Nevertheless, we Americans cannot afford to forget our democratic history, for as Wilson Carey McWilliams once observed, “a people’s memory sets the measure of its political freedom.” [xi]
Only when we remember what made the Greatest Generation and its greatest leader truly great, only when we restore to our parents and grandparents their democratic lives and labors, only when we redeem the progressive vision and promise of the Four Freedoms, will we really appreciate why we turn to them as we do and begin to honor them as we should. Only then will we understand the democratic imperative that they passed on to us. Only then will we, too, save the nation by making it freer, more equal and more democratic.
Copyright 2014 by Harvey J. Kaye. Published by Simon & Schuster.
i. Roosevelt, “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1933, in PPAFDR, Volume Two, The Year of Crisis, 1933, p. 11 and “We are Fighting to Save a Great and Precious Form of Government for Ourselves and the World” – Acceptance of the Renomination for the Presidency, June 27, 1936, in PPAFDR – Volume Five, The People Approve 1936, p. 235.
ii. Roosevelt, “The Annual Message to Congress,” January 6, 1941, in PPAFDR – 1940 Volume: War and Aid to Democracies, p. 663.
iii. Roosevelt first introduced the idea of America as the “Arsenal of Democracy” in a fireside chat radio broadcast on December 29, 1940, “There Can Be No Appeasement With Ruthlessness… We Must Be the Great Arsenal of Democracy,” PPAFDR – 1940 Volume, pp. 633-44).
iv. Ibid., pp. 664-72 (italics added).
v. Stephen E. Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997); Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998); James Bradley with Ron Powers, Flags of Our Fathers (New York: Bantam Books, 2000); Stephen Spielberg, Director, Saving Private Ryan (1998); and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Directors, The War (2007), plus Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). On the FDR Memorial, see Lawrence Halprin, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997); David Dillon, The FDR Memorial (Washington: Spacemaker Press, 1998); and Robert Dallek, “The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C.” in William E. Leuchtenburg, ed. American Places: Encounters with History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 67-77. And on the World War II Memorial, see Nicolaus Mills, Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial (New York: Basic Books, 2004) and Douglas Brinkley, ed., The World War II Memorial: A Grateful Nation Remembers (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004).
vi. A primary example of the right’s assaults on FDR is Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: HarperCollins, 2007). And on Republicans’ continuing efforts to identify themselves with the Greatest Generation, see Harvey J. Kaye, “Will the Florida GOP Dishonor the Greatest Generation?“Huffington Post, April 5, 2011 .
vii. Emily S. Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 113ff. In fact, while the critics granted that the tribunes themselves were not necessarily pursuing a conservative agenda, they failed to appreciate the tribunes’ own liberal views. Ambrose, who passed away in 2002, never hid the fact that he had strongly opposed the Vietnam War. Brokaw highlighted the story of D-Day veteran and Florida Democratic congressman Sam Gibbons’ response in 1994 to the House Republican leadership cutting off debate on Medicare reform: “You’re a bunch of dictators, that’s all you are. I had to fight you guys fifty years ago.” And Spielberg stated that in addition to wanting to honor his father’s generation, he made Saving Private Ryan to show warfare’s “grimmest realities: fear, boredom, killing” – which he arguably did so effectively that he ended up making an antiwar statement. See Stephen E. Ambrose, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), pp. 126-147; Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, pp. xxiii-xxvi; and Steven Speilberg quote Stephen J. Dubner, “Steven the Good,” The New York Times Magazine, February 14, 1999, p. 42.
viii. Chip Berlet, “Uniting to Defend the Four Freedoms,” in Chip Berlet, ed., Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash (Boston: South End Press, 1995), pp. 357-60.
ix. Lorrie Young, “Opinion: She Looked at a Rockwell Painting and Learned Something about Herself,” San Diego Union-Tribune, November 22, 2000, p. B9.
x. Marcus Raskin and Robert Spero, The Four Freedoms Under Siege: The Clear and Present Danger from Our National Security State (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007).
xi. Wilson Carey McWilliams, “Memories and Heroes,” World View, January 1984, p. 2.