In January 1941, as much of Europe had fallen victim to the advancing army of Nazi Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt began his unprecedented third term as president of the United States. Great Britain was finding it increasingly difficult to hold off the aggressive German army and Roosevelt considered the Germans to be a significant threat to U.S. national security. During his annual State of the Union address on January 6, 1941, Roosevelt pledged his support for Great Britain by continuing aid and increasing production at war industries in the United States. By aiding in the war effort, Roosevelt explained that the United States would be protecting the universal freedoms and liberties to which all people are entitled, not just Americans.
In his speech, Roosevelt staunchly defended democracy around the world and stated that the United States would not be “intimidated by the threats of dictators.” He concluded by eloquently describing “four essential human freedoms” that the United States hoped to secure and extend to all individuals. These universal freedoms were: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
In 1943, following America’s entry into World War II, artist Norman Rockwell captured the idea of these four basic freedoms in a series of paintings published in the popular magazine, The Saturday Evening Post. The paintings served as the centerpiece of an exhibition that toured the United States to help raise money for the war effort.
I address you, the Members of the Seventy-seventh Congress, at a moment unprecedented in the history of the Union. I use the word “unprecedented,” because at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today….
As a nation, we may take pride in the fact that we are softhearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed….
Just as our national policy in internal affairs has been based upon a decent respect for the rights and the dignity of all our fellow men within our gates, so our national policy in foreign affairs has been based on a decent respect for the rights and dignity of all nations, large and small. And the justice of morality must and will win in the end….
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 quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.
This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.
To that high concept there can be no end save victory.