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Written by John R. Vile, published on January 1, 2009 , last updated on May 25, 2024

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his annual address to Congress on Jan. 6, 1941, articulated what became known as the Four Freedoms, two of which relate to the First Amendment: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God in one’s own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Roosevelt, a Democrat and the former governor of New York, was the only president to serve more than two terms in office. First elected to office when he defeated Herbert Hoover in 1932, Roosevelt inaugurated an ambitious series of government programs, known collectively as the New Deal, to raise the nation out of the Great Depression, which had begun with the crash of the stock market in 1929.

In Europe, the depression further compounded the economic dislocations produced by World War I and led to the rise of communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, and fascism in Italy. Asia also witnessed the rise of Japanese militarism.

By the beginning of Roosevelt’s third term in 1941, Germany had overrun most of Europe, and Japan was advancing through China. Yet, the United States retained its largely isolationist stance, which Roosevelt addressed in his January speech. Perceiving the desperate needs of Great Britain and other nations struggling against dictatorships, Roosevelt proposed increasing the production of armaments and sending them to foreign democracies through a lend-lease program.

Roosevelt argued for four basic human freedoms

In his attempt to rouse the nation from its isolationism, Roosevelt observed, “As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone.” He argued that “the preservation of civil liberties for all” was essential. Indeed, the nation should seek “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” which he then delineated. “This is no vision of a distant millennium,” Roosevelt asserted. “It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Roosevelt’s speech is significant in its linkage of traditional political rights to national security and economic prosperity (in his successful 1944 campaign he proposed an Economic Bill of Rights).

World War II was tied to fight for international human rights

Moreover, echoing the Declaration of Independence, Roosevelt affirmed that the rights Americans sought were fundamental human rights that should be available to all people everywhere. In time, the nation’s entry into World War II after the Japanese attacks on the U.S. military base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was tied to the fight for democracy and human rights both at home and abroad. Famed artist Norman Rockwell even depicted the Four Freedoms in February and March 1943 issues of the Saturday Evening Post. His paintings were used successfully to raise money for war bonds.

Although it forcefully detained Japanese-Americans in camps during World War II and continued its own policies of racial segregation during and in the immediate aftermath of the war, the United States portrayed itself as the defender of human rights during this conflict in which it was strategically allied with the Soviet Union against Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

Four Freedoms, including First Amendment rights, incorporated into United Nations documents

After the war, Roosevelt’s vision of international human rights and international security was furthered with the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Rights, including those in the First Amendment, were incorporated into international documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In the Cold War period that followed, the United States continued to portray itself as the defender of human rights when it attempted to contain the Soviet Union and its allies. During the Cold War, Americans often contrasted their own widespread belief in God and religious freedom with official Soviet atheism and persecution of religion.

America sacrificed First Amendment rights in struggle against communism

But at times they proved willing to sacrifice freedoms of speech and expression in what they considered to be a death struggle with communists at home and abroad—examples were the vigorous congressional investigations pursued, the requirements for loyalty oaths, and the restrictions imposed on the Communist Party of the United States during the Cold War.

Interestingly, Roosevelt may have inadvertently paved the way for these events when he suggested in his 1941 speech that the “first phase of the invasion of this Hemisphere would not be the landing of regular troops” but the occupation of “necessary strategic points … by secret agents and their dupes,” great numbers of whom he thought were already in the United States and Latin America.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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