The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, by Harvey Kaye. Simon & Schuster. 2014.
Nearly seventy-five years ago, in one of his famous Fireside Chats, President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired the nation by defining what he called the Four Freedoms – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Historian Harvey Kaye, of the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, in his new book contends that the Four Freedoms helped to define the New Deal of FDR’s first eight years in office and would give meaning to World War II into which the USA was about to engage.
It is meaningful for today’s economic and social woes that Kaye, who clearly admires FDR, does not end the story with Roosevelt’s unexpected death on April 14, 1945, but carries the impact of the Four Freedoms’ principle up to the present day. Thus, this readable book is not a eulogy for those historic times of the 1930s and 1940s, but a lesson for the future.
The Four Freedoms were first proclaimed in a Chat on Dec. 29, 1940 and its principles were reiterated in his message to Congress a week later in which he proclaimed the United States would be an “arsenal of democracy” in the world, ready to carry the idealistic principles forward. A year later, with the attack on Pearl Harbor of Dec. 7, the country went to war. Kaye contends the Four Freedoms message gave the nation – its soldiers and sailors and defense workers – a cause that gave meaning to their sacrifices.
Yet, despite their obvious appeal, the Four Freedoms caused considerable consternation among conservative forces and business leaders, who attempted to adapt the principles to support their own concept of laissez faire capitalism. As a case in point, Kaye points to an incident involving famed Americana artist Norman Rockwell who painted a “Four Freedoms” theme cover for the Saturday Evening Post (a weekly magazine that entered the homes of millions of
Americans in the 1940s). The magazine’s editor – when faced with the reality that the cover had thrilled his readers – was quick to editorialize that no one should read too much importance into the Four Freedoms declaration. Ben Hibbs, the editor, wrote that the Freedoms did not promise to “reward the lazy and incompetent” or to “set up a ‘welfare state.’”
If Hibbs’ editorial sounds familiar, it is! Aren’t we hearing the same refrain from conservatives today?
The promise of the Four Freedoms blossomed in the years after World War II, Kaye writes, as unions grew in power, the income gap flattened and new social programs became reality. During the 1950s in the Republican Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower income taxes reached the highest degree of progressivity and the federal role in enforcing civil rights became reality; it was continued into the Democratic Presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson as the Great Society programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, were instituted.
The Four Freedoms embraced the nation’s philosophy through the Presidencies of Republicans Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon embraced the Four Freedoms at times, even campaigning that he would not reverse the programs of the Great Society. He did, however, add new emphasis to “freedom from fear,” thus creating a base for the effort to constrain communism in the world, thus continuing the Cold War.
Kaye argues the erosion of the principles of the Four Freedoms began under Democratic President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. Though he campaigned as a liberal, Carter and the Democrats did little to hold off conservative forces and Big Business and failed to pass the much-sought after Labor Law Reform Bill in 1978 and to begin a trend toward deregulation that has continued to this day.
With the election of President Reagan in 1980, the inspiration offered by the Four Freedoms began to be suborned, as Reagan articulated a war against the poor and working people that cutback seriously on the progressive programs of the past.
Today, many of us despair at the failed promise of the Four Freedoms. Briefly, much of the nation was reinvigorated with the election of President Obama prompting many to look for a rebirth of the spirit of the Freedoms. How disappointed we were to become as Obama became road-blocked by Republicans whose sole purpose seems to be to oppose any legislation he offered and Obama himself seemed reluctant to take them on with much vigor.
As Kaye writes: “Obama did not ask too much of Americans. He asked too little.” He points particularly to Obama’s embrace of the goal to end deficit financing through his appointment of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and his failure to offer a more ambitious stimulus program to restore the economy.
Of interest to us in Wisconsin, Kaye also mentions Obama’s failure to support unionists more openly the fight against Act 10; even as the great rallies of 2011 drew attention to Madison, the President ignored entreaties to join in the cause.
The book is more than a tribute to President Roosevelt and the “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw said of those who grew up in the Depression and fought or worked to win victory in World War II. It is really a “call to action” to the grandchildren and great grandchildren of that generation to rally together to renew the promises of the Four Freedoms. – Ken Germanson