The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea

In This Review

The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea
Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel
Oxford University Press, 2015
248 pp.

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, delivered in January 1941, is widely seen as a landmark statement of American foreign policy. Roosevelt’s purpose was to rally a skeptical U.S. Congress and public to the coming war against the Axis powers and their “new order of tyranny” by offering a lofty vision of a liberal order that would protect American interests and ideals. This thoughtful book of essays attempts to recover the historical moment—what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called “those angry days”—surrounding Roosevelt’s speech and assess its long-term legacies. Chapters look at each of the four great rights and protections: freedom of speech and religion and freedom from fear and want. One theme of the book is that very prosaic circumstances and instrumental purposes lay behind Roosevelt’s soaring rhetoric: he was under pressure to convince a reluctant Congress to approve military spending and aid for countries aligned against Nazi Germany and its allies. But another theme is that ideas have consequences. Whatever his immediate goals, Roosevelt ushered in an expansive new conception of international order. As the historian Elizabeth Borgwardt has put it elsewhere, Roosevelt was offering “a New Deal for the world.” 

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