Hamm on Engel, 'The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea'

Author: 
Jeffrey A. Engel, ed.
Reviewer: 
Richard F. Hamm

Jeffrey A. Engel, ed. The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. 248 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-937621-6.

Reviewed by Richard F. Hamm (University at Albany, SUNY) Published on H-FedHist (July, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

In a January 6, 1941, speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out a vision for a better world encapsulated in his idea of the Four Freedoms. Jeffrey A. Engel’s edited collection The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea illuminates Roosevelt’s “contribution” to the “evolution and import of freedom as a concept and as an ideological tool” and examines how those ideas were contested, implemented, altered, limited, and abandoned in both the United States and across the world (p. 13). That is, necessarily, a large scope and the work does not pretend to be comprehensive. Even so, the collection shows the importance of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to the United States’ political developments, divisions, and place in the post-World War II world.

The work, comprising six chapters, grew from a themed conference at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Each author details the evolution of one of the Four Freedoms (of speech, of religion, from want, and from fear), explores the creation of the idea in the context of international and American events in the 1930s and early 1940s, and surveys its development across the world into the twenty-first century. The work has the hallmark of edited collections, for good and ill. On the plus side, for instance, it allows for different experts to weigh in on an aspect of the topic. On the negative side, for example, there is repetition between the chapters. And while, unlike many edited volumes, each author is aware of the others’ contributions, which allows for the fullest development of themes, the authors do not stray out of their areas of expertise to engage with each other’s viewpoints and arguments.

Engel places the formulation of the Four Freedoms speech into the context of Roosevelt’s shift of focus from confronting the Depression to confronting the world war. Need for more action at home, fear of the dictatorships, and the constraints of America’s strong isolationist movement prompted Roosevelt to advocate an ideological “framework” for “the more moral society he envisioned” (p. 33). It was quickly adopted and adapted by supporters of the New Deal and intervention and debated and decried by domestic opponents and isolationists. With American entry into the war, the Four Freedoms became the “clarion call” for “American engagement with the world” (p. 32).

Linda Eads explores the meaning of freedom of speech through its legal history, comparing developments in the United States to those in Germany and Canada, to illuminate its different paths of development. While focused on court decisions, her chapter through some telling vignettes from her own life hints at how the idea of freedom of speech mutated and evolved in the United States. The Four Freedoms and the war gave impetus to developing an individualistic free speech regime in the United States. The range of acceptable speech allowed in the United States in comparison to what is permitted in other nations has contributed to the difficulty the United States has had in coming to grips with issues posed by hate speech and “exploitive sexual speech” (p. 61).

Tisa Wenger’s cultural history of freedom to worship highlights “the contested meanings and racially inflected limits of this ideal” (p. 77). While admitting that Roosevelt’s formulation was fundamentally Protestant, she details how it contributed to the solidification of the “tri-faith ideal” of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew in American life from the war years through the cold war and into the countercultural 1960s (p. 71). She also shows how race interacted with this idea of religious pluralism: in accepting the idea of religious identity, groups gave up some of their racial identity. And race also put limits to this formulation of freedom of religion, with African Americans and Native Americans for the most part being seen as outside of the accepted tradition.

Matthew Jones explores the unfulfilled promise of Roosevelt’s freedom from want. He shows how it reflected a common response to the economic crises of the 1930s. A culmination of the emerging ideas of the welfare state in America that postulated an active national state directing development and securing “essential human needs,” the idea was opposed by conservatives, who gained power during the war years. Their advocacy of a “rival conception of freedom,” which favored free markets and enterprise, set up debates in both American and domestic foreign policy, ultimately ending with the victory of the conservative vision (p. 126).

Frank Costigliola details how neither Roosevelt “nor his successors have made good on” the promise to deliver America and the world from fear (p. 166). In the speech, Roosevelt advocated world disarmament and peace as an achievable goal, after the war. Yet freedom from fear was never really begun. Instead, American leaders, from World War II on, have too often used fear (of worldwide Communist domination, for instance) to justify policies, up to and including war.

“William Hitchcock traces the rise and fall of the influence of the Four Freedoms across the globe, underscoring that Roosevelt “proposed nothing less than the globalization of the New Deal,” asking governments to address the basic needs of their peoples, protecting their speech and religion, and securing for them meaningful employment and security (p. 193). For two decades after the speech, progress was made in the Western industrialized world. But the pressures of the cold war, decolonization and liberation, and economic change ended this dream. The words have been seized upon by many other nations and shaped to their own policy needs, often emphasizing one freedom at the expense of another. Thus the world of the “early twenty-first century, with its shocking inequalities of wealth, its war-ravaged nations, its bulging refugee camps, its torture chambers and violations of human freedoms, its unceasing religious conflicts, its depleted natural resources, [and] its long-term unemployed” has clearly not seen the fulfillment of Roosevelt’s “hopeful vision” (p. 217). There is still much work to be done.

For all of its many insights, the book could have been better. It should have included a conclusion, not an introduction, because in some ways Engel’s chapter serves as an introduction. With a conclusion the clear takeaways of the volume—that ideas have consequences, that transnational developments illuminate the factors that shape ideas and policies, and that the meaning of freedom is elusive and contested—would have stood out much more clearly. At the same time, the illustrations that enhance the work could have been expanded. The photo essay in the center of the work and the image that opens each contributor’s chapter capture only some of the themes of the volume and the analytical lines of development. Additional illustrations would have added depth to the analysis.

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Citation: Richard F. Hamm. Review of Engel, Jeffrey A., ed., The Four Freedoms: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Evolution of an American Idea. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49768

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