While I was reading Harvey J. Kaye’s The Fight for the Four Freedoms, for this assignment, my ninety-two-year-old great-uncle, Jim Fischer, died. He came of age during the Great Depression, joined the Army when called to fight in World War II, and worked in an armament plant in Pittsburgh after he was discharged. Jim also worked at times as a milkman and a welder.

The Fight for the Four Freedoms:
What Made FDR and the
Greatest Generation Truly Great

by Harvey J. Kaye
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp.

Similarly, my aunt Chris, Jim’s wife, worked in an armament plant during the war, and later she ran a neighborhood children’s clothing shop for many decades. Jim and Chris were born into poverty during the Depression; Chris recalled vividly how, when she was a child, her family was kicked out of company housing in the middle of the night after her father and his fellow miners mounted a strike for better working conditions. She often told stories of how, as children, she and her siblings and friends helped heat their family homes by stealing pieces of coal from trains stopped at stations dotting Pittsburgh’s rivers. This was not theft, she explained, it was justice. That coal belonged to everyone, and everyone had a right to a warm home.

It was clear that the Depression and the war never left my great-aunt and -uncle; throughout their lives, it continued to animate their views about work, community, justice, and service. One can’t help but be filled with admiration for how they lived and what they sacrificed, and their stories are fairly typical of Americans who came of age during the Depression and served during World War II. For that they’ve collectively been dubbed—to use that hoary phrase—“the greatest generation.” In his new book, historian Kaye seeks to reexamine the generation’s greatness, by looking not only at what they sacrificed, but also at what they built—and he describes how, through that process, that cohort radically redefined America.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the concept of the Four Freedoms several weeks after he won an unprecedented third term as president. In a speech on January 6, 1941, he declared,

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. . . . The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way. . . . The third is freedom from want. . . . The fourth is freedom from fear. . . . 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.

By balancing the civil liberties contained in the nation’s founding documents with a new vision of economic security, Roosevelt invited another reconstruction of our democracy—one no less radical than the upheaval that took place after the Civil War. He declared that the “right to life” described in the Declaration of Independence means that everyone “has also a right to make a comfortable living. . . . Our Government . . . owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of [America’s] plenty sufficient for his needs, through his own work.” Roosevelt challenged the notion that economic laws were products of nature, and instead argued that the rights of each individual trump the rights of business. While signing a minimum-wage bill Roosevelt, in a statement that bears repeating today, stated that “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages has any right to continue in this country.”

If these ideas sound radical, it is because they were. They were also wildly popular: a May 1942 survey found that the Four Freedoms had “a powerful and genuine appeal to seven persons in ten.” Throughout his book, Kaye does a masterful job of showing how the American ideal, captured succinctly in the Four Freedoms, was one of the animating forces of the generation.

Nine days after hearing President Roosevelt describe the Four Freedoms, labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to fight for jobs in national defense, the integration of the armed forces, and “the abolition of Jim Crowism in all Government departments and defense employment.” In response to Randolph’s call, FDR passed Executive Order 8802, creating the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), which sought to ban discrimination by defense contractors.

The war effort was similarly viewed in terms of freedom and democracy. The majority of Americans polled in a May 1942 survey asking for an alternate name for World War II chose “War of World Freedom,” “War of Freedom,” “War of Liberty,” or “Anti-Dictator War.” Reporting from London in 1943, John Steinbeck stated in no uncertain terms that the soldiers were fighting “under a banner of four unimplemented freedoms.” A March 1943 survey of enlisted men found that 89 percent of white soldiers and between 66 and 70 percent of black soldiers agreed that “[t]he United States is fighting for the protection of the right of free speech for everyone” and “for a fair chance for everyone to make a decent living.” The United States that these soldiers knew had never provided a fair chance for everyone—most notably black servicemen—to make a decent living (the unemployment rate in the United States in the years 1937 to 1940 hovered between 15 and 20 percent), so these soldiers’ answers as to why they were fighting indicated that they fought not for what America was, but for what they wanted to make it.

How is it then, that such a central concept of the time has been so thoroughly misremembered and deradicalized? How has one of the driving forces of the “greatest generation” been selectively written out of their history?

Since the Four Freedoms were an important source of radical change—especially once Roosevelt used them in arguing for an economic bill of rights—they were regarded as dangerous by many conservatives. So, taking the advice of Walter Fuller of the National Association of Manufacturers, conservatives and business leaders wasted no time in co-opting Roosevelt’s principles for their own ends. They did this through a process of appending and supplanting. First, the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce passed what they termed the “Fifth Freedom,” the opportunity of free enterprise, arguing that without it the other freedoms were “meaningless.” Similarly, Republican Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts presented a congressional resolution to add the freedom of private enterprise as the Fifth Freedom. Liberals timidly backed away from the radical view embodied in the Four Freedoms, allowing it to be disfigured and contorted. In time the idea became an empty vessel, a brand name, which conservatives used to fill with their own ideals. This transformation was apparent by 1987, when President Ronald Reagan announced his plan to enact an “Economic Bill of Rights that guarantees four fundamental freedoms: The freedom to work. The freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. The freedom to own and control one’s property. The freedom to participate in a free market.”

Currently, one can see a similar story unfolding with regards to the First Amendment, which also contains four freedoms. Liberals and progressives fought throughout the twentieth century to define the First Amendment as an individual right that protects speech, without regard to the speaker or the dangerousness of the content. After decades of fighting this idea, conservatives have now co-opted it and are using it as a tool of suppression. In the past few years, the First Amendment has been used to invite unlimited (and often anonymous) money into politics, to fight against regulation, and to diminish workers’ rights. It has become a vessel that is used to shelter undemocratic practices and unfair economic ideas. The story of the life and death of FDR’s Four Freedoms offers a useful lens through which to see how progressive ideas can be used for opposite ends if they are not continually guarded and fought for.

In The Fight for the Four Freedoms, Kaye is as much trying to recover a lost history as pushing a progressive call to arms. Throughout the book, one cannot help but notice the parallels between “the greatest generation” and our own. Both periods are marked by high unemployment, low wages, increased inequality, and wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few. The first step toward doing something about it is to remember the courage and radicalism of the previous generation, and the world it created. The second step is to guard it.

Moshe Z. Marvit

Moshe Z. Marvit is a fellow at the Century Foundation and the coauthor (with Richard D. Kahlenberg) of Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice.