FDR’S Freedom from Want: A Contested Concept To This Day

FDR delivers his 1941 SOTU, laying out the Four Freedoms.

by Paul Breidenbach, pbreidenbach.c4ad@gmail.com

History buffs and people of a certain age will remember “freedom from want,” one of the Four Freedoms proposed by Franklin Roosevelt in his State of the Union message in January 1941, just after his second re-election and about a year before the US entered World War II.

Four FreedomsThe speech was a plea for continued US aid to England, the last major power left resisting the Nazi war machine.  Democracy would not be safe anywhere if all of Europe became fascist, FDR argued.  And why was democracy worth fighting for?  Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear, was his answer.

The freedoms of expression and worship are in the Bill of Rights. The freedoms from fear and want were derided by conservatives as “New Deal Freedoms,” not “American Freedoms.”

Opposition to New Deal reforms has been steadfast and consistent since before their enactment, in terms that have changed little over the decades. The notion that the government should have a hand in promoting freedom from want is as divisive today as ever.  We’re still fighting today, perhaps more fiercely than when fascism gave us a common external enemy, over American ideals and the essence of democracy.

Two contrasting depictions of Freedom from Want set the borders of the debate:  Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of a sumptuous turkey dinner and a less well known essay by the poet Carlos Bulosan, an immigrant from the Philippines.

A poster to sell war bonds using painting by Norman Rockwell.
A poster to sell war bonds using painting by Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell’s painting depicts dinner guests at a Thanksgiving feast — several generations of healthy people smile at each other, leaning over a sumptuously set table as a gray-haired matron in an apron lowers onto it a turkey large enough for the assembled guests and a dozen more.  A cornucopia centerpiece reinforces the message of surplus, and the male guest in the lower right corner of the painting looks directly at the viewer with smiling eyes, as if in invitation to join the feast.

Rockwell’s painting is a consumerist vision of what citizens could expect at war’s end, a reason why shared sacrifice, rationing, conscription and military production would be worthwhile.  There is no hint in the painting of the decade of want caused by the recent depression, or to the role of government in stabilizing American capitalism.  If families with fine china and white tablecloths could afford enormous turkeys again, the country was back on track.

By contrast, Bulosan’s essay suggests that much work remained to be done to redeem the promises of democracy.

“It is only when we have plenty to eat—plenty of everything— that we begin to understand what freedom means. To us, freedom is not an intangible thing. When we have enough to eat, then we are healthy enough to enjoy what we eat. Then we have the time and ability to read and think and discuss things. Then we are not merely living but also becoming a creative part of life. It is only then that we become a growing part of democracy.”

Freedom from want, in this telling, refers to poverty and hunger, not at all distant memories for many Americans in 1943.  There is more than a hint of militancy in Bulosan’s call for an end to hunger, written, like the preamble to the Constitution, in the first-person plural.

Everywhere we are on the march, passing through darkness into a sphere of economic peace….

We have been marching for the last one hundred and fifty years…. What do we want?  We want complete security and peace. We want to share the promise and fruits of American life. We want to be free from fear and hunger….

If you want to know what we are — We are Marching.

Original caption to 1932 photograph reads: "Depression bread line. 'Hunger Line,' Sixth Ave and 42nd Street, NY City." Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.
Original caption to 1932 photograph reads: “Depression bread line. ‘Hunger Line,’ Sixth Ave and 42nd Street, NY City.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.

Bulosan’s essay clearly sets freedom from want in a public and national context, contrasting sharply with Rockwell’s private family setting.  Without an end to material deprivation for all citizens, he suggests, democracy was an empty promise.  Just as significant, Bulosan suggests that the poor were actively demanding their freedoms.  “We Are Marching” was a phrase designed to stir action, not to comfort political and corporate leaders.

FDR’s own rather strange explanation of “freedom from want” evokes neither the smugly optimistic painting nor the militant essay, but rather the emerging bureaucracy of the United Nations.  By 1941, Roosevelt, who had not long before openly welcomed the “hatred” of “economic royalists,” needed the cooperation of business and congressional leaders, many of them skeptical of the New Deal and foreign entanglement, to secure his policy of Lend-Lease for the British war effort.  Thus, “Freedom from want, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.”  An apparent call for treaties to unlock the wonders of international trade — quite a far cry from a concrete demand to vindicate democracy by ending hunger and deprivation at home.

The People's Cube is a U.S.-based conservative website that uses satire to make its points.
The People’s Cube is a U.S.-based conservative website that uses satire to make its points.

Nevertheless, as historian Eric Foner points out in his book The Story of American Freedom on the shifting meaning of freedom in American history, many American businessmen weren’t buying.  In their view, the New Deal freedoms encouraged dependency on government.  In the short term, the New Deal’s opponents countered with “free enterprise,” without which, they said, the other freedoms were meaningless.

In the longer term, politicians and people simply stopped talking about freedom from want.   Historian Steven Fraser, author of Age of Acquiescence, attributes this silence to “the consummate all-embracing expression of the triumph of the free market ideology as the synonym for freedom.”

“In other words, it used to be you could talk about freedom and the free market as distinct notions. Now, and for some time, since the age of Reagan began, free market capitalism and freedom are conflated. They are completely married to each other. And we have, as a culture, bought into that idea.”  (http://billmoyers.com/guest/steve-fraser/)

Foner’s book is a survey of the changing and always contested meanings of “freedom” in America, contradicting the notion that today’s apparent consensus in favor of business and “free markets” has always been at the core of American understandings of the word.

And there is strong evidence that this consensus is ebbing, leaving the foundations set by the New Deal more or less intact.  The Occupy and minimum wage movements, Bernie Sanders’ legitimate national candidacy, and the popularity in polling of single payer health insurance system and of measures to combat global warming, to take just a few examples, suggest that a politics of common interests, as opposed to ruthless competition and the maximization of shareholder value, might finally displace the ideology of “free markets” that has dominated national politics at least since World War II.  This emerging politics has a chance to cement and build on the gains won by the “Greatest Generation” of the Depression and war years.  After all, as Harvey J. Kaye asserts in his recent book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (New York, 2014),

“…they saved the United States from economic destruction and political tyranny and turned it into the strongest and most prosperous nation in history by making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before.”

Against fierce opposition and despite the triangulating behavior of FDR’s Democratic party successors, people’s movements have been building toward a reassertion of the New Deal’s central claim:  that Freedom from Want is a worthy and attainable goal, and that the people, acting through their governments, can achieve it.