The “Four Freedoms” speech remastered

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

There is only one speech in American history that inspired a multitude of books and films, the establishment of its own park, a series of paintings by a world famous artist, a prestigious international award and a United Nation’s resolution on Human Rights.

That speech is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, commonly known as the “Four Freedoms” speech. In it he articulated a powerful vision for a world in which all people had freedom of speech and of religion, and freedom from want and fear. It was delivered on January 6, 1941 and it helped change the world. The words of the speech are enshrined in marble at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York, are visualized in the paintings of Norman Rockwell, inspired the international Four Freedoms Award and are the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

On the 50th anniversary of the speech in 1991 a ceremony was held in the U.S. Capitol featuring a remarkable bi-partisan group of leaders including Sen. Bob Dole, Rep. Richard Gephardt, Anne Roosevelt and President George H.W. Bush. President Bush said this about FDR’s Four Freedoms:

“Two hundred years ago, perhaps our greatest political philosopher, Thomas Jefferson, defined our nation’s identity when he wrote “All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Fifty years ago, our greatest American political pragmatist, Roosevelt, refined that thought in his Four Freedoms when he brilliantly enunciated our 20th century vision of our founding fathers’ commitment to individual liberty.”

Video – 50th Anniversary of FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech

To honor the 75th anniversary of this historic presidential address, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum joined forces with the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Labs to create new enhanced versions of the speech in HD and Ultra-HD (4K) file formats. These new versions were transferred directly from the original 35mm film stock. Audio from the original disk recordings were then synced with the new video files to create an entirely new resource. The new HD video is now available to the public here, and the 4K video is available upon special request from the Library.

(Copyright Sherman Grinberg Film Library – http://www.shermangrinberg.com/)

It is important to fully understand the historic context of this speech. On November 5th, 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president for an unprecedented third term. It was a dark time as the world faced unprecedented danger, instability, and war. Much of Europe had fallen to the Nazis and Great Britain was barely holding its own. The Japanese Empire brutally occupied much of China and East Asia. A great number of Americans remained committed to isolationism and the belief that the United States should stay out of the war. President Roosevelt understood Britain’s desperate need for American support and attempted to convince the American people to come to the aid of their closest ally.

In his address on January 6, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt presented his reasons for American involvement, making the case for continued aid to Great Britain and greater production of war industries at home. In helping Britain, President Roosevelt stated, the United States was fighting for the universal freedoms that all people deserved.

As America entered the war these “four freedoms” – the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear – symbolized America’s war aims and gave hope in the following years to a war-wearied people because they knew they were fighting for freedom.

The ideas enunciated in Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms were the foundational principles that evolved into the Atlantic Charter declared by Winston Churchill and FDR in August 1941; the United Nations Declaration of January 1, 1942; President Roosevelt’s vision for an international organization that became the United Nations after his death; and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 through the work of Eleanor Roosevelt.

As tyrannical leaders once again resort to brutal oppression and terrorism to achieve their goals, as democracy and journalism are under attack from extremists across the globe, and as surveillance and technology threaten individual liberties and freedom of expression, FDRs bold vision for a world that embraces these four fundamental freedoms is as vital today as it was 75 years ago.


Special thanks to the New York Community Trust for their ongoing support of the Pare Lorentz Film Center.

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