How Presidents Sell War: Part 4

FDR and the Four Freedoms

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

American entrance into World War I may not have permanently reshaped American foreign policy, but it did foreshadow what was to come. Before the U.S. inserted itself into that overseas conflict, the country generally followed President Washington’s advice to avoid such entanglements. Once exceptions are made, however, they become easier to repeat. The U.S. was about repeat the exception so frequently that the exception became the rule. This new course was set by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Our 32nd president had a propensity for aiming high. In the 1930s, his New Deal marked a paradigm shift in domestic policy. In 1940, as Europe plunged further into World War II, he made a bold request for an annual production of 50,000 airplanes, roughly equivalent to the total number of American planes made since the Wright Brothers. The following year, his “Four Freedoms” speech aimed not only at reforming the United States, but improving the rest of the world, as well.

These three lofty goals intertwined with the new language of American presidents. It was no longer sufficient for America to just be. It must stand as a model of civilization, Winthrop’s “City Upon A Hill.” The New Deal, for example, made a philosophical argument that a government doesn’t merely maintain order and defend its citizens, but it must also take care of them. On top of that, FDR also believed it should help those who want to join America on the hill. Therefore, the country must look to spread civility while stopping those who oppose it.


It might come as a surprise to some readers that the U.S. was involved in World War II before Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt was already positioning the U.S. alongside the Allies in their struggle against the Axis. Eschewing neutrality acts and calls for continued isolationism (hero pilot Charles Lindbergh argued that American entrance into the war, against the wishes of its people, would be a failure of the democracy America was trying to protect), Roosevelt responded to Japanese aggression of China and the Pacific region with an embargo on the island nation. Later, after the start of World War II but before American entrance into it, he supported Allied Powers through the Lend-Lease Act.

Then, to rally support for American intervention, President Roosevelt delivered his 1941 State of the Union address. It was given in 11 months before the Pearl Harbor attack, but you wouldn’t have known America was at peace by reading the text. Throughout his speech, the President aimed to justify ongoing support of the Allies and soften the ground for the inevitable American entrance. It became known as “the Four Freedomsspeech, and it made great use of the three themes presidents use to sell war to the American people.

Theme 1) The national interest. His second sentence declared that “at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.” To support this claim, he lectured Congress on America’s history, noting the country had been relatively safe, and it only joined World War I because, as we saw in Part 3, “the American people began to visualize what the downfall of democratic nations might mean to our own democracy.”

This time was different, believed Roosevelt. Nazism stretching around the globe was too great a threat to ignore. If “Australasia” fell, the Axis’ population and resources would far outweigh what America could muster in a final stand. As a result, Roosevelt argued, “the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.”

Theme 2) The U.S. should support the “good” guys. FDR warned that, “Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world — assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.” The President painted the Second World War as more than a war of the Axis against the Allies, but rather as an assault of evil against goodness itself. He pleaded, “The justice of morality must and will win in the end.” He also made an appeal directly to citizens, lauding that in the past, “The American people have unalterably set their faces against . . . tyranny.”

Theme 3) The United States feels it has an obligation to provide law and order. President Roosevelt appealed to Congress and the American people that the country must prepare for war, for the good of the world:

“The need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily — almost exclusively — to meeting this foreign peril. . . . [T]he immediate need is a swift and driving increase in our armament production. . . . I also ask this Congress for authority and for funds sufficient to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies of many kinds, to be turned over to those nations which are now in actual war with aggressor nations. . . . Let us say to the democracies: ‘We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. . . . We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns.'”

The President then arrives at his famous appeal, one which touches on all themes and outlines U.S. foreign policy ever since.

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms:

  • freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.
  • freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.
  • freedom from want . . . a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.
  • freedom from fear . . . a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

His final rhetorical flourish does more of the same. “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere,” Roosevelt asserted. “Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”

The case was made. The US must intervene because it is in her interest to do so, it is the moral thing to do, because the strong should protect the weak, and because America was imperative in the struggle.


One year later, the nation found itself in a faraway war, just like it was under President Wilson. It might be tempting to argue that these instances of American interventionism were isolated. Indeed, they did not necessarily carve a new platform of US foreign policy; rather, they were short-term responses to extraordinary and calamitous events. There was even a two-decade period of non-intervention between the world wars. If America once again returned to isolationism after World War II, then it would be just another blip on the radar — an enormous blip, but a blip nonetheless.

But that’s not what happened. Under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s successor, the radar was swallowed up whole. The transformation of U.S. foreign policy was about to be completed by the Truman Doctrine.

Part 5 next.

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8 thoughts on “How Presidents Sell War: Part 4

  1. Hardly surprising that FDR was positioning the military for war – his New Deal was an abysmal failure and he needed war. The mass unemployment persisted until full mobilization in December, 1941.

    You might want to read 2 items of note about FDR: 1. Back Door to War by Professor Charles Tansill, and 2. Hitler’s declaration of war on the US (his speech to the Reichstag). These give one a better sense of FDR’s culpability for turning 2 regional wars into World War II.

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