Yardley: THE FIGHT FOR THE FOUR FREEDOMS: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great by Harvey J. Kaye
In January 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual message to Congress. Though domestic matters had been front and center in his previous messages, this time he was aware that the nation needed to be prepared for the dangers abroad that surely awaited it. Searching for inspirational words, he came up with what immediately became known as the “Four Freedoms.” As he delineated them that day, they were, first, “freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world”; second, “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world”; third, “freedom from want . . . — everywhere in the world”; fourth, “freedom from fear . . . — anywhere in the world.”
The Four Freedoms were in part a call to arms, in part a rhetorical gimmick, in part a political slogan. Roosevelt was one of the most skilled manipulators of public opinion ever to occupy the White House, and never more so than when his words were carried over the radio. When that speech was delivered, the nation was more than a decade into the Great Depression, against which FDR’s New Deal had struggled valiantly but with incomplete success at best. The nation was still psychologically in need of the rallying cries at which he was so expert — “Nothing to fear but fear itself,” “Rendezvous with destiny,” etc. — and the Four Freedoms speech was one of them.
More from Jonathan Yardley
(Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster) –
That it heartened many Americans doubtless is true, and boiled down to its essence — freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear — the speech became a catchy summary of the country’s domestic and international hopes. Not surprisingly, the hugely popular artist Norman Rockwell painted four scenes for the Saturday Evening Post depicting the Four Freedoms in sentimental style. Also not surprisingly, FDR’s enemies among conservatives and in big business reviled them as further evidence of his cynical manipulations. Harvey J. Kaye, who professes something called “Democracy and Social Justice” at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and who obviously is very much a gentleman of the left, takes vehement exception to this. He believes that the Four Freedoms were essential inspirations for the achievements of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” and he argues that point — with an almost total lack of success — in this book.
Kaye has his opinions, and he certainly is entitled to them, but readers coming to “The Fight for the Four Freedoms” should be advised that this is pamphleteering masquerading as history. Why Kaye is so fixated on the Four Freedoms is a mystery, but he says that, in all the chatter from Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and the like about the “Greatest Generation” as warriors in World War II, “we have allowed the public telling of their lives and struggles to be drained of its most progressive, democratic, and inspiring content,” i.e., the Four Freedoms, and he says that these propagandists “utterly ignore how a President and people not only saved the United States from economic destruction and political tyranny and proceeded to turn it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth, but did so by harnessing the powers of democratic government and making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before in the process.”
In his almost hysterical zeal to sanctify FDR and the “progressives” of his day, Kaye bends history according to his wishes. He gives Roosevelt far more credit than he deserves for advancing the interests of African Americans and women — the term “sexism,” which he employs from time to time, was unknown in Roosevelt’s day — and he characterizes the “4,300 strikes involving 2.4 million workers” in 1941 as “direct democratic action,” which strikes me as bending over backward to put a pretty face on labor actions that repeatedly disrupted the national economy. He claims that the “Bonus Marchers” of 1932 were “essentially fighting for what would come to be articulated as the Four Freedoms,” when the mundane truth is that they were desperate people simply trying to get what they regarded as their due as veterans of World War I.
Kaye also flips and flops this way and that, most notably in his chapter about the country’s post-World War II aspirations. He asserts, without a scintilla of evidence, that “the majority of Americans” agreed with a journalist who wrote that they wanted “to curb the power of capital, create economic growth and development, end poverty, and ‘enable people to advance themselves.’ ” A few pages later he slams into reverse: “Within just a few years the democratic surge would crash and break on the rocks of reaction and division.” Ditto 10 pages later: “By the early 1950s, liberals were tamed, progressives and radicals were marginalized, and calls to renew the march of freedom were dismissed as un-American,” yet on the very next page: “Liberal intellectuals and Democratic politicians may have become forgetful, fearful, and even relatively conservative, but most Americans had not. The generation that had won the war, a generation with roots into the New Deal and Great Depression, a generation that was great before being anointed Great, had not.”
Of course, Kaye once again does not have a shred of evidence to support this claim. His logic is a triumph of hope over reality, the reality being that we simply don’t know what the World War II generation believed as it moved into the 1950s and beyond. We do know that it twice voted overwhelmingly to put Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, and that Ike, for all his manifest virtues, was slow to turn against Joe McCarthy and slow to give even grudging recognition to the growing civil rights movement. We are told that Ike “appointed a Chief Justice, Earl Warren, who would lead the Supreme Court in 1954 to unanimously declare . . . that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional,” but we also know, as Kaye apparently does not, that Eisenhower