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  • The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great by Harvey J. Kaye
  • Dean J. Kotlowski, Professor of History (bio)
Harvey J. Kaye, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 292 Pages, ISBN.

What did the United States fight for during World War II? In an episode of the television sitcom All in the Family, Mike Stivic poses the question to Archie Bunker, who replies that he fought because he was drafted. The characters were fictional, but Archie’s response contained a grain of truth for many veterans, as Norman Lear, the show’s creator, knew. Now, Lear has provided a back-cover endorsement of Harvey J. Kaye’s new book on the origins and the fate of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (Freedom of Speech and Religion, Freedom from Want and Fear) for which Americans purportedly fought in World War II—and then forgot about in the decades that followed.

Kaye argues that FDR and the country were on the same page during the 1930s and 1940s. “Americans did not simply suffer and endure the Great Depression. They confronted it,” he asserts. “They did so by electing a man to the presidency who believed in America’s democratic purpose.”1 That was just the beginning. Roosevelt set out to “restore America to its own people” by getting government to work on behalf of average folks rather than corporate elites.2 His New Deal embarked on “a grand democratic experiment of renewal and transformation” by providing price supports for farmers, collective bargaining for workers, pensions for the aged, and public works jobs for the unemployed.3 Most Americans responded to their president’s words and deeds: “They would organize themselves—as workers, as consumers, as citizens—to demand their rights. And they would make America freer, more equal, and more democratic.”4 That impulse continued during World War II, especially after FDR enunciated the concept of the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State-of-the-Union Address. The president’s speech, according to Kaye, “gave voice to the widely held presumption, the boon to the lived experience of the New Deal, that the American experiment was unfinished.”5

Kaye has much to say, and he says it well. The Fight for the Four Freedoms makes a persuasive case that the New [End Page 808] Deal did not end with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the subsequent attack of congressional conservatives on Roosevelt’s domestic agenda. Rather, during World War II, Roosevelt told Americans that Dr. New-Deal had merely shared his practice with Dr. Win-the-War. To prove the point, FDR pushed an “economic bill of rights,” albeit without success, as well as the G.I. Bill of Rights, which Congress enacted.6 Meanwhile, average Americans continued to join labor unions; civil rights organizations boosted their membership and clout; women entered the workforce; and the US government celebrated the country’s ethnic and racial diversity. Moreover, democracy in general and the Four Freedoms in particular became chic in mass culture. The words and imagery of the Four Freedoms figured in a Treasury Department war-bond drive, the title of a symphony by Robert Russell Bennett, a graphic-design contest organized by “the ten-thousand-member-strong Artists for Victory,” and, of course, Norman’s Rockwell’s famous drawings for the Saturday Evening Post.7

Yet, as Kaye deftly illustrates, corporate interests appropriated the concept of the Four Freedoms to advance their own ends. The United States Junior Chamber of Commerce added a fifth freedom—freedom of enterprise—to those voiced earlier by FDR. After the war, business leaders and their conservative backers sought to co-opt what had been a plea to end poverty and fear as well as to defend First-Amendment freedoms. For example, the president of the American Medical Association cited the Four Freedoms in attacking President Harry S. Truman’s proposal for national health insurance, arguing that if passed the measure would “subjugate American medicine.”8 Kaye notes how conservative organizers of the postwar Freedom Train...


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