A few weeks ago, the nation paused to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The lives lost by 1,465 members of “the Greatest Generation” were briefly recalled. Then the nation moved on.
Since then, the attack on the United States’ foundational history has resumed, critical of our Founding Fathers, who were less than perfect men, and on every other real or perceived mistake in governance since. Thankfully, the torch of liberty continues to flicker even as some seek to extinguish it.
As the nation approaches the 243rd anniversary of its democratic experiment, let’s dig a little deeper into the United States’ involvement in World War II.
In August 1939, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. Germany and the Soviet Union rolled over Poland in September. By June 1940, when France fell, Great Britain was the only European opponent to the tyranny of the Nazis and the Communists.
On Jan. 6, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address, 11 months before Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was not yet involved in the war, and many Americans thought we should stay out of it.
Roosevelt’s speech became known for “The Four Freedoms” he outlined. He explained why the United States should abandon isolationism. “Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
He proposed that the U.S. should become the “arsenal for democracy.” Under that plan, the United States would not commit troops, but would supply armaments and supplies to Great Britain.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had invaded Finland on Nov. 30, 1939. Three months later, a peace treaty was signed, giving the Soviets 11 percent of Finnish territory. However, the Soviet Army had performed so poorly against the lightly defended Finns, that it emboldened Hitler to break the non-aggression pact. In June 1941, Germany attacked Russia, even though still at war with Great Britain.
Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Two years later, while Americans were fighting and dying around the globe, artist Norman Rockwell, wanting to help the war effort, completed four paintings portraying the “Four Freedoms.” Eventually, they were made into posters, and raised $132 million for the war effort.
Those four freedoms were worth fighting for then, and remain so today. They were as follows
Freedom of Speech and Expression — Rockwell illustrated a town meeting in Vermont where a man voiced an unpopular opinion while everyone else listened respectfully. Today, public meetings are increasingly being disrupted by agitators and speakers are shouted down. Social media allows people to demean others with impunity. Rarely has the nation abused this freedom more than today.
Freedom of Worship — Rockwell portrayed several people, all in prayer. The divisions between Christians were easier to overcome when the U.S. was mostly a Christian nation. Today, attacks on Jews, Muslims and, yes, Christians are on the increase. We have become a nation primarily of secular humanists, who have an alliance of convenience with Islam, but little time for Christianity or Judaism. Resentment grows toward all. I still believe we can all get along, if we allow each person to worship the world’s Creator in his or her own way — as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others to do the same.
Freedom from Want — Rockwell pictured a family sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. Roosevelt defined it as “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.”
In some ways, we are doing better; in some ways worse. Since 1940, the nation has grown from 132 million to 330 million people, and the world has grown from 2.2 billion to 7.7 billion. This has come about largely through scientific advances in food production and public health. Humans remain our greatest resource. However, family ties have been weakened, many people still struggle to put food on the table, and too many are addicted to mood-altering drugs that destroy their ability to make good decisions for their own betterment.
Freedom from Fear — Rockwell illustrated parents putting their children to bed at night, while the father holds a newspaper whose top headline includes the words “bombings” and “horror.” Roosevelt defined this freedom as “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.”
Obviously, we are farther from that goal than ever. Once the atomic bomb became reality, the possibility of all civilization disappearing in a mushroom cloud has been with us. Conventional weapons have become more lethal, even as the U.S. continues to work for nuclear non-proliferation. On the local level, too many Americans live under the threat of violence in their own neighborhoods, schools and churches.
Roosevelt said achieving the “Four Freedoms” is “no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”
From Concord and Lexington to Normandy, our soldiers were fighting for something better than what we have become. This national anniversary, let us rededicate ourselves to extending the Four Freedoms to all.
Tom West, now retired, is the former general manager of this paper. Reach him at email@example.com.