Seventy five years ago today, on 6 January 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual message to Congress on the State of the Union. The address, in which FDR enumerated his Four Freedoms, was a milestone in the development of America's role in the world.
The international situation in January 1941 was precarious. The fall of France in June of the previous year had been followed by the Battle of Britain, which quickly gave way to the Luftwaffe's terrifying bombing campaign against London and other British cities. In the same month, Germany, Italy and Japan formed the Tripartite Pact in order to discourage Washington from responding more forcefully to Germany's assault on Britain and Japan's attempt to establish suzerainty over East Asia. This new Axis threatened to link the hitherto largely separate conflicts in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
As Americans' attitudes hardened in tandem with these events in 1940, the President authorised the Destroyers-Bases Deal and Congress enacted the first peacetime draft in American history. In November, Roosevelt was re-elected for an historic third term as president. During a post-election holiday cruise in the Caribbean aboard the USS Tuscaloosa, he came up with an idea to substantially expand US aid to Britain.
FDR proposed that the US should lend Britain the supplies it needed to continue the fight, accepting in-kind repayment 'when the show was over.' Telling newsmen in the White House that he intended to 'get rid of the silly, foolish old dollar sign,' he compared this extraordinary transfer of arms between two nations to a man lending his neighbour a length of garden hose in order to douse a fire. 'We must be the great arsenal of democracy', urged the President over the wireless. To that end, he proposed to lay before the Congress the Lend-Lease Bill, a statute which was designated, with a patriotic flourish, 'HR 1776.'
The mood in the Capitol on 6 January was, therefore, sombre. Massive steel braces, erected to compensate for structural weaknesses in the roof of the House chamber, gave the scene a somewhat martial appearance. Observers noted that the diplomatic gallery contained no representatives from the Axis countries. FDR arrived under heavy guard, wearing a grave expression. The new Speaker, Sam Rayburn of Texas, was so tense that he banged his elaborate mesquite–wood gavel too hard and broke it, sending pieces flying off in several directions.
'I address you, the Members of the Seventy-seventh Congress,' the President began, 'at a moment unprecedented in the history of the Union. I use the word 'unprecedented,' because at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.' Roosevelt denounced 'the new order of tyranny that seeks to spread over every continent today,' declaring that the 'American people have unalterably set their faces against that tyranny.' He warned against 'those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the 'ism' of appeasement,' and called for 'a swift and driving increase in our armament production.' His message to 'the democracies' was this: 'We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. This is our purpose and our pledge.' 'In fulfillment of this purpose,' he added, 'we will not be intimidated by the threat of dictators.'
The most famous section of the address came at its close:
In the future days... we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means 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.
FDR had written these words himself. A few days earlier, during a drafting session in his White House study with his aides, he had suddenly announced that he had 'an idea for a peroration.' 'We waited as he leaned far back in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling,' one recalled. 'It was a long pause — so long that it began to become uncomfortable.' Then he leaned forward in his chair and dictated the passage in one go. He had alluded to these freedoms only once before, at a press conference some months previously, but 'the words seemed now to roll off his tongue as though he had rehearsed them many times to himself.'
FDR's confidant Harry Hopkins registered a protest at the phrase 'everywhere in the world.' 'That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr President. I don't know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java.' 'I'm afraid they'll have to be some day, Harry,' replied FDR. 'The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.'
The members of Congress received Roosevelt's address solemnly and without the usual raucous applause; journalists noted that Republican members were largely silent. The responses of senators and congressmen ranged over the entire scale. Democratic senator Morris Sheppard of Texas thought it was 'one of the greatest deliverances of all time, not merely of American history.' On the other hand, Representative Robert F Rich of Pennsylvania thought the speech meant 'war and dictatorship in this country'; his fellow Republican, Representative George H Tinkham of Massachusetts, claimed that Roosevelt had 'declared war on the world.'
But New York Times columnist Arthur Krock thought that the sobriety of the representatives during the address 'was more eloquent than the published comment.' They had already read in the newspapers about the President's plans for Lend-Lease. Now, having been officially informed of the Administration's intentions in his speech, 'the members, while not shrinking from the consequences, were thinking of them hard. And they must have thought especially hard when Mr Roosevelt said: 'When the dictators — if the dictators — are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part.''
This is an edited extract of Michael Fullilove's book Rendezvous with Destiny: How Franklin D Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America into the War and into the World.