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Freedom in Post-World War II America


In his 1941 Annual Message to Congress (aka the State of the Union address), President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”[1] Christened the Four Freedoms, they included the freedoms of speech and worship, and the freedoms from want and fear. The first two freedoms, their meanings self-evident, need not be defined; the latter two, however, are less explicit. Roosevelt, in the same address, described those latter two––the freedoms from want and fear, respectively––as follows: “the economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants . . . [and] the 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 . . .” The Four Freedoms, American leaders made abundantly clear, embodied that which set the U.S. apart from and above its enemies in Europe (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy) and the Far East (Imperial Japan), and its grudging communist ally the Soviet Union. They also “provided a crucial language of national unity . . . [for t]he message seemed to be that Americans were fighting to preserve freedoms enjoyed individually or within the family rather than in the larger public world.”[2] However, once World War II ended, the Four Freedoms were eventually subsumed into the larger framework of America’s blueprint for winning the Cold War against its ideological counterpart the Soviet Union. Freedom, at least in the initial stages of the Cold War, became less an empowerment of the individual and his/her civil liberties, and more a habit of unquestioned devotion to the American cause, and of cultural and political conformity in the face of encroaching communism. Unchecked material consumption, perhaps buoyed by the U.S.’s postwar economic prosperity, became a staple of the American way of life, so much so that Vice-President Richard Nixon, in 1959, described to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “a conception of freedom centered on economic abundance and consumer choice . . .”[3]; indeed, one might argue that this consumer culture sweetened America’s otherwise unpalatable crackdown on homegrown communism. The U.S., in any case, soon underwent a backlash against this constraining statism, and Americans rediscovered their political autonomy, a development that culminated in the successive civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1950s and 60s. Read the rest of this entry

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