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Four Freedoms, the Democratic Narrative and Intervention

November 18, 2017

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on the negotiation of the Atlantic Charter aboard the USS Augusta in November 1941.

 

About 75 years ago, the American illustrator Norman Rockwell experienced a crisis of engagement. The Atlantic Charter had just been drafted by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, leaders of the two foreign powers that would unite in just a few months to eventually defeat the axis powers. Too old to enlist in the military, Rockwell struggled to understand what role he, perhaps America's most popular household illustrator, could possibly contribute to the dawning war effort.

 

Months before in his state of the union address, President Roosevelt had spelled out the defensible bases of modern democracies, including economic opportunity, employment, social security, and the promise of "adequate health care". The immediate threats arrayed against these essential rights, Roosevelt had argued, compelled the use of American force. Later known as the "Four Freedoms" speech, these essential rights – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – formed the essential basis of the Atlantic Charter that Roosevelt would sign nearly ten months later.

 

And how salient, how urgent are these freedoms today?

 

If one were to listen to the political rhetoric today against the backdrop of the great idealism of the War effort, it would be easy to imagine that these concepts had utterly expired – or worse, that they were only worth America's defense abroad.

 

How challenging it is to witness the destruction of an expansive healthcare effort that only sought, at its heart, to make world class health care accessible to a withering lower and middle class? What a coil of angst is produced in seeing human hands go idle as machines eclipse muscle in our economy, meaningful "opportunity" reduced to passive service jobs across the country. How far from a vision of social security we have faltered when we see the expanding swaths of homeless camps that ring our western cities, or hear our elders raise voices that, instead of carrying stories to children, must defend their right to shelter.

 

A few years of thought and struggle behind him, Rockwell was able to put his gifts to work illustrating the Four Freedoms in the Saturday Evening Post; each was accompanied with an essay by a well-known writer expanding on the central importance of each freedom. While each of the illustrations is innocuous and comforting for their banal familiarity, when paired with passages such as the following (from Booth Tarkington's essay on freedom of speech), the effect can be chilling:

 

Many people can be talked into anything, even if it is terrible for themselves. I shall flatter all the millions of my own people into accepting me and the purge instead of freedom.

 

Upon their publication, Rockwell's illustrations were a huge success. Seizing momentum and the opportunity to make his contribution, Norman Rockwell embarked on a year-long tour of the original works to sell war bonds in cities across the country. The effort was entirely successful: with support from the Saturday Evening Post and the US Treasury, Rockwell's paintings were viewed by an estimated 1.2 million people, and full color reproductions that were sold with bonds raised $132 million dollars, generating the funds needed to tilt American war production toward victory.

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