Fdr and His Four Freedoms

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FDR and His Four Freedoms

American Participation in World War II

From: Teaching American History

History Standards:

11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.

4. Analyze Roosevelt's foreign policy during World War II (e.g., Four Freedoms speech).

5. Discuss the constitutional issues and impact of events on the U.S. home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans (e.g., Fred Korematsu v. United States of America…)

CCSS Standards: Writing, Grade 9-10

2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.

Guiding Question:
What freedoms was America fighting for during their participation in World War II?

Overview of Lesson:

This lesson introduces the patriotic images and words used to ensure Americans were on board for participation in World War II. Students will be asked to analyze text, photos, propaganda, artwork, and cartoons to discover what FDR and other Americans were trying to communicate.

It would be helpful to start class by discussing what “freedoms” are – what are we free to do here? To what extent to we take those freedoms for granted? Who would want to take away these freedoms, and why?
Students will then recall that America had recently undergone the Great Depression. Have them hypothesize to their desk partner how that might have affected the American idea of “freedom” at the time.
The work below may be completed in pairs or small groups, or as individuals. If assigning the work individually, place a time limit on each section and have students share their work with a partner or small group before going on to the next section, to ensure any students moving off track have an opportunity to correct themselves.
The conclusion section may be done in small groups or as a whole class, or perhaps some of both. If time runs out, assign this section for homework and review the answers the following day.
Part 1: Defining Freedom

This lesson begins by allowing us to consider and discuss American freedom. Take some time to consider the questions below and then discuss them in small groups.

  1. What is freedom?

  2. What are some specific American freedoms that are important to you and your life?

A notable historian, Eric Foner, in his book, The Story of American Freedom, seeks to trace the history of freedom through an examination of the individuals and groups that debated and transformed concepts of freedom. This is an American story and one that is similar to the standards that the state of California wants you to learn. Think back to what you know about US history, what are some examples of contests over freedom, expansions of freedom, and limits of freedom?

In this lesson, we will study how freedom came to be defined during World War II by President Roosevelt and then consider how freedoms were limited as a result of our involvement in the war. We will consider Foner’s question: what is American freedom and what freedoms were we fighting for during World War II? How did our understanding of freedom change and stay the same as a result of the war?
On January 6, 1941 before US became involved in World War II, President Roosevelt gave his State of the Union speech. In this speech he defined four “essential human freedoms:” freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Read from the text below and answer the questions in complete sentences.

The American people have unalterably set their faces against that tyranny.

Every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being' directly assailed in every part of the world--assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.

Let us say to the democracies: "We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom. We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. This is our purpose and our pledge." …

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, 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.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb...

Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change -- in a perpetual peaceful revolution -- a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions--without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library :http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/OD4FREES.HTML

To hear an excerpt of the speech go to the National Archives, Powers of Persuasion exhibit:


  1. Who is the intended audience of this speech? What is the main idea?

  2. What are the Four Freedoms? Why are they important for understanding America in 1941?

  3. Do you think that Roosevelt believed that these Four Freedoms existed in the US in 1941? Give an example from the text to support your answer.

  4. What other freedoms (not mentioned in the speech) do you think are important?

Part 2: Picturing Freedom
Norman Rockwell, a famous American artist, was impressed by Roosevelt’s speech and created a visual representation of the Four Freedoms that was published in the Saturday Evening Post. These images eventually reached a wider distribution by supporting the sale of war bonds and were part of the war propaganda. Study one of the four freedoms and answer the questions below.

These images are from a National Archives exhibit called the Powers of Persuasion. All Four Freedoms and other war propaganda can be found at:


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  1. What is represented in this photo? Who is represented? What aspects stand out for you in this image?

  2. What ideas or messages are being communicated in this image?

  3. After studying the image, how would you define “Freedom from Want”?

  4. How does this compare with the definition that Roosevelt described in his speech above?

  5. The image states, “Ours…to fight for.” How did Americans fight for freedom from want?

American propaganda images celebrated American freedom and values like those shown in Rockwell’s images. Often these images portrayed of abundant consumer goods and the family as a site of safety (Foner, 230). Overall, we can say that the propaganda images promoted patriotism and support for the war effort. However, while some images were positive and idealistic representations of American life, others presented a more sinister image and reminded Americans of the enemy that America was fighting abroad. According to Foner, “private companies joined in the campaign to promote wartime patriotism..The war witnessed a burst of messages marketing advertisers’ definition of freedom” (page 230). Below are two examples of propaganda images that attempt to define America’s “enemies.” Examine the images below and answer the questions.

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This image was produced by General Motors in 1942.
What aspects of the image stand out to you?
Who is represented in the image?
What is the message of the image?




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This image was created by cartoonist, Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel) for the New York newspaper PM, on February 13, 1942.
What aspects of the image stand out to you?
Who is represented in the image?
What is the message of the image?

This image is from UCSD library and the catalog of “Political Cartoons by Dr. Suess”


  1. What are some common themes of these two sources?

  2. What are some common images represented in these two sources?

  3. How do these sources portray freedom or a lack of freedom in the US during the war?

Part 3: Limiting Freedom at Home

While Americans were persuaded by the government and private industries to work for the war effort in order to guard American freedoms, not all Americans were considered patriots. As we can see from the images above, Japanese and Japanese Americans were depicted in propaganda as violent and fighting for the enemy. Some Americans feared that California would be invaded by the Japanese and assumed that Japanese Americans were spies (Foner, 241). In 1942, as a result of the military’s suggestion, the Roosevelt administration signed Executive Order 9066. This forced the removal of 122,000 men, women, and children from their homes, jobs, schools, and friends, and imprisoned them in interment camps far from their homes. According to Foner, few groups (even ones that usually fight against discrimination and for civil liberties) fought against the internment of Japanese Americans (Foner, 241). When Japanese Americans fought the internment policy through legal means, the Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States ruled that the government has “validity of action under the war power.” Despite the government’s argument for imprisoning Japanese Americans, men from the camps were allowed to enlist in the military and fight in the war.

Examine the images below and answer the following questions.

(Images from Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives Collection at Calisphere.org)

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This image is entitled, “Hayward, Calif.--Grandfather and grandchildren awaiting evacuation bus. The grandfather conducted a dyeing and cleaning business. The family unit is preserved during the evacuation and at War Relocation Authority centers where evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed for the duration.”

-- Photographer: Lange, Dorothea -- Hayward, California. 5/8/42

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.
Who is represented in this image?
What is the message of this image?
How does this image compare and contrast with Rockwell’s image, “Freedom from Want”?

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This image is entitled, “If he's a boy in America he plays marbles, as these lads of Japanese parentage are doing at the Rohwer Relocation Center.”

-- Photographer: Parker, Tom -- McGehee, Arkansas. 11/17/42

The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

This image is from the War Relocation Authority, a government organization tasked with documenting the Japanese internment. These images present an idealized version of the internment centers for the American public and rarely show images of difficulties of internment.

Who is pictured in this image and what are they doing?

What is the message of the title of the photo and how does it relate to the image?

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This image, entitled, “Boys with kite,” was drawn by a woman who lived in the camps. She was a European American woman who chose to go to the camp in Wyoming rather than be separated from her Japanese American husband.

--Ishigo, Estelle, Artist, September 1944

Dept of Special Collections/UCLA
Who is pictured in this image and what are they doing?

What stands out for you in this image?

How is this image similar and different from the one above?

  1. What are some common themes in the images of the Japanese Relocation?

  2. At the camp, there were many families with children. These children went to school at the camps. One boy imprisoned at the camp in Colorado remembered, “One of our basic subjects was American history. They talked about freedom all the time.” (Foner, 241) Why would the government educate children in the camps? Why do you think that the government focused on ideas of freedom?

  3. At the end of the war, Japanese Americans were allowed to return home, but often their homes and businesses were not considered their property or were taken over by other Americans. How does this align to or contradict notions of freedom from want mentioned in Roosevelt’s speech above?

Conclusion: What Freedoms were we fighting for during America’s participation in World War II?

In this lesson, we have reviewed the rationale that Roosevelt used to justify America’s participation in the war, we have examined propaganda images, and we have analyzed images of Japanese Americans interned at camps during the war. What can we conclude about American ideas of freedom and how they evolved during the war?

  • What ideas of freedom that Roosevelt discusses are concepts or rights that were part of the initial founding of the US?

  • What ideas of freedom presented by Roosevelt were unique to the period?

  • How were these ideas of freedom presented in propaganda images?

  • How were freedoms not guaranteed for all during the war?

  • What conclusions can you draw about the freedom from want?

  • Do we have freedom from want in America today? In the world? Is this an attainable freedom?

  • How has your understanding of freedom changed and stayed the same as a result of studying the war?

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