Freedom and democracy in America 2022. What it means. Why we guard it

FDR’s “Four Freedoms” as they are inscribed on the FDR Memorial wall in Washington, DC – Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike CC BY-SA 3.0

Over the past two years, I have thought quite a bit about what it means to be an American citizen, and about my responsibilities as a government employee, even beyond my years of uniformed service in the Army. While I have engaged my U.S. Army War College students on the topic, I offer the disclaimer that my comments do not necessarily represent the official policy of the War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

As Americans approach the close of 2022, we have a lot to reflect upon from the era of COVID-19, its associated economic turmoil, ongoing international conflicts, and the political rancor of the mid-term election season. Domestically, we continue to struggle with this great experiment called democracy for our society and its national culture, which defines the daily experience of the many peoples (citizens and those who aspired to be) inside of our American borders.

Today we will celebrate Thanksgiving Day and follow the tradition of Presidential Proclamation established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. In November 2021, it opened with: “Thanksgiving provides us with a time to reflect on our many blessings — from God, this Nation, and each other.  We are grateful for these blessings, even — and especially — during times of challenge.”

Addressing global chaos and turmoil with the emergence of the Second World War in his January 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of four freedoms as values of democratic societies.

In preceding years, totalitarian and fascist regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy continually demonstrated disregard for such values. In his exhortation, FDR was building the case for U.S. intervention for the sake of others — that is, the security of allied governments and their people.

Here are the words of FDR:

“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.”

The themes of FDR’s speech are poignantly captured by the imagery of Norman Rockwell’s series of paintings, “The Four Freedoms” featured in The Saturday Evening Post. For each issue, the respective painting was accompanied by an essay from a renowned American writer.

As I re-read each one, the essay that spoke to me most in the current context of our American political and social debates, and as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, was penned in March 1943 by Filipino immigrant, Carlos Bulosan. Rockwell’s iconic cover painting features the happy American Family of multiple generations sitting eager with anticipation around the holiday table laden with plenty. Read more