We live in a nation and a world shaped by Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his twelve years as President of the United States, he transformed the government into an active instrument of social and economic justice. He understood the need to use government to stimulate the economy, to regulate business, and to make the financial sector accountable to new laws incorporating standards of ethical and fiduciary responsibility. He also understood the need to create a social safety net for the poor, the unemployed, and the aged. FDR did so through an extensive program of public works known as the New Deal, which changed the face of the United States by building roads, hydroelectric dams, airports, schools, post offices, hospitals, and national parks. By harnessing the labor of the unemployed, including young people, through the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Project Administration, FDR helped individuals to help themselves while increasing the wealth of our nation. One statistic reveals the New Deal's transformation of the nation. In 1933 when he was inaugurated only ten percent of rural America had electricity. By 1945 at the end of FDR's twelve years, ninety percent of rural America had electricity. He signed into law the first legislation that guaranteed union workers the right to collective bargaining. While some countries in Europe turned to dictators and fascist forms of corporatism and communism to deal with the profound political and economic dislocations after World War I, FDR helped prevent revolution in the United States by building a new partnership among government, business and labor that helped carry the nation through the dark days of World War II.

During the 1930s, the United States was committed to a policy of isolation from the problems of the rest of the world. Both political parties defended the Neutrality Acts as the menace of Hitler emerged. FDR carefully and tactically moved the nation from this isolationism to gradual engagement by supplying war material to Britain to use against the Nazis, and finally to direct involvement in World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At the time of Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, the United States had only the nineteenth largest army in the world. In an unprecedented military build-up that included the conversion of its industry, FDR helped transform the United States into the «arsenal of democracy,» while simultaneously making the Armed Forces of the United States the most powerful and sophisticated in the world.

Bust of Franklin D. Roosevelt by Jo Davidson, 1943. Courtesy, William J. vanden Heuvel. Photo, Uri Wegman.
As President, Roosevelt mobilized the full resources of the nation, he made clear that leadership of the Allied war effort was linked to the furtherance of democracy and human freedom throughout the world – the only guarantor of international peace in the long run. FDR set forth his vision of what must come out of the chaos of World War II in a speech given on January 6, 1941, almost a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here he called upon democratic loving peoples to fight for the establishment of four essential human freedoms – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear – which constituted the only basis on which democracy and eventually world peace could be built. At the end of his description of each freedom, FDR added the phrase «everywhere in the world.» Thus from a still isolationist nation, the newly re-elected president committed his fellow countrymen to the furtherance of the Four Freedoms throughout the globe.

As the war progressed, FDR embedded these freedoms in his evolving formulation of an international organization, which at war s end, would come into being to help preserve the peace. Not only did the Four Freedoms become part of the Charter of that new organization, the United Nations, they also guided Eleanor Roosevelt, who was selected to chair the commission that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She regarded her leadership of this effort as the most important contribution of her public service. A crucial component of FDR's vision that has ongoing importance in our own time was his Economic Bill of Rights.

Concerned that the spirit of the New Deal be continued after the war, FDR insisted that freedom from fear is eternally linked to freedom from want. The United States had to commit itself to deal with the want among its own people when the veterans returned after the war. The nation could not be content if some fraction of the people remained ill fed, ill housed and ill clothed as they had been in the 1930s. In this new Economic Bill of Rights, complementary to the first Bill of Rights which had guaranteed inalienable political rights and the right to life and liberty, FDR added the needs of citizens for security. «Necessitous men are not free men,» he declared. Americans, the President announced, must be assured of these economic rights:

the right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation

the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation

the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living

the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad

the right of every family to a decent home

the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health

the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment

the right to a good education

Then, in a conclusion that linked the capacity of the United States to be a world leader to the health of her own people, Roosevelt affirmed that «America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.»

At this distance in time – sixty years after his death – it is clear that Franklin D. Roosevelt provided critical world leadership in saving capitalism and democracy against powerful totalitarian forces that despised them both. Moreover, his skillful re-engaging of his fellow Americans to meet the international challenges posed by World War II was among the most remarkable acts of statesmanship and political leadership in modern history. The pre-eminence of the United States of America in the world today is a direct legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The question for the present and for future generations of Americans is the degree to which the use of this power is informed by FDR's vision of the Four Freedoms and his proposed Economic Bill of Rights.