By Charles D. Allen
As America crosses the midway point of 2020, we can agree that it has been one heck of a year. Following the news and social media, we see ongoing and emerging challenges in the international arena. Domestically, we continue to struggle with this great experiment called democracy for our society and its culture, which defines the daily experience of Americans.
This weekend we will celebrate Independence Day to mark our declaration of intention to separate from a government that tread on our unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What American colonists sought then was freedom from an oppressive system and subsequently demonstrated they were willing to fight and die for such freedom.
In the closing minutes of his January 1941 State of the Union Address and weeks after the nation’s entrance World War II, 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:
“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 read each one this weekend, the essay that spoke to me most in the current context of our American struggles was penned in March 1943 by Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Vincent Benét.
In “Freedom from Fear,” he offered:
“What do we mean when we say ‘freedom from fear?’ It isn’t just a formula or a set of words. It’s a look in the eyes and a feeling in the heart and a thing to be won against odds. It goes to the roots of life — to a man and a woman and their children and the home they can make and keep.
“Since our nation began, men and women have come here for just that freedom — freedom from the fear that lies at the heart of every unjust law, of every tyrannical exercise of power by one man over another man….
“We do not mean freedom from responsibility — freedom from struggle and toil, from hardship and danger. We do not intend to breed a race wrapped in cotton wool, too delicate to stand rough weather. In any world of man that we can imagine, fear and the conquest of fear must play a part.
“But we have the chance, if we have the brains and the courage, to destroy the worst fears that harry man today — the fear of starving to death, the fear of being a slave, the fear of being stamped into the dust because he is one kind of man and not another, the fear of unprovoked attack and ghastly death for himself and for his children because of the greed and power of willful and evil men and deluded nations.”
Nearly eight decades later, the case for fear still exists in 2020 as Americans are facing a global pandemic, the potential collapse of international economies, and social, as well as political challenges to its democratic institutions.
We cannot be afraid to address injustice within our nation.
Benét also pointed back the Declaration of Independence when “… we, as a nation, asserted that all men were created equal, that all men were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those were large assertions, but we have tried to live up to them. We have not always succeeded; we have often failed. But our will and desire as a nation have been to live up to them.”
In the months ahead, and for the remainder of 2020, it is my hope that we so resolve and pursue freedom from fear for others in our American society and, in doing so, for ourselves.
Col. Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, ret) is a professor of leadership and cultural studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.