By Jay Holmes
Since World War Two, many have viewed the US as something of a “world police force.” The term has been used both as a compliment and a criticism, depending on the observer’s point of view.
While modern Americans, their allies, and their critics are accustomed to a high level of international intervention by the US, it has not always been the norm for America to take a lead role in international affairs. Until 1941, isolationist policies were the standard for our government and were the extension of the sentiment of the majority of Americans.
In June of 1914, Germany declared war on France. In spite of the vital US interests that were being affected by that conflict, America did not declare war on Germany until April of 1917. Although the US Coast Guard and US Navy had engaged in combat against German U Boats since the beginning of the war, US ground forces were not heavily involved until October of 1917.
After the war ended, US President Woodrow Wilson stood out as a “naive” fool in the eyes of European governments because of his attempts at implementing his idealistic 14 Points Agenda for post war Europe. Wilson was largely ignored, and the US returned to its happy isolation. That isolation was accommodated by vast domestic reserves of natural resources and a false sense of safety created by the fact that the US was “protected” from the world’s worst troubled spots by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Seventy-two years ago, on January 6, 1941, a fundamental shift in the history of the US occurred when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered one of his most important speeches to Congress. We remember that speech as the Four Freedoms Speech. It was a speech that had been nearly two decades in the making.
In 1940, President Roosevelt, his cabinet, and the US military watched with dread as European nations fell before Hitler and his growing NAZI war machine. Europe had failed to enforce some of the most critical terms of the Versailles peace accord, and Hitler had used that lack of enforcement to rebuild the German military. Roosevelt and many of the nation’s leaders in government and industry were less certain of the safety that the great oceans on her borders would afford her in an age of modern submarines, long-range aircraft, and aircraft carriers.
Roosevelt understood that Europe’s failure to enforce the Versailles treaty was a product of the allied nations’ collective memory of the misery and suffering of World War One and the idealistic hope for peace that had filled many sensible European minds in response to that war. Roosevelt knew that he needed to appeal to the idealistic, democratic instincts of the majority of Americans. He hoped to stir Americans from their comfortable isolationist slumber to prepare them to take an interventionist position on the war fermenting in Europe.
In his address to the 77th Congress and the nation, Roosevelt proposed that the greatest need of the moment was to deal with the growing crisis in Europe and Asia. Roosevelt told the nation that all her domestic problems had become intertwined with the great emergency that was playing out far from American shores.
In that address, Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations of the world shared Americans’ entitlement to four essential human freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in his own way, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. While many in Congress and across the nation clung to their isolationist views, the speech was an effective, though quite late, wake up call to the people of the US.
Roosevelt and his supporters had long struggled to build a Navy and an Air Corps that could effectively defend the US from foreign attack. While they did not succeed in completely preparing the US military for the events of December 7, 1941, had they not struggled to get the funding for the military, the US would never have been able to prevail in the Pacific battles of Midway and Guadalcanal in 1942. America would have been even less successful in dealing with attacks on commerce by German submarine forces in the Atlantic.
The young pilots who entered the battle in 1942 and the new aircraft carriers and destroyers that were commissioned in that same year resulted from commitments to recruitment, training, and construction that had occurred long before Roosevelt delivered his “Four Freedoms” speech. However, that speech represented a national decision to support democracy against the fascist menace in Europe and the ruthless Japanese Imperial Dragon in the Far East.
Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, carried out some of his best work concerning his political ideals after his death and the end of World War Two. Eleanor Roosevelt represented the US in the effort to form the United Nations. She frequently referred to the Four Freedoms in her fight to bring to life the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt helped draft that declaration, and the UN adopted it in 1948.
In the sad and often shameful history of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents its finest moment, and is, in my view, the greatest monument to the best efforts of both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his remarkable First Lady. The United Nations has been used cynically by many members on many occasions, but on that occasion, the best hopes for mankind captured the moment, and against great political odds and to the dismay of many despots, the rights of man took precedence over “the right of might.”
Isolationist instincts remain strong in American opinion, and politicians ignore that at their own peril. But for better or worse, the US has not returned to the isolationist stance that it clung to prior to Pearl Harbor. While the Nazi’s are long gone, and the Japanese Imperial House was effectively neutralized after World War Two, the advent of ICBMs and dirty bombs, the rearmament of the 1300- year-old Islamic Jihad, and the world’s intense competition for resources and wealth seem to make an isolationist stance unlikely for the US or Western nations, but it would serve us well to remember the roots of that isolationist view of world policy.
Intervention is rarely cheap in lives or treasure. The pursuit of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms is always noble, but it’s not always obtainable at a cost that is acceptable or sustainable by the pursuers. While considering the Four Freedoms for other corners of the earth, we should remember to ensure them for our own citizens.