In the aftermath of the day which will live in infamy, President Roosevelt understood that ensuring human rights, particularly the right to economic wellbeing, was the only way to stave off extremism.
Mr. Vice President, and Mr. Speaker, and Members of the Senate and House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…
The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our Nation…
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire. –Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941
It was 70 years ago today that the myth of American invulnerability came to a sudden and dramatic end. On that day, wave after wave of Japanese bombers attacked the sleeping base at Pearl Harbor and in their destruction helped usher in a new era in American and world history.
Like virtually all other Americans, FDR was shocked and outraged at the events that occurred that Sunday morning. But in other respects, the events at Pearl Harbor confirmed what he and many of his advisors already knew about the state of the world in the mid-20th century: It was a much smaller place. In an “air age,” the distances across seemingly vast oceans had been dramatically reduced. If one looked at a map of the world from the perspective of the North Pole — as FDR was wont to do — the continents of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres seemed to almost touch one another.
These observations may seem commonplace to us today with our satellite communications and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But in 1941, they were quite profound and to a large extent reflected, as the historian Alan Henrikson has written, the “mental map” that Franklin Roosevelt had developed over years of interest in geography, map reading, and even the collecting of stamps from far-off lands.
FDR, in short, had a profound understanding of the physical make-up of the planet. As such, he tended to see the world as a single community made up of neighboring states inhabited by peoples who shared many of the same hopes and aspirations. He also believed that “people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” One only had to look at the catastrophic decade of the 1930s, with its global economic crisis and the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, for confirmation of this sad truth.
For Roosevelt, then, the Second World War, as he called it, was as much about the perils of economic depravity as it was about blatant international aggression, for the latter was one of the by-products of the former. In a very real sense, therefore, the welfare of peoples living in the heretofore distant corners of the earth had a direct bearing on the welfare of the people of the United States. The war in fact proved beyond a doubt that the two were inextricably linked. The hardship suffered in one part of the world — hardship that led to the creation of the most brutally aggressive regimes history had ever seen — had now reaped its destruction upon America itself.
It was for these reasons that FDR implored the American people in their “righteous might” to not only help him “win through to absolute victory,” but also to help create a world, as he said nearly a year before, founded on four essential human freedoms: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. For by helping to establish these rights, including the right to live free from hunger and fear — “everywhere in the world” — the United States would render itself far more secure and much less likely to have to face an even greater conflagration in the future.
In light of these revelations, FDR did all he could to convince the American people that the United States had to play an active role in world affairs. He felt it was critical that the “United Nations” — the long forgotten name of the wartime alliance created just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor — continue to strive for peace and prosperity after the war was over. He sought to work with our friends and allies to build the necessary institutions, such as the United Nations Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, to reorder the world’s economic system and facilitate great power cooperation in the postwar world.
Of course, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, FDR also accelerated the build-up of American arms, including a massive expansion of the U.S. Army Air Force, and engaged in a significant restructuring of American defense and intelligence capabilities. This led to the creation of the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the postwar Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies — all designed to transform American foreign policy into what might best be called National Security Policy.
But in the long run, FDR understood that American military and economic power were not enough to provide the kind of security the American people desired in the wake of the day of infamy. Equally important was moral leadership — the promotion and adherence to the rule of law, democratic values, and basic human rights, including the all-important right of every person to enjoy basic economic security.
Today, as we look around the globe, we can see that FDR’s assessment of the basic hopes and aspirations of peoples the world over to live in a world based on his four fundamental human freedoms is as strong as ever. The evidence is clear in recent events in the Middle East, Moscow, and here at home in Zuccotti Park. The United States may face a future where our status as the world’s leading economy may one day no longer be certain, but the values that inspired the valiant men and women who fought the Second World War can and should remain a beacon of hope to all those who aspire to live in a more prosperous and peaceful world.
As FDR reminded us seven decades ago: “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them… To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.