President Biden has delivered his first State of the Union Message. Almost everyone agrees that the strongest part was the first 15minutes or so when he addressed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which earned widespread applause. Thereafter as he returned to his domestic agenda and proposals, about half of the chamber continued to applaud while the other half fell silent. This should not surprise or even disturb us very much.
We have seen unprovoked aggression against democratic governments before. We were divided about what to do then, as divided as we are now. Fisticuffs broke out on the floor of the House of Representatives—while bombs were falling on the House of Parliament in England—as members debated the Selective Service Act, which finally passed on September 14, 1940. On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his Annual Message to Congress. It was not yet called the State of the Union address. Parts of it and the reaction to it, ring eerily contemporary:
“I address you, the Members of the Seventy-seventh Congress, at a moment unprecedented in the history of the Union. I use the word ‘unprecedented,’ because at no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today,” the president began. He continued, “as your president, performing my constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the Union,’ I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.”
Michael Fullilove writes in his very readable history, Rendezvous with Destiny:
The members of Congress received Roosevelt’s address solemnly and without the usual raucous applause; journalists noted that Republican members were largely silent. Democratic Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas thought it was “one of the greatest utterances of all time, not merely of American history.” On the other hand, Representative Robert F. Rich of Pennsylvania thought the speech meant “war and dictatorship in this country;” his fellow Republican, Representative George H. Tinkham of Massachusetts, claimed that Roosevelt had “declared war on the world.”
The latter charge was probably in response to how Roosevelt ended his speech with the first enunciation of the Four Freedoms:
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…
Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change—in a perpetual peaceful revolution—a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions—without the concentration camp or the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.
Perhaps announcing such an ambitious foreign policy really was too much. FDR’s right-hand man Harry Hopkins worried aloud about the phrase “everywhere in the world,” remarking, “That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President. I don’t know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java.” But Roosevelt replied, “I’m afraid they’ll have to be some day, Harry. The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.”
Like it or not, that is the way the world is now. It has been apparent for a long time. The COVID-19 Crisis, like the oil crisis back in the 1970s, made even more obvious our dependence on commodities from all over the world.
We must not let the cynicism of recent years and our many missteps over the past decades blind us to the fact that we are still the world leader; we have much to gain by free trade with free countries; and we have many allies. Our allies are not just bound to us by treaties signed by professional diplomats in the State Department and their counterparts abroad, but also by millions of relationships between private citizens and corporations both great and small. Great common interests link all of the peoples of the world, and these common interests are well spelled out in the Four Freedoms, which have a long pedigree, stretching back through Abraham Lincoln to the foundation of America.
Just before he took office, Lincoln declared:
I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.
FDR’s Four Freedoms are a direct updating of Lincoln’s idea. We affirm these four freedoms, unabashedly, as the basis of our policies both foreign and domestic. We recommend them to others. We believe all people on earth will want them for themselves.
Democrat and Republican presidents alike have chosen to begin and continue many interventions abroad that did not work out. Various Congresses have gone along. Yet we undertook them in the name of freedom and in opposition to one-party or terrorist regimes. Damaging as they have been, these interventions have not destroyed our hopes, our ideals, our responsibility. It is well to remind ourselves of our successes: the Marshall Plan, NATO, the European Economic Community, Taiwan, the first invasion of Iraq, Korea, and a united Germany allied to us. We should also remind ourselves that many people around the world, including most Americans, have greatly benefited from the free trade policies since World War II and the political freedoms that have usually accompanied them. Our successes outnumber our failures.
As to the current crisis, Ukraine is a functioning democracy that has been improving and reforming, which is why President Vladimir Putin attacked. He was willing to tolerate an independent Ukraine under a friendly or ineffectual government, but not a fully functioning and Western-oriented nation, whether a member of NATO or not. Note that neighboring Belarus as an independent nation is now essentially gone.
This unprovoked attack on a neighbor whose independence the Russian government guaranteed 30 years ago is a threat to our European allies and all peoples who wish to be free. It is not, in itself, a major economic threat, for the value of American trade to the entire former Soviet Union is a tiny fraction of our economy and not even a very large fraction of our oil imports. But it is setting off economic shockwaves and is a threat to our European allies and a world order based, however imperfectly, on the Four Freedoms.
We are a deeply divided nation. Over more than two centuries now we have fought one another over the interplay between national, state, and local governments, the proper aims of our foreign policy, and much more—in short, how to live in a free country at peace with ourselves and with our neighbors. We have been divided from the beginning, yet have managed to bring ourselves together to accomplish great things. This looks like one of those times.
President Roosevelt first enunciated the Four Freedoms in an evening session with his speechwriters. He made them the peroration of his message to Congress and wove them into the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations Charter. They have constituted the basis of American foreign policy ever since. Now is the time to reaffirm them.