TLDR: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” masterfully combined impactful rhetoric to address the U.S.’s stance on World War II. Delivered before the U.S. entered the war, Roosevelt emphasized the importance of global safety for American independence, using clear language that resonated with all listeners. 

So What? The speech used a combination of emotional appeals around freedom and security to link the protection of those freedoms to the threat of war in Europe. He laid the groundwork for why the U.S. would fight in World War II if necessary. 

In the annals of American rhetoric, few speeches resonate like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Speech. Delivered on the precipice of World War II, this address masterfully wove rhetoric, clarity, and emotion to chart a course for a nation grappling with the specter of global conflict.

Roosevelt delivered the speech in the year before the U.S. entered World War II after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it set forth the reasons why the U.S. could not be strictly isolationist even if its people did not want to become involved in the fighting. Protecting American freedoms, FDR argued, meant ensuring the world was safe for U.S. independence and that world powers didn’t threaten sovereignty. 

Roosevelt used language and rhetorical techniques effectively in the speech to convey his message, and modern-day communicators can learn much from his skill.

The Power and Clarity of Morality

The concepts Roosevelt communicated in this speech were complex–freedom, isolationism, and the place of the U.S. in a changing world–but Roosevelt distilled them into clear and concise language that made his message unmistakable. 

“The future of all the American Republics is today in serious danger,” he explained–a danger originating from the Axis nations because they sought “world domination” through battle and propaganda. 

Because the Axis powers were overtly imperial, dominating their neighbors, Roosevelt drew a line in the sand by connecting freedom with morality. He says, “We are committed to the proposition that principles or morality and considerations for our own security will never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors and sponsored by appeasers. We know that enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.” 

His meaning is clear: while the United States desired peace, it could never accept it on the backs of a dominated people, brokered by others without the moral strength to fight for their freedom. 

There was no mistaking this stance, and every American could understand and appreciate Roosevelt’s straightforward language, which made his speech all the more effective. Your message must reach the whole audience, not just some. 

Rhetorical Techniques: Repetition and Parallelism

Like many speakers and writers, Roosevelt knew that repetition and parallelism could sear his message into listeners’ minds and allow them to remember his words. He used repetition to emphasize the importance of the four freedoms and their significance to American life. 

After explaining the threat to the U.S. from the world conflict, he said, “And that is why the future of all the American Republics is today in serious danger. That is why this Annual Message to Congress is unique in our history. That is why every member of the Executive Branch of the Government and every member of the Congress face great responsibility and great accountability.” The language repeated here underscores the urgency of America’s responsibility to work toward freedom and stability worldwide.

He also repeated words like “sacrifice” and “need” to emphasize the actions that would be taken if the conflict continued (or the U.S. was drawn into the war). 

Finally, he asked for the support and unity of his countrymen by repeating “by an impressive expression of the public will and without regard to partisanship” before each action he asked Congress to take after hearing the speech. This phrase signals a need for everyone to act together to maintain the freedoms he discussed and not let partisan bickering cause the people to lose freedom.

FDR monument

Appealing to Universal Values

Roosevelt’s appeal to universal values emerged from his articulation of the “Four Freedoms,” or 

  • The Freedom of Speech
  • The Freedom of Worship
  • The Freedom from Want
  • The Freedom from Fear

These freedoms balanced freedom of action (speech, worship) and freedom from oppression (want, fear). The values tied to these freedoms were thus those connected to human dignity across a spectrum of situations–most notably, those linked to the problems of war in Europe and partisan isolationists in the U.S.

Roosevelt appealed to human rights, dignity, and unity, which nearly everyone could relate to. Identifying universal values like these and others can be a way for communicators to create connections with a broad audience like his.

Balancing Emotion and Logic

Another strength of Roosevelt’s speech came from the way it combined this emotional appeal with logical reasoning–specifically, the logical conclusion that should the situation come to it, the United States would enter the war on the side of the Allies. To punctuate this point, he says:

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.”

Roosevelt is summing up why America needed to aid those fighting against the tyranny of Hitler and his allies, indirectly at that time, by providing them with weapons and ammunition and being prepared to fight directly if attacked. 

Most modern speeches need logic and emotion to convey a convincing message successfully. Roosevelt was wise enough to realize this more than 70 years ago and to fashion this important speech around logical arguments and emotional appeals.

Learning From Roosevelt

The 1941 State of the Union speech showed Roosevelt as a master communicator who inspired the nation to prepare for another war if necessary. Using poetic parallelism, appeals to universal values, and the logical consequences of sticking with those values, Roosevelt clearly outlined the folly of isolationism and the duty of America to support democracy in Europe and other parts of the world. 

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