When Artists Cultivated FDR’s Four Freedoms

The Second World War ended 70 years ago this past weekend. Americans had fought for the Four Freedoms – Freedom of speech and expression, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – the vision or promise of a postwar world that President Franklin Roosevelt had articulated in his State of the Union of the Message of January 1941.  Sixteen million Americans served in uniform. Millions more served in the war industries and in volunteer efforts. Artists of all sorts served as well, not only in military units, factories, and local communities, but also by promoting the vision of the Four Freedoms.

I originally wrote these paragraphs on the ways in which artists and musicians had mobilized for my book The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great. They did not survive the final edit. I now post them here to commemorate the end of the end of World War II and honor the labors of the artists who campaigned for the Four Freedoms.

When war came, thousands of writers and artists rushed to volunteer their talents and skills to help rally the nation and cultivate the vision of the Four Freedoms. Instigated by Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, a number of prominent authors met in New York in January 1942 and established the Writers’ War Board. Concurrently, but independently, their counterparts in Los Angeles organized the Hollywood Writers’ Mobilization. Just as swiftly a host of national artists’ associations set up Artists for Victory, Inc. And that spring, poet Carl Sandburg and photographer Edward Steichen created “Road to victory,” a full floor-sized exhibit of photography and texts that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in May and went on to tour the country in 1943.  Welcoming visitors with FDR’s Four Freedoms peroration, it visually narrated the American war effort at home and abroad. Plus, acting on the precept that “fascists burn books, democrats read them,” America’s leading publishers, joined by the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the National Education Association, and various authors’ groups, created the Council on Books in Wartime under the slogan “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas.”

While the Writers’ War Board coordinated more than 2000 literary colleagues in penning slogans, essays, stories, poems, and plays, the Hollywood Writers’ Mobilization recruited 3500 members, whose many activities included supporting – in concert with the Hollywood Victory Committee of radio, stage, and screen actors – the radio series Free World Theater produced by the ardent anti-fascist playwright Arch Oboler. Drawing a weekly audience of 5,000,000, Free World Theater based its scripts on the words of prominent political and cultural figures such as FDR, Henry Wallace, Paul Robeson, and writer Pearl S. Buck. At the same time, Artists for Victory enlisted more than 10,000 “painters, sculptors, designers, and printmakers” who together promised “five million man-hours to the war effort.” And the Council on Books in Wartime, in addition to arranging author appearances and organizing events to “commemorate” Nazi book-burnings, launched Words at War, a weekly radio show that dramatized works such as Selden Menefee’s provocative Assignment: U.S.A., and initiated a publishing program that would print 123,500,000 volumes of nearly 1200 titles in low-priced paperback editions for America’s military men and women.

Some writers and artists set out directly from FDR’s words. Playwright Arthur Miller scripted a play titled The Four Freedoms, which connected the struggles for labor and minority rights in America to anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggles globally. Poet Langston Hughes wrote Brothers, a radio play about a black merchant mariner’s troubled search for the Four Freedoms at home in America (a work that the Office of Civilian Defense said was too controversial to broadcast but was later distributed by the Council for Books in Wartime). Muralist Hugo Ballin rendered the Four Freedoms in multiracial images inside the city hall of Burbank, California. Sculptor Walter Russell depicted the Four Freedoms as “four angels, standing back to back, facing the points of the compass” in a monument that the people of Madison, Florida placed downtown in a new Four Freedoms Park as a memorial to Captain Colin P. Kelley, a native son killed in action early in the war. And magazine illustrator and artist Norman Rockwell labored up in Vermont on soon-to-be celebrated paintings of the Four Freedoms.

Musicians were no less engaged. Songwriters composed pieces ranging from the patriotic There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere (Paul Roberts and Shelby Darnell) to the topical The Four Freedoms (Jay Gorney, Henry Myers, and Edward Eliscu), and from the humorous show tune This is The Army (Irving Berlin) and “hymn” Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition (Frank Loesser) to the jump-blues dance number Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (Don Raye and Hughie Prince). Bandleader Glenn Miller virtually enlisted swing music in the war against fascism when he himself signed up and organized the “Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band.” And while he recruited a multiethnic orchestra that resembled a B-17 bomber crew, artists not subject to the military’s Jim Crow policies, including Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra, arranged many a racially-integrated gig for themselves, and singer-actress Lena Horne actually fought segregation on her army camp tours.

Classical musicians mobilized too. Soon after Pearl Harbor, conductor André Kostelanetz invited Jerome Kern, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland to join in creating a “musical gallery of portraits of great Americans” – for which Kern chose Mark Twain; Thomson, Fiorello LaGuardia; and Copland, Abraham Lincoln. And in the fall of 1942, Eugene Goossens of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra commissioned eighteen fanfares to salute those who were fighting the Axis, including A Fanfare for Airmen (Bernard Wagenaar), A Fanfare for the American Soldier (Feliz Borowski), A Fanfare for American Heroes (William Grant Still), A Fanfare for Freedom (Morton Gould), and A Fanfare for the Common Man (Copland).

That we today hear Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and A Fanfare for the Common Man as musical icons of not just the war effort may well be due to just how deeply Copland had the Four Freedoms in mind when he composed them. A committed progressive, he had chosen Lincoln not simply because he led the Union through the crisis of the Civil War, but all the more for his democratic ideas and wartime emancipation of the slaves – which Copland made clear by including in the work lines of Lincoln such as “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy” and “we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Moving on to his fanfare, and intent upon honoring those “doing all the dirty work in the war and the army,” Copland first thought of naming it either “Fanfare in the Spirit of Democracy” or “Fanfare for the Four Freedoms,” but instead titled it after Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man.” And he continued to work in that same spirit when he composed the equally iconic Appalachian Spring (1944) for choreographer Martha Graham; set the Four Freedoms to music for a short OWI film, The Cummington Story (1945), about the arrival of refugees to a small New England town; and completed his powerful Third Symphony (1946) with elements from A Fanfare to the Common Man.

By 1943, references to the Four Freedoms were showing up everywhere – from ads for Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel inviting guests to enjoy “Freedom from servant problems! Freedom from transit problems! Freedom from maintenance problems! Freedom from ownership problems!,” to the Women’s Republican Club, where designers displayed “fashion ensembles” inspired by the Four Freedoms, to Belmont Park and Aqueduct racetracks, where “Four Freedoms” ran handsomely.

More seriously, the U.S. Post Office issued a one-cent “Four Freedoms” stamp on Lincoln’s birthday; syllabi, artworks, and plays on the Freedoms were prepared for every level of schooling from the elementary grades to college and adult night classes; and educator and civic leader Frank Kingdon argued for “Cultivating the Four Freedoms” at home in the family to fight prejudice and encourage democratic values. In California, Federal judge Florence Allen told students at Scripps College that the Four Freedoms represented “the cardinal points of the American doctrine” found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And in New York, the Broadway Association proposed a “Times Square Victory Arch” inscribed with the Four Freedoms; the Italian-American Labor Council awarded its new Four Freedoms prize to Attorney General Biddle; and the Yiddish Culture Chorus performed a musical arrangement of FDR’s Four Freedoms at Town Hall. Indeed, echoing the Sabbath sermons of many a reverend and rabbi, the nationally-prominent Ohio Baptist minister Edwin McNeill Poteat proclaimed in Four Freedoms and God that FDR’s words expressed aspirations “rooted… deeply in the subsoil of the human spirit.”

 Harvey J. Kaye is professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” (Simon & Schuster, 2014).  He would be happy to send you “notes” to the paragraphs posted here.  Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye.

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