President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking to the nation by radio from the White House on July 28, 1943. President Roosevelt declared that ?Our terms to Italy are still the same as our terms to Germany and Japan - ?unconditional surrender?. He promised Italians the four freedoms and warned Americans of bigger battles still ahead in the war. (AP/AP)

In January 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his annual message to Congress. Though domestic matters had been front and center in his previous messages, this time he was aware that the nation needed to be prepared for the dangers abroad that surely awaited it. Searching for inspirational words, he came up with what immediately became known as the “Four Freedoms.” As he delineated them that day, they were, first, “freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world”; second, “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world”; third, “freedom from want . . . — everywhere in the world”; fourth, “freedom from fear . . . — anywhere in the world.”

The Four Freedoms were in part a call to arms, in part a rhetorical gimmick, in part a political slogan. Roosevelt was one of the most skilled manipulators of public opinion ever to occupy the White House, and never more so than when his words were carried over the radio. When that speech was delivered, the nation was more than a decade into the Great Depression, against which FDR’s New Deal had struggled valiantly but with incomplete success at best. The nation was still psychologically in need of the rallying cries at which he was so expert — “Nothing to fear but fear itself,” “Rendezvous with destiny,” etc. — and the Four Freedoms speech was one of them.

That it heartened many Americans doubtless is true, and boiled down to its essence — freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear — the speech became a catchy summary of the country’s domestic and international hopes. Not surprisingly, the hugely popular artist Norman Rockwell painted four scenes for the Saturday Evening Post depicting the Four Freedoms in sentimental style. Also not surprisingly, FDR’s enemies among conservatives and in big business reviled them as further evidence of his cynical manipulations. Harvey J. Kaye, who professes something called “Democracy and Social Justice” at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and who obviously is very much a gentleman of the left, takes vehement exception to this. He believes that the Four Freedoms were essential inspirations for the achievements of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” and he argues that point — with an almost total lack of success — in this book.

Kaye has his opinions, and he certainly is entitled to them, but readers coming to “The Fight for the Four Freedoms” should be advised that this is pamphleteering masquerading as history. Why Kaye is so fixated on the Four Freedoms is a mystery, but he says that, in all the chatter from Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and the like about the “Greatest Generation” as warriors in World War II, “we have allowed the public telling of their lives and struggles to be drained of its most progressive, democratic, and inspiring content,” i.e., the Four Freedoms, and he says that these propagandists “utterly ignore how a President and people not only saved the United States from economic destruction and political tyranny and proceeded to turn it into the strongest and most prosperous country on earth, but did so by harnessing the powers of democratic government and making America freer, more equal, and more democratic than ever before in the process.”

In his almost hysterical zeal to sanctify FDR and the “progressives” of his day, Kaye bends history according to his wishes. He gives Roosevelt far more credit than he deserves for advancing the interests of African Americans and women — the term “sexism,” which he employs from time to time, was unknown in Roosevelt’s day — and he characterizes the “4,300 strikes involving 2.4 million workers” in 1941 as “direct democratic action,” which strikes me as bending over backward to put a pretty face on labor actions that repeatedly disrupted the national economy. He claims that the “Bonus Marchers” of 1932 were “essentially fighting for what would come to be articulated as the Four Freedoms,” when the mundane truth is that they were desperate people simply trying to get what they regarded as their due as veterans of World War I.

The front cover to "The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great" by Harvey J. Kaye. (Simon & Schuster/Simon & Schuster)

Kaye also flips and flops this way and that, most notably in his chapter about the country’s post-World War II aspirations. He asserts, without a scintilla of evidence, that “the majority of Americans” agreed with a journalist who wrote that they wanted “to curb the power of capital, create economic growth and development, end poverty, and ‘enable people to advance themselves.’ ” A few pages later he slams into reverse: “Within just a few years the democratic surge would crash and break on the rocks of reaction and division.” Ditto 10 pages later: “By the early 1950s, liberals were tamed, progressives and radicals were marginalized, and calls to renew the march of freedom were dismissed as un-American,” yet on the very next page: “Liberal intellectuals and Democratic politicians may have become forgetful, fearful, and even relatively conservative, but most Americans had not. The generation that had won the war, a generation with roots into the New Deal and Great Depression, a generation that was great before being anointed Great, had not.”

Of course, Kaye once again does not have a shred of evidence to support this claim. His logic is a triumph of hope over reality, the reality being that we simply don’t know what the World War II generation believed as it moved into the 1950s and beyond. We do know that it twice voted overwhelmingly to put Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, and that Ike, for all his manifest virtues, was slow to turn against Joe McCarthy and slow to give even grudging recognition to the growing civil rights movement. We are told that Ike “appointed a Chief Justice, Earl Warren, who would lead the Supreme Court in 1954 to unanimously declare . . . that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional,” but we also know, as Kaye apparently does not, that Eisenhower quite surely would not have appointed Warren had he anticipated the liberal turn the court would take under his leadership and that Ike maintained an eloquent public silence about the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which made him very unhappy.

After Eisenhower came John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1960s, in which Americans voted for politicians who “would not only continue to expand the economy, but also once again harness the powers of democratic government to extend and deepen American freedom, equality, and democracy.” True, the great civil rights acts were shepherded through Congress by Johnson (and his many Republican allies), but Kaye simply ignores the doubts that have been raised by serious historians and others about the efficacy of the Great Society programs put into law during Johnson’s administration and further expanded during Richard Nixon’s, programs that made the federal government so bloated and cumbersome that bureaucratic nightmares were the result.

As this book grinds to its close, Kaye rings a characteristic note: “While the Occupy Wall Street movement that erupted and spread across the country in 2011 never reached the scale of the Tea Party, it expressed the views of far more Americans when it challenged the power and wealth of the ‘One Percent.’ ” One can only ask: Says who? Occupy Wall Street faded within months while the tea party thrives, strangling public discourse, Congress and government itself. True to himself to the end, Kaye substitutes wishful thinking for solid history.


What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great

By Harvey J. Kaye

Simon & Schuster. 292 pp. $28