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Roosevelt's freedoms


Over the last few weeks, very predictably, the Internet and apparently all television channels everywhere were taken up with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Zelensky’s press conference lasted three hours, and a question was repeated throughout the day: When will the war end? Two words also recurred: freedom and democracy.

It so happens that a few days earlier I had bought, as usual, a copy of England’s Observer newspaper, which coincidentally carried a lengthy interview with Bernie Sanders, the 81-year-old United States senator for Vermont, who is the longest-serving independent senator in Congressional history. A democratic socialist, Sanders worries continually about the grave inequality in American society, and about the way in which ordinary working people struggle. In the course of the interview he quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s notion that freedom is not just the right to vote, but is also the right to have a reasonable standard of health care, housing and work.

The ageing brain is a strange thing. While reading Sanders’ words I was borne back into the past of my childhood, during which long ago time my grandfather subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post which, for much of the last century, was the most widely-read magazine in the USA. I have never known the reasons for his subscription, but he kept all his copies, and I was addicted to them for years. And so it was that I came to know about the artist Norman Rockwell.

Critics did not think much of Rockwell, who modestly styled himself an illustrator rather than an artist. But he was immensely popular, and captured the zeitgeist of America for decades, during which time he produced 322 covers for the Post. Criticised for projecting schmaltz, he riposted that he illustrated life as he would like it to be. One commentator noted that he painted happiness but didn’t live it. He certainly had his troubles, but work seems to have been a weapon against them.

Rockwell was also a man with a social conscience, as Bernie is, and tried to stir the public to a certain awareness of racism and injustice. One of his most famous paintings is The Problem We All Live With, which in 1964 tackled the burning issue of racism, and depicts the black child Ruby Bridges being escorted by Federal agents to a white school after the policy of integration became law. A strong gesture in support of the cause of freedom and equality.


'Roosevelt tackled the matter of fear in his speech of 1941. His hopeful idea was that freedom from fear could be ensured by a reduction in the number of armaments, so that no nation would be able to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour.'


But it is his Four Freedoms series that I remember, although they were painted well before my time. The U.S Constitution guarantees two freedoms, those of worship and speech. Rockwell painted those two, and two more: freedom from want, and freedom from fear. He was apparently influenced by Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech of January 1941, (now known as the Four Freedoms speech) at which point Europe was engulfed in war, while America was still neutral. All four freedoms were mentioned, and later became part of the Atlantic Charter and then the basis for the Charter of the United Nations.

In his pictures, Rockwell shows a man on his feet and addressing a meeting, people praying, and a family gathered around the dining-table for a Thanksgiving dinner. But I think it is the last painting that is the most touching. The Freedom from Fear painting shows a young couple gazing at their sleeping children, secure in the knowledge that they are safe, tucked up at home. Which brings me back to the situation in Ukraine, and not only there: so many parents in these troubled times and in various places know that their children are under threat, and not at all safe. And even if the children escape the present threat, what of their future?

Roosevelt tackled the matter of fear in his speech of 1941. His hopeful idea was that freedom from fear could be ensured by a reduction in the number of armaments, so that no nation would be able to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour. A noble ideal, but the words ring very hollow at present, when the arms merchants are the only ones benefiting from the Russian/Ukraine conflict, and most of the world is in a state of dreadful suspense. Roosevelt did not have the prospect of a nuclear war to contend with: today’s world has.

We can’t change the past, but if only the crystal ball of the future could be lit by sunlight rather than wreathed in dark cloud.




Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: 'Freedom from Fear', Norman Rockwell, 1943, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, United States of America. (Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Freedom, Norman Rockwell, Roosevelt



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Existing comments

The scope of the Ukraine/Russian war covers a number of fronts but as the first anniversary of the conflict is contemplated there is a fierce battle raging in the town of Bakhmut. Women and children have been evacuated, the town is demolished and there is combat in the streets. The horror of war. Elsewhere, alliances are sealed where billions of dollars are committed for “security”. We are desperate for peacemakers in positions of power. Peacemakers who do not turn to war as a first resort. Ukraine is defending its sovereignty which is understandable. However, if only peace was sought with the same tenacious ferocity as war-making.

Pam | 15 March 2023  

While some might argue (and have convincingly done so) that the US-provoked proxy war against Russia - forced finally into its invasion to protect the ethnic Russians of the eastern Donbas region - and being played out with the lives of Ukrainians - is actually eight or nine years old. That aside - Gillian's thinking on Bernie Sanders and the memories of Norman Rockwell's illustrations showing how he wanted life to be - and the editors of the journal clearly in agreement - are powerful - positively powerful or powerfully positive. They represent a possible agenda for a more peaceful world - if only we had the kind of leadership which could make its shaping. But inevitably (?) it seems we have people generally speaking of small and fearful vision who see only hobgoblins and who foster fears and divisiveness - and though all wars and invasions are lessons from which we could and should learn - our leaders seem unable to do so. And so yet again we watch on as weapons-makers grow fat - women and children flee - and their men are thrown into the maw of death and destruction - their leaders nowhere near the danger. At the Academy Awards the day before yesterday - the latest Netflix version of Erich Maria Remarque's "Im Westen nichts Neues"/All Quiet on the Western Front - received four Oscars. The book was translated in 1929 by the Australia Great War veteran Arthur Francis Wheen who found on first reading it that it was a telling of his own experiences throughout that same war - mirrored by his peers on the trenches on the other side - the mindlessness and savagery. And still there is no cessation in Ukraine - at US insistence - and the lessons from the film? Well, politicians are blind and deaf - and certainly not to be found in the midst of the war - and Australia ramps up its "Red Alert" for a war to our north and spends the common wealth enriching US/UK weapons' investors/shareholders!

Jim Kable | 16 March 2023  

I believe Pope Francis has said that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine was the declaration of World War Three. That statement rings true with me. The scale of devastation, death and displacement is hard to get one's head around. Ukraine is a devastated nation. The ramifications beyond Ukraine are immense. The acid questions are: 'Will the War intensify, spread beyond the Ukraine and/or go nuclear?' and 'What will happen, or be left, when the War ends?' We should live in Hope, even if, at the moment, it appears extremely difficult. In this context I see Norman Rockwell's art as secular icons of a better world. They appeared when all was not well with America or the world. It's a bit like that now.

Edward Fido | 16 March 2023  

As usual, a pertinent and thought-provoking piece. It’s difficult to feel confident of a human future, let alone a free one with more and more governments racing to acquire more and more lethal weapons. The latest, the AUKUS deal, only adds to the horror.

Juliet | 16 March 2023  

I very much enjoyed this article. Thank you, Gillian.
Connecting the threads of some great minds across time.
My first grandchild came into the world today. I am in my 7th decade.
As my life unfolds I find my perspective both broadens and focuses at the same time.
I feel our past, current and future are one and the same. One crystal ball throughout time, replaying the same plots starring human nature as the protagonist.

Sent from my iPhone

Fiona | 16 March 2023  

Thank you Gillian for another thought provoking and insightful article. I am appalled at the thought that the ordinary people have no alternative but fighting in order to maintain their democracy against a strong opposite belief in autocracy. The uneven fight against poverty and racism is something that does not seem to improve and is made worse by humiliation and addiction.
I was vaguely aware of Norman Rockwell and the accusation that his idyllic depictions of how he would like life to be was schmaltz. Now we are continually asked to consider the opposite, misery and there is still no better solution to the problems of poverty and racism.
Even those of us with a social conscience find it difficult to do anything other than vote for a government that promises to address the ills of society and we hope for the best. Our own individual attempts at alleviating suffering may not have a huge impact but it may help in a small way to provide that light for the future.

Maggie | 16 March 2023  

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