The Son of New York Who Led the World

Decades after his historic "four freedoms" speech, a park in FDR's honor

He was a son of New York who became one of our greatest presidents.

And just 70 years ago this week, during the darkest days of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt  made a speech that resonated throughout the free world.

Now, after many years of delays, New York will open a park on the East River that honors FDR and the speech he made that had such a great influence on the world. The date of the speech, an address to Congress, was January 6, 1941.

It has gone down in history as “The Four Freedoms Speech” and, to understand its significance, you have to recall what America was facing at that time. Our way of life was threatened and FDR was acutely aware of this approaching danger.

In rapid succession, Poland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Norway and France had fallen to the Nazi German juggernaut----and Japan, Germany and Italy joined in a  pact called “the Axis”----aligning forces to war on the democratic nations.

Roosevelt, who began his administration with his classic line “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” again sought to rally the nation as he did in previous crises. He was the president who helped lead us out of the great Depression and now he was preparing to lead us in the greatest military test in our history, rallying 16 million soldiers and sailors---and joining with Great Britain and other allies--to defeat the Axis. 

New York’s new park will be located at the southern end of Roosevelt Island. It will look out on the United Nations,  an organization Roosevelt envisioned.

If you read the speech today, you can almost hear the rich, patrician tones of the man who virtually hypnotized  most of us in the turbulent era in which he led the nation and the free world.

He told Congress on that day 70 years ago that we faced an unprecedented crisis, that it was vital for us to step up the production of arms and be ready to make whatever sacrifices are needed to defend our nation.

“We look forward,” Roosevelt declared, “to a world founded on four essential 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 understanding which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants---anywhere 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….”

Four Freedoms Park, just four and a half acres, was designed 36 years ago by Louis I. Kahn, a distinguished architect who was a great admirer of FDR.

Former UN Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, chairman of the project, told me building the park has encountered great difficulties in the last four decades because of a lack of government funding but “I’m glad that at last we can see the end of the road---and we hope to open the park by the fall of 2012. “ He said that 44 million had been raised from government and private sources for the park.

The park, he adds, will have digital access to highlights of American history and will be a tribute to this distinguished New Yorker who made history.

“Here was a man,” said Vanden Heuvel, “who found out at 39 that, because of polio, he would never walk again. And yet he led us through the two greatest crises of the 20th century. It’s significant that we’ll be dedicating Four Freedoms Park at a time when economic troubles and terrorism threaten our nation. FDR was probably the greatest figure of the 20th century.

“And Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, once told me that the Four Freedoms Speech was one of the greatest she had ever heard.”

Some other words of FDR from that address can well provide inspiration for today: “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.

“To that high concept there can be no end save victory.”

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