America’s Vision for Human Rights
by Elizabeth Borgwardt
Harvard University Press, 2005 437 pp $35
Given the disarray of contemporary American liberalism, it is not surprising that so many liberals look back fondly on the 1940s. Then, they recall warmly, the country waged good wars against totalitarian enemies under iconic liberal Democratic presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. At the same time, these leaders struggled valiantly to sustain an American-style social democracy against a resurgent, reactionary domestic opposition. In the Senate, it was Robert Wagner, not Hillary Rodham Clinton, who strode the halls of power on behalf of New York and the nation. In the 1940s, it was liberal Democrats, not conservative Republicans, who held the high ground coupling national security and the missionary impulse to spread freedom abroad. And at home, instead of lamely fighting a losing battle against tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for the poor, liberals boldly called for a broader “social citizenship” that would extend the New Deal and provide a fuller measure of security for all Americans.
Of particular moment for nostalgic liberals are two of Roosevelt’s speeches. In a January 1941 address to Congress, he looked forward to “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech and of religious worship and freedom from want and from fear. Pursuit of these four freedoms was incorporated months later into the Atlantic Charter, an informal proclamation of shared purpose in the face of Nazi tyranny issued by Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The second speech is FDR’s January 1944 State of the Union address in which he called for an “economic bill of rights” in which “a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all.” These rights included employment, housing, health care, education, and a decent standard of living. In both speeches, FDR firmly held to the conviction that “freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.”
Recently, Cass Sunstein declared FDR’s second address, the “greatest speech of the twentieth century,” and called upon fellow liberals to complete the “unfinished revolution” that it forecast. In much the same spirit, Elizabeth Borgwardt’s fine book is a tribute to the Atlantic Charter and its consequences, as well as an effort to see the two speeches as of a piece—a single plea for human rights at home and abroad that put particular emphasis on the “social rights” implied by freedom from want and fear. That is, she sees in these speeches not only the promise of a bigger and better New Deal for Americans but a New Deal for the world.
Borgwardt’s interpretation thus rests on a conventional reading of the intentions and accomplishments of the New Deal and on a more original interpretation of the intentions and accomplishment...
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