Stephen Vincent Benét’s ‘Freedom from Fear’

In 1943, the Post commissioned novelist and poet Stephen Vincent Benét to craft this essay to accompany Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Fear.’

Freedom from Fear
(© SEPS)

Weekly Newsletter

The best of The Saturday Evening Post in your inbox!


Freedom of Fear
(© SEPS)

In 1943, the Post commissioned four writers to craft an essay to accompany each of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings, which had quickly come to represent America’s moral imperative during World War II. You can read the other three essays here.

Freedom from Fear

Originally published on March 13, 1943

What do we mean when we say “freedom from fear”? It isn’t just a formula or a set of words. It’s a look in the eyes and a feeling in the heart and a thing to be won against odds. It goes to the roots of life — to a man and a woman and their children and the home they can make and keep.

Fear has walked at man’s heels through many ages — fear of wild beasts and wilder nature, fear of the inexplicable gods of thunder and lightning, fear of his neighbor man.

He saw his rooftree burned with fire from heaven — and did not know why. He saw his children die of plague — and did not know why. He saw them starve, he saw them made slaves. It happened — he did not know why. Those things had always happened.

Then he set himself to find out — first one thing, then another. Slowly, through centuries, he fought his battle with fear. And wise men and teachers arose to help him in the battle.

His children and he did not have to die of plague. His children and he did not have to make human sacrifices to appease the wrath of inexplicable gods. His children and he did not have to kill the stranger just because he was a stranger. His children and he did not have to be slaves. And the shape of Fear grew less.

No one man did this by himself. It took many men and women, over many years. It took saints and martyrs and prophets — and the common people. It started with the first fire in the first cave — the fire that scared away the beasts of the night. It will not end with the conquest of far planets.

Since our nation began, men and women have come here for just that freedom — freedom from the fear that lies at the heart of every unjust law, of every tyrannical exercise of power by one man over another man. They came from every stock — the men who had seen the face of tyranny, the men who wanted room to breathe and a chance to be men. And the cranks and the starry-eyed came, too, to build Zion and New Harmony and Americanopolis and the states and cities that perished before they lived — the valuable cranks who push the world ahead an inch. And a lot of it never happened, but we did make a free nation.

“How are you ever going to live out there, stranger?”

“We’ll live on weevily wheat and the free air.” If they had the free air, they’d put up with the weevily wheat.

So, in our corner of the world, and for most of our people, we got rid of certain fears. We got rid of them, we got used to being rid of them. It took struggle and fighting and a lot of working things out. But 130 million people lived at peace with one another and ran their own government. And because they were free from fear, they were able to live better, by and large and on the whole, than any 130 million people had lived before. Because fear may drive a burdened man for a mile, but it is only freedom that makes his load light for the long carry.

And meanwhile around us the world grew smaller and smaller. If you looked at it on the school maps, yes, it looked like the same big world with a big, safe corner for us. But all the time invention and mechanical skill were making it smaller and smaller. When the Wright brothers made their first flights at Kittyhawk, the world shrank. With those first flights, the world began to come together, and distant nations to jostle their neighbor nations.

Now, again in our time, we know Fear — armed Fear, droning through the sky. It’s a different sound from the war whoop and the shot in the lonesome clearing, and yet it is much the same for all of us. It is quiet in the house tonight and the children are asleep. But innocence, good will, distance, peaceable intent, will not keep those children safe from the fear in the sky. No one man can keep his house safe in a shrunken world. No one man can make his own clearing and say “This is mine. Keep out.” And yet, if the world is to go on, if man is to survive and prosper, the house of man must be kept safe.

So, what do we mean by “freedom from fear”?

We do not mean freedom from responsibility — freedom from struggle and toil, from hardship and danger. We do not intend to breed a race wrapped in cotton wool, too delicate to stand rough weather. In any world of man that we can imagine, fear and the conquest of fear must play a part.

But we have the chance, if we have the brains and the courage, to destroy the worst fears that harry man today — the fear of starving to death, the fear of being a slave, the fear of being stamped into the dust because he is one kind of man and not another, the fear of unprovoked attack and ghastly death for himself and for his children because of the greed and power of willful and evil men and deluded nations.

It will not be easy to destroy those fears. No one man can do it alone. No one nation can do it alone. It must be all men.

It is not enough to say, “Here, in our country, we are strong. Let the rest of the world sink or swim. We can take care of ourselves.” That may have been true at one time, but it is no longer true. We are not an island in space, but a continent in the world. While the air is the air, a bomb can kill your children and mine. Fear and ignorance a thousand miles away may spread pestilence in our own town. A war between nations on the other side of the globe may endanger all we love and cherish.

War, famine, disease are no longer local problems or even national problems. They are problems that concern the whole world and every man. That is a hard lesson to learn, and yet, for our own survival, we must learn it.

A hundred and sixty-odd years ago, we, as a nation, asserted that all men were created equal, that all men were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those were large assertions, but we have tried to live up to them. We have not always succeeded; we have often failed. But our will and desire as a nation have been to live up to them.

Now, in concert with other free nations, we say that those children you see and other children like them all over the world shall grow to manhood and womanhood free from fear. We say that neither their minds nor their bodies shall be cramped or distorted or broken by tyranny and oppression. We say they shall have a chance, and an equal chance, to grow and develop and lead the lives they choose to lead, not lives mapped out for them by a master. And we say that freedom for ourselves involves freedom for others — that it is a universal right, neither lightly given by providence nor to be maintained by words alone, but by acts and deeds and living.

We who are alive today did not make our free institutions. We got them from the men of the past, and we hold them in trust for the future. Should we put ease and selfishness above them, that trust will fail and we shall lose all, not a portion or a degree of liberty, but all that has been built for us and all that we hope to build. Real peace will not be won with one victory. It can be won only by long determination, firm resolve, and a wish to share and work with other men, no matter what their race or creed or condition. And yet, we do have the choice. We can have freedom from fear.

Here is a house, a woman, a man, their children. They are not free from life and the obligations of life. But they can be free from fear. All over the world, they can be free from fear. And we know they are not yet free.

Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *