“In its way [Arthur Szyk’s work] fights the war against Hitlerism as truly as any of us who cannot actually be on the fighting fronts today.”
—First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day column, January 8, 1943
Seventy-five years ago this January, President Franklin Roosevelt stood before Congress to deliver his eighth State of the Union address. Nearly a year before America’s entry into World War II, Roosevelt explained to the American people his decision to supply arms and material to the Allied war effort against the expansionist Axis powers. The president well knew that the American public, still recovering from the devastation of the Great Depression and the Great War before it, had no appetite for a “foreign” war. Building on his fireside chat the week before, Roosevelt argued persuasively that the battles raging on three continents posed an existential peril not just to the United States but to democracy itself.
With its new blitzkrieg tactics, Nazi Germany had decisively defeated Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France in less than a year. Fascist Italy had invaded Albania and Greece, and mounted offensives throughout North and East Africa. Having already occupied much of eastern China, Imperial Japan had recently invaded French Indochina, while the Soviet Union had grabbed the Baltic States and portions of Finland and Romania. Now Great Britain, under relentless attack by Germany’s Luftwaffe by air and U-boats at sea, was the last democracy actively resisting the Axis bid for world domination. Should Britain fall, the United States would be nearly friendless on the world stage and hard-pressed to repel an invasion of our own hemisphere or negotiate an equitable peace. As Roosevelt saw it, America had the moral obligation to challenge the aggressors and uphold for all humanity—before it was too late—the essential “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.
Broadcast live by radio to millions of American homes, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms were inspiring in their own right. However, it was the nation’s authors, film directors, and visual artists who would expand a brief sound bite into a compelling vision worth fighting and dying for. Two popular artists in particular, Norman Rockwell and Arthur Szyk (pronounced “Shik”), took the lead in presenting Roosevelt’s democratic worldview to the American public. Their individual styles and approaches couldn’t have been more different: Rockwell’s large-scale, realistic oil paintings tended to highlight the everyday heroism of the home front, while Szyk’s stylized watercolor miniatures and drawings presented the life-or-death struggle against global tyranny on the actual battlefield. Though both approaches were valid and effective, it was Szyk’s anti-Fascist images that told the full story of Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy,” deftly illustrating the righteousness and urgency of the Allied cause.