Freedom from Fear
by Stephen Vincent Benét
Published in the The Saturday Evening Post, 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 a hundred and thirty 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 hundred and thirty 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.
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 our selves.” 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, the 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.
© 1943 Saturday Evening Post, Stephen Vincent Benét, or both.
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Carlos Bulosan was a prolific writer and poet, best remembered as the author of America Is in the Heart, a landmark semi-autobiographical story about the Filipino immigrant experience. Bulosan gained recognition in mainstream American society with the 1944 publication of Laughter of my Father, which was excerpted in the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town and Country. He immigrated to America from the Philippines in 1930, endured horrendous conditions as a laborer, became active in the labor movement, and was blacklisted along with other labor radicals during the 1950s. He spent his last years in Seattle, jobless, penniless, and in poor health.
According to his baptismal records, Bulosan was born in Pangasinan Province in the Philippine Islands on November 2, 1911. But other sources give Bulosan’s birth date three to four years later. This is just one example of conflicting versions of his younger years in a peasant family with three brothers and two sisters. The family farm was sold, hectare by hectare, to pay for boat fare for his older brothers’ passages to the United States.
The Idea of Equality
In the period of Bulosan’s birth, Americanization of the Philippine Islands was strong. In 1903, the “Pensionado” program offered promising student scholarships to attend universities in the United States to gain knowledge that could benefit their homeland. Also in 1901, the “Thomasites,” a group of teachers who went to the Philippines on the USS Thomas (hence the name), crossed the Pacific to educate Filipinos in the American Way. This American style of education highly influenced the young Bulosan as he attended high school. He was led to believe that equality existed among all classes and individuals in the United States. Then in 1906, Filipino laborers arrived in Hawaii to work on the sugar plantations (the beginning of the “Sakada” or plantation worker system).
Enticed by stories of the United States and by the departure of his elder brothers Macario and Dionisio for California, in 1930 Bulosan quit his job working for his family peddling vegetables and salted fish at the local market. He paid $75 for passage on the Dollar Line to Seattle, Washington.
Not a Land of Opportunity
Bulosan had heard how easy it was to earn a living in the United States even as a bellhop or dishwasher. He had not been told that people of color did not enjoy democracy. Notwithstanding his status as a “national” and not an “alien," Bulosan became quickly disillusioned by the reality of life in the United States. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression had devastated the country. Jobs were scarce and competition was intense for whatever was available.
When Bulosan arrived in Seattle, he was “shanghaied and sold for five dollars” to work in an Alaska fish cannery to earn $13 for the season. He picked apples in Eastern Washington and finally moved south to California to continue the familiar seasonal cycle of picking fruits and vegetables.
Years of Bitterness
In Washington, the future author experienced racism when whites torched a bunkhouse where he slept. According to Carlos P. Romulo, “it carried him into years of bitterness, degradation, hunger, open revolt, and even crime. The pool rooms and gambling houses, dance halls and brothels, were the only places he knew. They were the only places a Filipino could know.”
Bulosan would later write: “I know deep down in my heart that I am an exile in America. I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I didn't commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”
Between 1935 and 1941, he became involved in the labor movement, organizing unions to protect his fellow Filipino workers.
Writing for His Life
Writing also became a means to fight against the discrimination he had witnessed. In 1932, he was published in a poetry anthology. While living with one of his brothers in Los Angeles, he had already submitted articles for small newspapers and had done some writing for The New Tide, a bimonthly Filipino publication. The New Tide was a radical literary magazine that brought Bulosan into a wider circle of fellow writers.
Writer As Reader
Bulosan had always been sickly. He loved the public library and reportedly read a book a day. During this time, he came across the works of Karl Marx and began telling friends “of the rising power of the working classes and what they would achieve in the coming revolution.”
In 1936, Bulosan contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to the Los Angeles General Hospital. He spent about two years at this hospital, the whole time actively reading and writing. “Writing is a pleasure and a passion to me,” he wrote.
In the 1940’s, Bulosan gained recognition for his work as a poet and editor:
- In 1942, his book of poems, Letter from America, was published.
- Bulosan was featured in the 1942 edition of Who’s Who in America
- He edited Chorus for America: Six Philippine Poets.
- In 1943 he wrote the book of poems Voice of Bataan, a tribute to the soldiers who died fighting in that battle.
- In 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published four articles on the “Four Freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Bulosan wrote "Freedom from Want."
- In 1944, Bulosan's Laughter of my Father became a bestseller and established Bulosan as an important writer. It was translated into several languages and excerpts were read over wartime radio. He was praised by fellow Filipinos who “for the first time are depicted as human beings.”
- In 1946, Bulosan published the work that he is best remembered for, America is in the Heart. In it, stories loosely based on his brothers’ and friends’ experiences depict an immigrant Filipino’s life in the 1930s and 1940s. America is in the Heart has been used as symbol for the Filipino American identity movement of the 1970s and is included in many bibliography lists for college courses on Filipino American studies classes.
The 1950s ushered in the anti-Communist fervor of Senator Joe McCarthy and the Un-American Activities Committee. Carlos Bulosan and fellow radicals were “blacklisted” even by some Filipino writers. Bulosan continued his labor union activities and edited the 1952 yearbook of the Union Local 37 International Longshoremen Workers Union (ILWU).
In the 1950s, Carlos Bulosan was living in Seattle, jobless, penniless, and in poor health. On September 11, 1956, the poet died of tuberculosis. With his passing, Filipino Americans lost their most articulate spokesman.
His friend, Chris Mensalvas (called “Jose” in America is in the Heart) wrote in Bulosan’s obituary: “... I am willing to testify that Carlos Bulosan is dead ... but ... [he] will never die in the hearts of the people.”
Carlos Bulosan, writer, poet, labor activist was buried in Seattle in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. Until 1982 his resting place was an unmarked pauper’s grave. Finally a group of his admirers raised the funds to purchase an elaborate headstone of black granite.