“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human 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 understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere 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—anywhere in the world.”
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these words in his 1941 Annual Message to Congress—what we would call the State of the Union today—the American public he addressed was already engaged in a charged conversation about the role of the United States in protecting global freedoms. At the time, the U.S. was not yet involved in the Second World War, which had been escalating in Europe for two years, and many Americans were determined to maintain this status of isolation. With these words, Roosevelt not only justified the aid that the United States had provided to England, but also established an argument for future American involvement, which many believed was inevitable. (Indeed, the U.S. entered the war 11 months later). Even before the United States ultimately entered the war, though, the Four Freedoms spoke to a moral obligation Americans had to uphold.
Two years later, after the United States joined the war, Norman Rockwell famously provided Americans with visualizations of these rights, which you can see on display in our new exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. These images became four of the most powerful representations of American freedom during World War II. As the United States stepped once more into a global war, Rockwell’s four paintings reminded Americans of what these freedoms actually looked like in practice.
Roosevelt and Rockwell shared an idealistic vision for the future of worldwide freedom—but the reality of life in the United States at that time did not always uphold their vision. Almost a year after President Roosevelt shared his Four Freedoms, the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt signed Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526, and 2527, which allowed the United States to detain non-citizen residents, or aliens, whom the U.S. thought might be dangers to national security. In February 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the government the power to incarcerate any person for war-related reasons, including American citizens. Thousands of Japanese Americans—as well as some Japanese, Italian and German immigrants who were not yet fully naturalized—were held in detention centers or in facilities then referred to as internment, relocation, or concentration camps. This included the Ellis Island Detention Center, where approximately 8,000 people were held between 1941 and 1945. Unlike the camps in California—which we now refer to as incarceration camps and that held about 120,000 people, nearly 70,000 of whom were Japanese Americans—Ellis Island held people who had not yet naturalized as citizens.
The gap between the high-minded ideals of the Four Freedoms and the reality of wartime life was not lost on those who were incarcerated on Ellis Island at the beginning of the war. In 1945, an “internee of war” Richard Neumann wrote, “And is it not rather disheartening that in these days of ‘freedom from fear,’ it is exactly fear that clutches at the heart of untold millions?”
Recently donated to the Museum, the Vincenzo Beltron Collection includes this illuminating letter about Beltrone’s experience. An Italian poet who had a prolific career in Greenwich Village, Vincenzo was incarcerated when the war broke out on charges that he was affiliated with Italian fascism.
Every day he was incarcerated, Beltrone wrote letters to his fiancée, Kate Fabian. These letters reveal the hard realities of Beltrone’s life in an incarceration camp, including his frequent illnesses, struggles to stay positive, and efforts to keep his poet’s mind churning. Although he generally sought to ease Kate’s concerns about his condition, he was also honest about the impact of the camp on his feelings and outlook. “It is not a pleasant thing to be shut out from the world and smile,” he wrote. “It requires a considerable amount of philosophy to do that.”
Beltrone was eventually released, as were his friends, like Richard Neumann. However, the question that Neumann asked from his incarceration on Ellis Island is one that we must contend with when thinking about the legacy of the Four Freedoms.
Join us at the Museum this summer to visit Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms, and notice the parts of the exhibition that explore the United States’ incarceration of Japanese Americans and others who were U.S. citizens. In the exhibit, you’ll also learn about the Double Victory campaign, an effort led by African Americans to achieve equal rights and justice at home and abroad, as well as how the struggle for Freedom from Want and Fear and Freedom of Speech and Worship continued on the home front long after the war. And then, consider your own thoughts on the matter—what does freedom mean to you?
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe
Family Programs Coordinator
 From “Mass Incarceration Fact Sheet for America’s Concentration Camps: Remembering The Japanese American Experience” Japanese American International Museum, http://www.janm.org/nrc/resources/accmass/ accessed 5/30/2018
 Executive order 9066: resulting in Relocation of Japanese (1942 https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=74