The Contradictions of World War II

The Four Freedoms

The U.S. had just emerged from the Great Depression, and Japan had invaded China and Hitler's Nazi Germany had taken much of Europe, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his message to Congress in January 1941. In his speech, Roosevelt stated that American democracy consisted of "Four Freedoms," the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms," the President declared. "The 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 - everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear - anywhere in the world."1 When the war came to the U.S., those "Four Freedoms came to define America's reasons for fighting in World War II.

Freedom for Whom?

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Archives at College Park, NDNS-208-PU-171G(1A)
But as the smoke still rose from what was America's Pacific Fleet, Hawaii's governor surrendered civil authority to America's military and teams of FBI agents and military and civilian police swept into neighborhoods and took into custody Japanese, German, and Italian Americans in Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland. Martial law suspended democracy and summary detentions eroded the civil liberties of American citizens. A war being waged in the name of freedom curtailed the rights and freedoms of America's peoples.

President Roosevelt was an example of this contradiction between the ideal and practice of democracy. "One obvious thought occurs to me - that every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble," the President stated in 1936.2

He was referring to the perfectly legal and public visits of Japanese naval vessels in Hawaii, and the equally legal and public socializing between Japanese sailors and Japanese American citizens of the U.S. And after signing Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt declared in 1943 when endorsing the military draft for Japanese Americans, many of whom were being held in concentration camps, "Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."

Meanwhile, draft boards routinely classified nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) as "enemy aliens," and nisei soldiers were only allowed to serve in the Army, not the Navy, Air Force, or Marines, and in segregated units, in violation of the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. (Refer to "Draft Resistance" in the Supporting Materials.)


  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Message to Congress," January 6, 1941.
  2. Gary Y. Okihiro, Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 172-75.

The Contradictions of World War II page 2

The Contradictions of World War II page 3