The effect of war on American soil

Reports of anti-Muslim prejudice echo an earlier tragedy

It's fitting that the recently erected Japanese American Memorial for Patriotism is situated on the opposite side of the Mall in Washington - to counterbalance the FDR memorial. It stands as a stark reminder of the injustice committed against Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to stark and often unforgiving internment camps far away from their homes on the West Coast. To ensure that such a stain on American history does not repeat itself, it is also no coincidence that there are several Japanese Americans who serve in Congress today and one former congressman, Norman Mineta, a former internee himself, who is now the Secretary of Transportation.

With the diabolical events of September 11, 2001, another day that will also live in infamy, President Bush launched his war on terrorism. But with this offensive, the president was quick to visit a mosque to quell the wellspring of emotions that would ignorantly dispense hate to all American Arabs and Muslims.

This hatred toward American Arabs and Muslims is like a timewarp that propels us back to Pearl Harbor - putting aside the flawed analogy - when the country faced an outright attack. It was a time when the US Supreme Court, in a series of three cases, condoned FDR's Executive Order 9066, which gave the military authority to imprison Americans of Japanese descent, casting aside the bedrock of American values and the Constitution. The order was not formally rescinded until 1976, by President Ford.

The recurring question has been: How could this event have emerged in modern US history? In 1973, "Farewell to Manzanar," by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, chronicled her family's first-hand internment experiences. While that moving work brought us behind the barbed wire and into the soul of some prisoners, no significant research has been completed to fully examine the "how" rather than the "why" until now.

Greg Robinson's "By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans" provides a thoughtful analysis and adapts a psycho-historical approach to help unlock the clues to an ostensibly inexplicable act by FDR, an ardent defender of human liberty. By delving first into FDR's early years, Robinson proceeds to other experiences that may have shaped his thinking and led FDR to ultimately ink Executive Order 9066.

The president had two competing influences while growing up: One was the positive impression of his close friend and classmate at Harvard, Otohiko Matsukata. The other was the thinking behind his cousin and hero, Teddy Roosevelt.

While TR esteemed Japanese culture, Robinson notes, the tide began to shift as domestic politics in America impacted TR's view of the Japanese. "Mobilizing the same hostile stereotypes that they had employed a generation before against the Chinese," Robinson writes, "anti-immigrant agitators conjured up racist images of the Japanese as menacing and immoral." Since TR's perception altered, so did FDR's.

"By Order of the President" takes us inside the political battle that brewed within the Roosevelt administration, which is not unlike those that might transpire in the Oval Office now. There is Henry Stimson, the secretary of War and close confidant of FDR, aligned against Attorney General Francis Biddle, a newly appointed cabinet official who objected to the proposed internment policy but did not have the president's ear. Stimson's argument for internment was based less on a perceived national-security threat from within than, as Robinson demonstrates, negative predilections against racial minorities in general.

Furthermore, Robinson makes the case that FDR was predisposed to making a rash decision about Japanese-American internment because of his quick management style, coupled with the frenzied atmosphere after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Rumors of espionage by Japanese Americans were proven to be inaccurate, and a furtive intelligence unit that reported directly to FDR claimed that Japanese Americans were indeed loyal, but the president permitted his decision to stand. "In the case of evacuation," he writes, "Roosevelt was either too preoccupied with his duties as war leader or was unprepared to seek out fully the nature and ramifications of the opposing views."

Robinson's final analysis places FDR's internment decision as essentially one of political pragmatism mixed with moral indifference. While these overall observations bear some truth, they risk oversimplifying what was essentially a presidential decision to incarcerate American citizens.

In the end, with his lucid writing style, Robinson's gift is an ability to cogently present the dilemmas of the time and show how FDR erred: "Two closely interrelated elements stand out strongly as determinative in the President's decision and his subsequent actions. One of these was undoubtedly Roosevelt's own negative beliefs about Japanese Americans, while the other was a failure of political and moral leadership that resulted from weaknesses in his presidential style and administrative organization."

This analysis is particularly thought-provoking in light of recent events, and it echoes George Santayana's warning for those who forget history.

Mark T. Fung is assistant director and research fellow at The Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans

By Greg Robinson Harvard Univ. Press 322 pp., $27.95

QR Code to The effect of war on American soil
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today