A thorough, scholarly, and troubling analysis of FDR’s decision in the early days of WWII to hold in internment camps more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans.
Robinson (History/George Mason Univ.) begins with an FDR news conference on November 21, 1944, one of the few public occasions when the President even mentioned the internment of tens of thousands of loyal American citizens—a disturbing episode that Robinson calls “a tragedy of democracy.” Robinson endeavors to uncover the causes of the decision. He notes that FDR’s first government appointment was as an assistant secretary of the Navy, a position that led him to worry about Japanese aggression in the Pacific. In the 1920s, FDR urged a conciliatory position toward the Japanese, hoping that liberal elements in Japanese leadership would be able to soften their government’s foreign policy. But in 1924, a US immigration act froze Japanese arrivals, legislation that outraged the Japanese. As their military became more adventurous in the Pacific, anti-Japanese attitudes in America hardened, and racists (especially in California) began to sing their ugly songs. According to Robinson, FDR viewed Japanese-Americans as Japanese first, American second. Despite virulent rumors to the contrary, there was no sabotage of US facilities by Japanese-Americans (as J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly informed FDR), but wartime paranoia (especially after Pearl Harbor) soon held sway. The author also believes political pressures from the West Coast influenced FDR, as did his unenlightened racial views (views not shared by his wife, who crusaded for the release of those interned). The president seems to have been uninterested in hearing contrary opinions—even when his principal advisers were urging him to rescind Executive Order 9066, the internment authorization, which he signed on February 19, 1942. It wasn’t until late summer of 1944 that the releases began.
Splendid scholarship shines a harsh light on one of the darkest episodes in American history.