Dr. Greg Robinson

Dr. Greg Robinson is a Professor of History at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada. He gave this speech at the "Civil Liberties Symposium II: Presidential Powers In Wartime" at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, June 2007. This symposium was held in conjunction with the 2007 Pilgrimage to Camp Minidoka organized by the Friends of Minidoka, a group that supports the Minidoka Internment National Monument.

[Image: Dr. Robinson]

Thank you very much all for coming. I'd like to thank the conference organizers for having me come. It's great to be on the program. You know, I told everybody that they've seen CSI Miami and CSI New York. I'm very proud to be at CSI Twin Falls.

It's a particular honor to be speaking alongside Robert Simms and that's why it's a little painful to be having to differ with my distinguished colleague because he said that all of these events that we are describing and commemorating are well nigh unbelievable. Unfortunately, I think they are all too believable and that if there really was no possibility of their recurring, we all wouldn't be here. So, my job here is to give the first key note.

You know, in French where I come from in Montreal, it's called a d'ouverture, which means an opening speech. Not just opening in the sense of beginning but opening in the sense of opening up the questions. I'm sort of like the overture that precedes the play so I'm here to set the table and put you in the mood.

I named this presentation I'm giving today "Sights along the Evidentiary Trail." I know the Oregon Trail goes right near here so this is my tribute to that but I wanted to talk about what goes into FDR's decision. What happened? In the weeks following the beginning of 1942, a movement took shape among military officials charged with defending the Pacific coast to the United States for the summary removal of Japanese aliens. This movement was reinforced by local nativist groups with racist agendas and by commercial groups anxious to get rid of their Japanese competitors. And in the face of these civilian demands and by the phalanx of opportunistic West Coast political leaders, the Army commanders were encouraged to expand their own agenda to include demands for removal of all Americans of Japanese ancestry - both citizens and long term residents. The fact that there were no documented cases of sabotage or espionage by any Japanese American on the West Coast did not calm the fears of their neighbors. Fears that by the way had led to rumors and stories and false claims long before Pearl Harbor. Rather as General DeWitt himself said in a formulation that would later be borrowed by California's Attorney General Earl Warren, the future Supreme Court Justice, the very fact that no sabotage or disloyal activity had occurred only proved that Japanese Americans were organized into a conspiracy to strike at the signal was given.

The pressure from the West Coast brought the matter into the White House. The War Department led by the aged Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and his Deputy Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy took up the case. Despite having - as Professor Simms mentioned - definite misgivings, they both felt obliged to back mass removal, not only in support of local defense commanders but to placate the region's political establishment. McCloy himself admitted to a colleague soon afterwards that there was no suspicion against most Japanese Americans and he complained that the Japanese Americans - and here I'm quoting - "removed largely because we felt we could not control our own white citizens in California."

So the War Department chiefs faced off against Attorney General Frances Biddle who as Professor Simms mentioned, considered such a step unnecessary and harmful to morale, although it's important to note he did not consider it unconstitutional or illegal if handled as a war time military action. So he was a kind of a weak reed against the pressure. On February 11, 1942 Stimson made the decisive call to Franklin Roosevelt to ask for a meeting so that he could resolve the dispute between the Justice Department and the War Department. FDR said that he was too busy for such a meeting, the subtext being that it was not that important to him. But that afternoon Stimson reached the President by telephone and no transcription was made of the conversation, but Stimson reported to his diary that the President was very vigorous and told him to do whatever he thought best. And according to McCloy, who may have been on the line or at least heard it from Stimson, Roosevelt had said that if the Army's proposal involved removal of citizens, "We will take care of them too." And Roosevelt added, "There will probably be some repercussions but it has got to be dictated by military necessity." And Roosevelt had said, "Be as reasonable as you can."

So McCloy then interpreted this to the West Coast Defense commanders that they had carte blanche to act as they thought best. With that consent in hand the Army planners went to work and eight days later on February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

Now this order did not mention Japanese Americans, the West Coast evacuation or confinement. Rather, the order simply permitted the Secretary of War to authorize military commanders to designate military zones from which any person might be excluded and authorized the Army to provide food, shelter and transportation for the persons affected. It did not give the Army authorization for mass incarceration and it would appear that nobody was thinking in such terms at that point, although neither the President nor his military advisors decided to grant more explicit authority for such confinement as that policy evolved, nor did they object to the idea. But for the moment it was simply removal.

The Order is bland language, nonetheless concealed, an unprecedented assertion of executive power and that's what we are here to discuss. Under its provisions the President as Commander In Chief imposed military rule on civilians without a declaration of martial law and he sentences a segment of the population to internal exile and eventually involuntary confinement under armed guard notwithstanding that habeas corpus had not been declared by Congress, to whom the Constitution, except in very limited exceptions, granted full authority, sole authority to do that. The Order did not specify Japanese Americans but everybody understood that it was meant so that the Army, as Biddle later quite acerbically put it to Roosevelt "to take care of the Japs." What the Order meant in substance was that the President and his military advisors determined that the racial background of 112,000 Americans made them such a danger that they were collectively presumed disloyal and summarily deported from the military theater.

Who were these people? Seventy percent of them were American citizens of an average age below eighteen years old and the rest were long time residents who had spent their entire adult life in the United States. Yet the order presupposed that none of these people could be usefully distinguished from the Japanese enemy and that's why the Army, even the Army which had originally thought to institute loyalty hearings once the people were removed, abandoned the idea because it would mean abandoning the very premise that they pose an indiscriminate danger. While individual German and Italian enemy aliens, deemed dangerous were detained and tried in hearings during the war, no other alien population was subjected to confinement without a hearing let alone on the grounds of their ancestry. If the removal and later confinement of some forty thousand Japanese immigrants on a group basis as enemy aliens was therefore both arbitrary and unconstitutional or discriminatory - actually it's probably not unconstitutional and it's certainly not unprecedented. After all, the Federal government and the states had deported and detained alien populations before on a racial basis or other group basis, notably the case of black slavery, the expulsion and driving out of Chinese immigrants from the West, or the removal of the Indian Nations from the southern United States in the 1830s.

In contrast, Executive Order 9066 applied equally to American citizens supposedly covered by the constitution. It thus represented a new and dangerous violation of basic rights in a democratic society and that's why it deserves particular scrutiny. And what I wanted to focus on today is the role of Franklin Roosevelt. I mean, what led Franklin Roosevelt, a president justly renowned for his attachment to human rights and the principles of democracy, to such an action? Now his ostensible motive was military necessity or at least satisfying the expressed or at least perceived needs of the military. Certainly he defended his decision exclusively in terms of military necessity. When Attorney General Biddle later related that he told the President that evacuation was unnecessary, FDR responded that it must be a military decision and he repeated it in Cabinet meetings. The Army might be wrong but Roosevelt considered them the best equipped to decide what was needed to win the war. This view was seconded by John Franklin Carter, a rather unusual fellow who Roosevelt named the head of a secret White House spy unit after the 1940 election. Carter was then commissioned by Roosevelt in mid-1941 to send secret agents to the West Coast to investigate the loyalty of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and Hawaii and his agents reported that Japanese Americans were overwhelmingly loyal and the Nisei particularly were desperately anxious to show their loyalty. Well, Carter never wrote memoirs on the subject but he did write a novel a few years after the war, The Catoctin Conversation, in which he presented fictionalized conversations reflecting his informed knowledge of the circumstances, and Carter's fictional Roosevelt explains the decision as a matter of Martial Law, and here I'm quoting, "The Army asked for special status on the Pacific coast. After Pearl Harbor they were entitled to get what they said they needed. Once they had the status they decided that the Japanese Americans must move east of the Rockies. I had no choice but to back them or discredit them." I should add that Carter's version of Roosevelt admits that mass removal was unjust while none of the surviving evidence indicates any such hesitation or regret on the real FDR's part. But nonetheless I think that it's a fair representation of Roosevelt's view of the situation.

Yet the question of military judgment is by no means so clear. Biddle himself later noted that in military terms the East Coast would have been a more logical theater for mass removal of aliens. He said there was more reason in the West to conclude that shore-to-ship signals were accounting for the very serious submarine sinkings all along the East Coast which were sporadic only on the West Coast, but Biddle made very clear that, "These decisions," he said, "were not made on the logic of events or on the weight of evidence but on the racial prejudice that seemed to be influencing everyone."

In any case, the President's decision was clearly not based solely on military demands and we can think of three reasons why this is the case: First, the President was not faced with a clear-cut military consensus but chose between different factions of the military in making his decision. There was dissension within the military over dealing with Japanese Americans. Roosevelt was in a position to know, if he didn't know, that Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Ringle and other naval officers responsible for the West Coast did not favor evacuation and the President also failed to consult General George Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff before signing Executive Order 9066. Marshall himself had detailed General Mark Clark - later the commander of the Italian campaign - to look into the matter and Clark had testified before Congress just a week before that evacuation was completely unnecessary. There wasn't a rat's chance in hell of the Japanese invading the West Coast.The Joint Chiefs were conducting their own investigations.

Similarly General Douglas McArthur, responsible as the Pacific commander, was not asked his opinion. Now an aide to McArthur a few years later said that McArthur had considered the entire mass evacuation completely absurd. No, that is based on second- or third-hand evidence and with hindsight but I think that we can at least conclude that McArthur did not institute mass removal of Japanese residents of the Philippines in the weeks before the Philippines were invaded by Japan. Roosevelt also did not attempt to weigh the military case for evacuation. Unlike Secretary of War Stimson who asked Dewitt to present a specific recommendation for evacuation with a detailed basis for the claims of military necessity, Roosevelt simply waved his hand and hastily granted Stimson blanket approval to proceed even without awaiting Dewitt's final recommendations completely spurious case for evacuation. Furthermore, FDR did not support military judgment in all matters concerning evacuation or Japanese Americans. Most notably, when the President, under prodding from Navy Secretary Franklin Knox, ordered mass confinement and removal of all Japanese Americans in Hawaii. He went against the recommendations of his Hawaii martial law commander, General Delos Emmons. Emmons then countered with a masterful campaign of passive resistance that eventually scuttled the plan and if I can do a little self-endorsement, I would recommend my book on that.

But similarly if military demands had been his main criterion for action the President would have approved Army proposals for similar control of others who posed a significant or perceived threat to national security. Roosevelt was certainly aware of the problem of espionage or disloyal conduct by German and Italian enemy aliens, and it's worth noting that several months before Pearl Harbor the Army was already constructing concentration camps to hold enemy aliens in time of war. In fact the place where the Japanese aliens after Pearl Harbor were sent, Fort Missoula in Montana, was built as a concentration camp in early 1941 to hold enemy aliens. So it was clearly a problem that he had considered. However, the President refused to allow General Dewitt his request to remove German and Italian aliens en masse from the western defense zone and he similarly refused General Hugh Aloysius Drum, the East Coast defense commander - that is Dewitt's eastern counterpart - when Drum wanted to remove selected German and Italian aliens under Executive Order 9066 during spring 1942.

Finally, we should be skeptical of any claims that military necessity was behind Executive Order 9066 and governing the removal of Japanese Americans for the simple reason that such was not the case north of the border where twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians were removed from their homes in British Columbia and placed in camps and subjected to mass incarceration. The very same elements that marked the creation of Executive Order 9066 are featured in the situation in Canada. The heritage of racial prejudice against Japanese ethnic people on the Pacific coast, strong calls from politicians and commercial groups to get rid of the Japanese, accusations of disloyalty and a beleaguered national government concerned over national security. Yet in Canada the vice chief of the Army staff, General Maurice Pope and his naval counterparts in Ottawa all agreed with the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] that Japanese Canadians unarmed and scattered posed no particular threat. They were overruled however by Canadian Prime Minister W.L. McKenzie King and his advisors who stated that military needs and conditions were irrelevant. In fact I recently discovered McKenzie King had told his diary that he was unable to trust any Japanese Canadian, even one naturalized in Canada, even Canadian born and that the Japanese Canadians were all just waiting to help Japan once the signal was given. Based on these considerations we may conclude that military necessity is to say the least, an insufficient excuse or explanation for evacuation.

What elements then did determine Roosevelt's order? It's hard to know because Roosevelt was such a secretive man. His Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes told him to his face that even with his closest advisors he kept his cards close to the vest. However, we can make some educated guess based on indirect evidence. As Milton Eisenhower, who was the first director of the World Relocation Authority, supervised the building of the camps such as Minidoka and the confinement of Japanese Americans later perceptively stated, "The President's final decision was influenced by a variety of factors - by events over which he had little control, by inaccurate or incomplete information, by bad counsel, by strong political pressures and by his own training background and personality." So in order to determine how the decision came about let's take a minute, or few minutes, to examine these elements in turn which will enable us to make reasonable determinations as what weight to give to each of them in influencing the final decision.

So the first two of Eisenhower's factors - the course of events and the lack of reliable information - are quite familiar because as Professor Simms said, they have historically been used as a means of justifying the government's actions. According to the following narrative the attack on Pearl Harbor, they said, led to widespread fears over possible Japanese invasion of the West Coast and in the emergency atmosphere Army officers did not have sufficient information to make an informed decision about whether Japanese Americans represented a security threat and so they acted hastily to protect the country.

It's precisely on this basis that the Supreme Court - first in the Hirobioshi vs. the United States decision, then in the Korematsu decision - upheld the constitutionality of the military's actions. However, not only has this narrative been discredited by numerous historians but by the courts themselves. As Professor Simms mentioned the convictions of Fred Korematsu and the others whose cases were heard by the Supreme Court during the war were vacated in the 1980s on a writ of Corum Nobis by Federal Government judges who explicitly found that Assistant Secretary John McCloy and other Army officials had knowingly presented false information to the court and had suppressed evidence - notably, evidence that the press of time and the emergency situation were not a factor in evacuation.

Because the importance of events has been so inflated and distorted any argument about their role in Roosevelt's decision is suspect and is difficult to resolve fairly. That said, it does not appear that they made much of an impression on Roosevelt since his policy on Japanese Americans did not evolve in direct response to the course of the actual military situation. If it had, his priorities and his time table would have been quite different. Action against Japanese Americans would have started immediately after Pearl Harbor and would have centered on Hawaii which was in an actual military danger. Throughout 1942 Roosevelt expected an imminent invasion in Hawaii, not on the West Coast where most informed authorities considered an invasion considerably less probable. Similarly, the question of access to information is complex and delicate because of its politicized use.

The military on the West Coast justified its call for control of Japanese Americans by spreading demonstrably untrue stories of Japanese American signaling of Japanese submarines even while Navy Secretary Knox and the commission investigating the Pearl Harbor attack shifted responsibility for defense lapses in Hawaii by blaming Japanese spies without making clear that these were not local Issei or Nisei. In fact a pair of German agents named Kune and his wife were later convicted of spying for Japan. The President was even led to believe either by private sources or by newspaper accounts or his advisors that Japanese saboteurs who had been arrested on the West Coast had been discovered with serious contraband. The President's visitors and cabinet officers likewise repeated stories of Japanese Americans on the West Coast poisoning people's vegetables. This tide of misinformation no doubt contributed to FDR's belief that dramatic action had to be taken to curb Issei and Nisei subversives.

At the same time though, Roosevelt was willingly misled. Even before the war with Japan began, Roosevelt was closely informed on Japanese activities in Hawaii by the FBI and on the West Coast by Naval Intelligence. Actually a Naval Intelligence agent who was caught passing information about Japanese Americans to the Russians was convicted and his case was brought before the Supreme Court, so we know that there was plenty of information available on the real state of the Japanese community on the West Coast.

In addition as mentioned, Roosevelt had his own secret intelligence network headed by John Franklin Carter that reported on the loyalty of West Coast Japanese Americans. He chose not to accept the repeated findings of loyalty that all these people gave him. So if the President believed unsubstantiated reports about fifth column activities by Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, it was not simply from lack of hard information but also because he was prepared to believe the worst and did believe the worst about Japanese Americans.

So the question of bad counsel is a more substantial one. It's undoubtedly crucial in bringing out evacuation. The evidence reveals that even the opponents of removal failed to emphasize to the President that there was absolutely no truth in the hysterical stories about Issei and Nisei fifth columnists and that evacuation was anti-democratic, morally wrong and racist in its inspiration and support. Rather, they based their argument primarily on the premise that evacuation would lower morale and interrupt food production - which may have been a wise strategy with as pragmatic a man as Franklin Roosevelt but was not very forceful in its inspiration. They were also prepared to recommend arbitrary action against Japanese aliens so long as the Nisei, the Japanese American citizens, were not harmed. They thus confirmed the canard that there was something to fear and played into the hands of the extremists. But even a more central figure in giving bad counsel was Secretary of War Stimson. As a former Republican Secretary of War and Secretary of State who had come out of retirement to devote himself to the strenuous task of directing the war effort Stimson had enormous prestige. Roosevelt and Stimson had a long standing relationship of mutual respect and trust. So influential was Stimson that Attorney General Biddle later stated that, "If Stimson had stood firm, had insisted as he seemed to have suspected that this wholesale evacuation was wrong and needless, the President would have followed his advice."

Well, even assuming for a moment that this assessment is true I think that it ignores a larger reality. Stimson was indeed the most important advocate of evacuation yet he was himself torn over the idea as again Professor Simms has ably summarized for us. He had strong elitist prejudices against all racial minorities yet he was very aware of the racial discrimination inherent in mass removal of Japanese Americans. So it is thus equally likely that if Roosevelt had even questioned the necessity for mass removal, had studied it for a moment, Stimson would have abandoned the idea or encouraged McCloy to find some sort of compromise. Even as it was, the Army hesitated greatly before designing a full evacuation plan and considered, again, instituting hearings for those who had been removed and letting back those against whom no evidence could be found.

But I have to confess, I'm rather wary of Biddle's judgment here because he had an interest in favoring Roosevelt, his political patron, by laying blame on Stimson, and elsewhere in his memoirs he downgrades Stimson's influence where it serves his argument. For example, where he praises Roosevelt's order not to evacuate German and Italian aliens from the East Coast, Biddle says the President knew at once when mass evacuation simply would not do. He would have made the same decision irrespective of any recommendation of the Secretary of War. So then if Stimson was not responsible for Roosevelt's actions on the East Coast, he surely could not have alone been responsible for Roosevelt's actions on the West Coast.

So, we then come to political pressures. The political pressures on the President were enormous and must be assigned significant weight in explaining the final decision. In fact I must confess that I don't know if I - facing these kind of political pressures and dangers in 1942 - would have been able to withstand so easily the pressure for evacuation, although I sure as heck wouldn't have sentenced people to mass incarceration in deserts. There were political considerations in FDR's relationship with the War Department as Roger Daniels has pointed out. Stimson and McCloy were both prominent Republicans who helped assure bipartisan support for the war effort in Congress. Similarly there was strong political consensus for evacuation among West Coast congressmen and political officials. The Leland Ford Clarence which claimed to represent the entire West Coast congressional delegation even sent Roosevelt a plan for mass evacuation and people like California Governor Culbert Olsen and Attorney General Earl Warren - both recognized as liberals and moderates - supported mass evacuation and Roosevelt was aware from government sponsored polls and from the letters and lobbying he was receiving that a solid minority of Americans on the West Coast favored military control.

Archibald McLeish, the poet who was head of the Office of Facts and Figures, sent Roosevelt several polls indicating that the majority of Americans on the West Coast believed that the existing efforts were sufficient to contain Japanese Americans and the danger. In contrast, before Executive Order 9066 was signed there was only a handful of letters by liberals or religious groups opposing evacuation and in the weeks after even only a few prominent Americans such as the writer Pearl S. Buck, the black civil rights advocate W. E. B. Dubois, and the Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas publicly defended Japanese Americans. Even the Japanese community, itself divided and demoralized by the arrest of its community leaders after Pearl Harbor, failed to make a visible protest.

Now, without adopting Wharton Grodson's influential book often-questioned thesis that West Coast pressure groups were primarily responsible for the evacuation, I think that we can accept that public outcry was a crucial element in the President's decision. Biddle himself said that public opinion was on the military's side so that there was no question of any substantial opposition which might tend toward the disunity that at all costs the President must avoid. In the face of such pressure it [does not] require any great sense - let alone FDR's consummate political skills - to determine that some form of action against Japanese Americans would be prudent. Now, realize I'm not saying that FDR ordered evacuation simply out of political expediency but public support is the engine of democratic government, especially in war time, and Roosevelt needed to keep up the morale of people on the West Coast where the main ship building and port facilities for the defense of the Pacific were located and where there was a large amount of war industry as well as the lion's share of the nation's fresh produce. He was aware that racial tension and hysteria over the Japanese problem - so called - interfered with the production of food and essential goods and detracted from the fragile sense of national purpose after Pearl Harbor which was crucial to the success of the war effort.

So, what we can say is, actually in the circumstances it's perfectly plausible - and we don't have evidence either way - but it's perfectly plausible to believe that Roosevelt could have considered a large scale evacuation of Japanese Americans even without any evidence of disloyalty or guilt, a less costly maneuver than paralysis of society due to low morale or race riots, and have acted accordingly. After all, Canadian Prime Minister McKenzie King ascribed much of his decision to approve evacuation of Japanese Canadians to the fear that racial violence against Issei and Nisei in British Columbia would trigger mistreatment of POW's in Japanese hands. That said, while various apologists, most recently North Carolina Congressman Howard Kobol have excused evacuation as a means of defending Japanese Americans from mob violence. There is no evidence at all that such protection per se, was ever a consideration in the government planning.

Also, because - maybe because protective custody is such a repellant doctrine, constitutionally - something in me rebels against the thought that Roosevelt's entire policy revolved around appeasing West Coast politicians and preventing riots. Also, if FDR had ordered Japanese Americans relocated simply for, as he would have later called internal quiet, he would have had no reason not to let the Federal Security Agency handle resettlement on a case to case basis as he had when Biddle provided for the removal of Japanese aliens in the weeks before Executive Order 9066, and certainly he would have had no reason not to make some statement defending the loyalty of Japanese Americans as he failed to do during all of 1942.

So that brings us to the final element in the decision - Roosevelt's own training, background and personality. This is the hardest part to analyze. The psychological portrait of any individual let alone somebody so enigmatic and cagey as Franklin Roosevelt is a very difficult task. Also in relating a President's decision to previous events in his life, particularly his inner life, the historian must be wary of ignoring the specific circumstances of an action and overdetermining by extrapolation from past events. But what a historian can do, and what we can do is to look and see if there is a pattern, a fixed pattern in somebody's previous life that make them liable to behave in a certain way. I mean as the philosopher David Hume said, if you throw up a coin fifty times in the air it's not a guarantee that it will come down the fifty-first time but it's a good way to bet. So by this standard the President's past feelings toward Issei and Nisei must be considered to have significantly shaped his decision to evacuate. FDR had a long and unvaried history of viewing Japanese Americans in racialized terms as innately Japanese and of expressing hostility toward them on that basis - something I go into at great length in the book.

In the years before World War I, the youthful Roosevelt feared Japanese immigrants as part of a larger Japanese military threat to the West Coast of the United States. During the 1920s when Roosevelt urged better relations with Japan he nevertheless endorsed immigration restriction of Japanese and legal discrimination against Japanese immigrants because he claimed that such measures helped preserve racial purity against inter-marriage - his words. In the years before the war FDR told friends all Japanese had aggression in their blood and he personally ordered surveillance of Japanese Americans and the preparation of plans to put all those suspected of contact with Japanese, in Hawaii and concentration camps once war with Japan started. He also okayed discrimination against Nisei in defense areas in Hawaii on the assumption that they could not be trusted. In the months before Pearl Harbor, again Roosevelt enlisted his intelligence network to report to him on the loyalty of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and in Hawaii and even after being reassured that no significant threat existed, he increased his efforts to identify and control saboteurs.

Throughout the period of evacuation Roosevelt retained and even expanded his belief in innate racial character, even though by then such ideas had been discredited by the anthropological writings of Franz Boaz and his students. During 1942 for example, Roosevelt maintained an extended correspondence with Dr. Alice Hurdlika, the Chief Anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Hurdlika who was himself an immigrant was an expert on skulls so Hurdlika and Roosevelt had a very interesting correspondence on the skulls of the Japanese and they agreed that the reason that the Japanese race were also innately war-like and evil was that Japanese skulls were less developed evolutionarily than other skulls and Roosevelt pondered various means of interbreeding to make the Japanese less of a problem. FDR's attitude toward the Japanese as a race was also reflected in his private conversation.

As his assistant Bill Hasset recounted in August 1942 - and here I'm quoting - "The President related an old Chinese myth about the origin of the Japanese. A wayward daughter of an ancient Chinese emperor left her native land in Asampan and finally reached the islands of Japan then inhabited by baboons. The inevitable happened and in due course the first Japanese made their appearance." These words and actions all point to Roosevelt's acceptance after Pearl Harbor of the idea that Japanese Americans, whether they were citizens or long-time residents, were in reality Japanese, on a racial basis and thus presumptively disloyal on racial grounds, even without any evidence of sabotage or wrong doing.

There might well be loyal individuals. I'm not saying that Roosevelt hated all Japanese. I mean he was perfectly prepared to make exceptions for Japanese Americans of demonstrated loyalty once properly vouched for, but in the absence of evidence of loyalty, and sometimes in the presence of, the presumption remained. When John Franklin Carter's fictionalized character of Roosevelt is asked about the feelings of Japanese Americans who were deported he said, "Because they had slant eyes and yellow skins," Roosevelt simply remarks coolly, "their patriotism was suspect."

Roosevelt's race-based hostility toward Japanese Americans also provides a partial framework for understanding his casual attitude toward the constitutional questions in his decision to approve evacuation. Now as Professor Simms quoted Attorney General Biddle - no wartime president cares too much about the constitution - and admittedly it would have required enormous faith in the constitutional rights of all citizens to have over-ridden the clamor for action against Japanese Americans. However, FDR gave very little evidence in any constitutional scruples. In his view, buttressed by Biddle, the President had authority, under his war time power, to take whatever action he deemed necessary to the defense of the country.

In February 26, 1942, a week after signing Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt wrote to Knox approving mass evacuation in Hawaii. He said, "I do not worry about the constitutional question first because of my recent order - that is Executive Order 9066 - and second because Hawaii is under martial law." So if the government could declare martial law in Hawaii, it could clearly take less extreme steps on the West Coast to make less disruptive measures to solve the situation. Certainly Roosevelt was not troubled by the violation of the Japanese Americans' civil rights. Biddle later related in fact, that FDR was actually hostile to the entire concept of civil rights. Quote, "In anything he was a little afraid they might be too soft in nurturing rights. He disliked any theoretic approach and the word rights conveyed to him something that was visionary and impractical and had none of the urgency of the tasks ahead."

So as Biddle's comments suggest perhaps the most decisive impact of Roosevelt's feelings about Japanese Americans on his decision to approve evacuation was in fostering indifference, I would say. You know, he may have been pressured and he may have been badly advised and he may have been in a difficult situation but the President was not uninformed. He was not ignorant about the Japanese problem. However, in the final analysis he didn't care enough about Japanese Americans to become deeply involved in the question, especially if it meant opposing the military advisors who were close to him and West Coast public opinion.

Already during the 1920s Roosevelt had refused to acknowledge discriminatory intent by Californians in the race based exclusion of Japanese immigrants and the discrimination against them. His willingness to pander to popular prejudice against Japanese Americans in a time of peace logically anticipates his refusal to defend their citizenship rights in the face of a popular war time hysteria for their incarceration. The famed historian James McGregor Burns - a great admirer of Roosevelt - has argued because that there was no compelling moral opposition to internment so Roosevelt was not faced with the compelling choice or alternative but was instead confronted with a War Department memo designed, quote, "Simply to put the onus of decision on him, one which he refused to accept."

This is an inventive defense worthy of a fine defendant of FDR but even such an admirer of Franklin Roosevelt as myself would have to say that it's not very valid. A President's task is to make ultimate decisions and to be responsible for them and it is his task to seek the information that will enable him to make those decisions. Unlike various of his advisors, Roosevelt endorsed evacuation without making any effort to determine what the necessity was or whether a less extreme policy could be designed. Unlike various of his advisors, Roosevelt was unwilling or unable to imagine any real alternative to the policy. As long as the Army promised to be reasonable in eliminating the Japanese American menace, FDR was prepared to sign orders to give them a free hand. Moreover, the President's attitude toward the consequences involved was shockingly casual. Unlike Stimson who was tortured by doubts over the morality and constitutionality of making racial distinctions and removing American citizens, the President displayed no worry or hesitation over such questions and he was similarly indifferent to the practical considerations of the policy.

To be sure, none of the Army and government officials involved seemed to have foreseen that removal would inevitably lead to mass incarceration but Stimson himself complained a week after Executive Order 9066 that at a cabinet meeting Roosevelt had . . . "given very little attention to the principal task of the transportation and resettlement of the evacuees. In particular FDR failed to respond decisively to repeated requests from his advisors both before and after Executive Order 9066 was signed to appoint a powerful alien property custodian to guard the property of those removed, with the result that the evacuees lost millions of dollars of property through theft or through fire sales or vandalism."

So, in the end, Roosevelt's failure was primarily one of compassion or more precisely of empathy. As James McGregor Burns himself conceded, FDR either did not consider the consequences of his order for Japanese Americans or he simply wrote them off as part of the price of winning the war.

Funding provided in part by the generous support of WETA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.