- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Gregg Robinson
Harvard University Press, $27.95,322 pages

About the removal of Japanese from the West Coast after Pearl Harbor most of us must know the story in general outline. It was a colossal snafu from conception to implementation, to dismantling. Gregg Robinson, a professor of history at George Mason University tells the story meticulously, and perhaps definitively, with central focus on President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed Executive Order 9066, which called for the expulsion and provided its legal basis. In "By Order of the President: FDR and the internment of the Japanese Americans," Mr. Robinson raises troubling questions about the president's strange indifference to the ethical problems involved and to his executive indifference to their chaotic implementation.
FDR's reputation remains towering, but it is not harsh to judge his performance here to have been disgraceful. First, however, Mr. Robinson outlines the history that led with seeming inevitability to December 7, 1941. All of this bears on Executive Order 9066.
For the first time, an Asian nation defeated a European one in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 which began, rather prophetically, with a Japanese surprise attack on the Russian Asiatic fleet. All of a sudden, Japan became an emerging world power. Attempts were made to limit Japan's naval expansion relative to Britain and the United States to 5-5-3 in major warships Britain and the United States being the 5s but Japan soon demanded equality and speeded up its shipyards.
During the summer of 1913, California passed the Alien Land Act, excluding Japanese immigrants from land ownership. Japan was deeply offended, even though it had very tough restrictions on immigration and land ownership. There was actually a war scare during the summer of 1913 and talk here of sending an American squadron to the Pacific. At the time, academic theories about racial identity and racial superiority became popular in Europe and America. In "The Great Gatsby" (1925), the doltish Tom Buchanan worries mightily over a book called "The Rise of the Colored Empires," a theme that was much in circulation, along with the work of Oswald Spengler and his followers. In 1920, California enacted new and more restrictive land laws.
Throughout his life, Franklin Roosevelt believed that Japanese were irremediably foreign and alien to American life, and completely unassimilable. Instructed by the work of the important strategist Adm. George Mahan, he also considered sea power the foundation of America's strategic fate. As undersecretary of the navy in Woodrow Wilson's administration, he was concerned about the growing reach of the Japanese fleet.
Roosevelt became president in 1933. Shortly before that, the Japanese seized the city of Muckden in the Chinese province of Manchuria, and proceeded to conquer the province, setting up a puppet government. According to Mr. Robinson, "the Japanese attack on Manchuria seems to have been decisive in turning Roosevelt away from conciliation with Japan." Manchuria was only the beginning.
In July 1937, Japanese forces crossed the Marco Polo Bridge and began a full-scale invasion of China, rapidly consolidating the eastern and most fertile part, plus most major cities. Roosevelt was outraged at this aggression, more so at repeated Japanese atrocities, notably the murder of 300,000 civilians in Nanking.
On this FDR was in tune with American public opinion. Hostility toward Japan extended far beyond prejudice and land laws in California. (As a child I learned about the Nanking massacre from lurid picture cards distributed with bubble gum. I also saw popular movies with titles like "The Beast of the East," and "Behind the Rising Sun." These were full of interesting tortures.)
Endless negotiations with Japanese representatives in Washington over Japan's imperial ambitions in China got nowhere. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, FDR was asked in private conversation if and when war was coming. He answered, yes. In about 10 days, maybe 15. Japan's reach had wildly exceeded its grasp. In World War II, 85 percent of the U.S. war budget went to the European theater. Only 15 percent went to the Pacific war, but that was enough to bring Japan almost to its knees in the summer of 1945. But, and this bears on Mr. Robinson's exposition, victory certainly did not feel inevitable in early 1942. The national mood was an important factor in making the Japanese internments possible.
Mr. Robinson stresses mostly domestic reasons for the relocations and internments: the greed of white agricultural and other interests, racial feeling and nativism, political pandering by California politicians (including Earl Warren). I have to add, from childhood memory, the American fury that built up during the 1930s, the friendly feeling toward China, and emotions that became almost apocalyptic on December 7.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had FDR's complete confidence, told Roosevelt that there was no threat of espionage or sabotage from California Japanese. Others agreed with Hoover.
The Army, and popular feeling, wanted them out of the state. There was the further factor that Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada had ordered them removed from the western province of British Columbia. Mr Robinson shows convincingly that the president signed the executive order without much, or any, serious reflection.
As Mr. Robinson demonstrates with careful examination of records, memos and diaries, FDR okayed the expulsion and detention and simply took the Army's word for it that these people should be in the camps. The Army, as a result, hurried 119,000 people into detention centers (athletic fields, etc.) and then to hastily built camps for semi-permanent residence. None had ever been charged. There was no evidence that they were any threat at all.
Once in bare-bones barracks and surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, the internees were of course nonplussed and morale crumbled. Many lost their homes, their farms, their businesses, either seized or bought at bargain rates. The Roosevelt administration failed to establish any viable system for protecting their property. Total chaos.
What strikes one in Mr. Robinson's account is FDR's chilly unconcern. His lack of reflectiveness. His indifference. To him, the sad people in the compounds certainly were not real Americans. The war kept him busy. Let them sit. The Army wanted them out of coastal areas, so take them out.
This book underscores the observation that Roosevelt could be very cheerful personally, though in a somewhat glassy and impersonal way, according to his relative Joseph Alsop. But he could also be ice cold and egotistical, traits that seemed to come to the fore after his crippling polio. From the evidence here, I don't think he felt the plight of the internees were much or at all worth his consideration. He was very much a man of his class, place and time. He was a Hudson River Valley aristocrat out of Groton and Harvard.
Mr. Robinson recounts an almost unbelievable anecdote. Two of FDR's top aides, Henry Morgenthau and Leo Crowley had failed to resolve some policy dispute. The president called them together, and advised them that the United States is a Protestant country. Catholics and Jews are here by sufferance. He expected them, as members of minority and marginal groups, a Catholic and a Jew, to get together and resolve the problem. The wealthy and socially connected Morgenthau, secretary of the Treasury, became almost speechless.
In recently released transcripts, FDR is heard to refer to "the kikes up in New York." People who grew up with him talked like that. He cared zero for blacks' civil rights, and regarded their complaints as an annoyance. His Democratic "solid" Southern vote, a pillar of his presidency, was solidly white. The Japanese internees had about as much chance of engaging his serious attention as a minnow does a whale. He had a war to win.
There is much in Mr. Robinson's fine book about "racisim" or, as it used to be called, "ethnocentrism." In these pages, whites are considered to be especially guilty of racism.
It seems that the human race is comprehensively ethnocentric, but often tries to discipline itself through decency and good manners. In the case of the detainees, FDR lost that thread, though never publicly or demagogically.

Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide