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Book Review: By Order of the President

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By Order of the President by Greg Robinson (Harvard University Press, 2001); 322 pages; $27.95.

If you go to the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., you will see numerous statues, including one depicting men standing in a bread line. But you won’t see any statue showing Americans of Japanese ancestry staring out from behind barbed wire in one of the “internment camps” where they were imprisoned during World War II under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.

The memorial gives us a sanitized version of FDR: no cigarettes, and no mention of one of the most egregious violations of the rights of American citizens in our history. The fact that the rights of so many Americans could be destroyed with a presidential signature is inconvenient history for the idolators of Roosevelt and the imperial executive that he left us. It might just remind people that Jefferson was right in saying, “A government big enough to give us everything we want is big enough to take away everything we’ve got.” Better to just sweep it under the rug.

History professor Greg Robinson of the University of Quebec is determined to bring the Japanese internment case back into the open. His By Order of the President is a brilliant reexamination of the circumstances surrounding Roosevelt’s infamous order of February 19, 1942. Where his book particularly shines is its probing of Roosevelt’s mind. What did the president think about the Japanese and Japanese-Americans? What information did he have about the alleged disloyalty of the latter? What political influences entered into his calculations? The book that emerges from his careful research is one that shows FDR to be anything but a paragon of virtue and sharply underscores the fragility of our rights.

Robinson writes that Roosevelt “deplored open prejudice” but, above all, he was a practical politician who needed to play to public opinion. Defeated as the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1920, he kept himself in the public eye, and his pronouncements on the wave of nativist jingoism that swept the country were crafted with a view toward appealing to those sentiments while offending as few voters as possible.

While Roosevelt did not support an end to immigration, for instance, Robinson writes that he hailed the addition of new European “blood of the right sort.” Furthermore, Roosevelt favored a policy of dispersing immigrants rather than allowing them to settle together in cities, which would supposedly “eliminate racial prejudice by eradicating the immigrants’ cultural difference and enabling them to adopt American manners and customs,” the author writes.

With regard to immigrants from the Orient, Roosevelt held to a view that, to use an overworked word accurately, was racist. According to Robinson, “FDR’s underlying assumption was that intermarriage was dangerous because it would break down the unified racial character on which social cohesion and culture of a nation depended.” He favored banning land purchases by Japanese immigrants on the ground that doing so would help to safeguard against a “mingling of the blood.” Moreover, and crucial to his later actions, Roosevelt thought that people of Japanese ancestry were “innately Japanese” and would remain loyal to their ancestral land no matter where they were born and raised, and no matter how “Americanized” they might seem.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the pressure on Roosevelt to do something about the suspicious-looking “foreigners” rapidly increased in its intensity. The military feared sabotage and fifth-column activities and put out inflammatory reports that were based on conjecture and even fabricated stories of clandestine cooperation between Japanese-Americans and ships of the Japanese Navy. Secretary of War Henry Stimson and others in the cabinet agitated for a policy of removal of all Japanese from locations near military installations. Soon that demand escalated to removal from the West Coast entirely.

Another source of pressure on FDR came from California politicians whose constituents had just discovered a perfect way of eliminating competitors. Robinson writes,

“Greed and economic rivalry played a significant part in the anti-Japanese movement. To white farmers in California, organized into groups such as the Western Growers Protective Association, the Grower Shipper Vegetable Association, and the White American Nurserymen of Los Angeles, the war emergency offered an opportunity to ‘kick the Japs out,’ rid the area of their hardworking competitors, and take over the fertile Japanese-operated lands.”

Radio broadcasters did their part by proclaiming that there was a Japanese plot to poison the produce they sent to market. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt declared, but he never did anything to allay the panic that those interest groups and their political allies were spreading.

FDR did receive information and counsel going in the opposite direction. The FBI had done a careful study on actions of the Japanese in Hawaii and concluded that there was no evidence of disloyalty or plots to aid the Japanese forces. Attorney General Francis Biddle argued against internment on moral and constitutional grounds.

But the groundswell of anti-Japanese feeling was too much to ignore, let alone fight against. Roosevelt decided in favor of ordering the internment of Japanese-Americans in areas far removed from the Pacific. (Robinson notes that the order, strangely, did not pertain to Hawaii, where one would have thought the likelihood of collaboration with the Japanese military would have been greatest.)

Executive Order 9066 authorized the secretary of war and military commanders he designated to prescribe military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions” they might decide were warranted. The text did not specifically mention Japanese-Americans or the West Coast, but everyone knew that the order was designed to allow the military to round up Japanese-Americans and imprison them somewhere inland. Robinson comments scathingly,

“The order’s bland language concealed an unprecedented assertion of executive power. Under its provisions, the President imposed military rule on civilians without a declaration of martial law, and he sentenced a segment of the population to internal exile (and ultimately forced incarceration) under armed guard, notwithstanding that the writ of habeas corpus had not been suspended by Congress (to whom such power was reserved by the Constitution). More importantly, Executive Order 9066 was unprecedented in the extent of its racially defined infringement of the basic rights of American citizens.”

As the war against Japan turned in favor of the United States in 1944, the military declared that the West Coast was no longer “endangered” by the presence of Japanese-Americans and several of Roosevelt’s advisors pressed him to end the internment. Significantly, Secretary of War Stimson had become convinced that his earlier support for the policy was based on false information and hysteria. He argued that the internment should be terminated. Nevertheless, FDR remained unmoved. Ending the internment with the war still raging would have been politically troublesome for the president and his party. “Concerned with election-year politics,” Robinson writes, “FDR eventually ordered all action on ending exclusion from the West Coast halted until after the November election. Meanwhile, as the internees remained confined, Roosevelt explored various politically palatable alternatives to opening the West Coast” (emphasis added).

The administration even went so far as to perpetrate a fraud upon the U.S. Supreme Court. A young man, Fred Korematsu, had been arrested and convicted for disobeying the order for all Japanese-Americans to report for deportation in 1942. In 1944 his case would be heard by the Supreme Court. Lawyers in the Justice Department received a report stating that there had in fact been no evidence of communications between Japanese-Americans and ships of the Japanese navy, contrary to assertions in the army’s report which was being cited as the justification for the government’s action. The lawyers were told by Solicitor General Charles Fahy to present “the best possible case,” and the damning information was buried in a footnote. The Court subsequently ruled that the internment was legal.

By Order of the President deals a devastating blow to the myth of FDR as the great humanitarian. Robinson makes it clear that the internment order and the handling of the Japanese-Americans and their property was a part of the great political game at which Roosevelt excelled. The tragic consequences for 110,000 people didn’t matter.

More important, the book should compel Americans to think about the ease with which our rights can be extinguished. Clinton advisor Paul Begala once remarked, apropos of one of Clinton’s many executive orders, “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kind of cool.” But those strokes of the pen often bring about the loss of life, liberty, or property for citizens. Robinson’s excellent book deals with an egregious example of a president willing to exert unrestrained power over innocent people just because it was “good politics” to do so. That power, we should be mindful, still exists.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.