By Order of the Presidentby Greg ROBINSON
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On February 19, 1942, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a fateful order that allowed for the summary removal of Japanese aliens and American citizens of Japanese descent from their West Coast homes and their incarceration under guard in camps. Amid the numerous histories and memoirs devoted to this shameful event, FDR's contributions have been seen as negligible. Now, using Roosevelt's own writings, his advisors' letters and diaries, and internal government documents, Greg Robinson reveals the president's central role in making and implementing the internment and examines not only what the president did but why.
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A RACIAL FEAR EMERGES
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT grew to adulthood at the end of the nineteenth century, a period marked by the emergence of Japan as a serious power on the international stage. In the decades that followed the "opening" of Japan by a fleet of American gunboats in 1853, the Japanese undertook a drastic program of social and technological reform. Japanese leaders sought at all costs to protect the nation's independence and avoid the colonization or quasi-colonization to which most other Asian countries had been subjected. Within fifty years, Japan had developed a modern bureaucracy and navy, defeated China in two short wars, begun to compete with European nations for trade, and claimed special interests in China and Korea. In 1904-05, Japan defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, becoming the premier military force in East Asia.
led to tension with the established powers. Although the European nations admired the Japanese for their achievement in forging a new society, they were reluctant to grant the upstart nation an equal place, especially as Japan's status as an Asian nation challenged their notions of white racial superiority. Japanese sensitivity to discrimination compounded the problem. Having struggled valiantly to industrialize and "catch up" with the West, many Japanese considered racial prejudice and unequal treatment of Japanese nationals an unbearable affront to the honor of the nation.
States. At first, most Americans sympathized with Japan. Not only had the United States "opened" Japan, but in their own drive for empire during the late 1890s, Americans had also been forced to struggle for acceptance by the Europeans. However, as Japan rose to power, U.S. leaders began to focus on Japanese expansionism as a potential threat to national security.
Japanese, which triggered a host of negative images and reactions in the American psyche. Generations of settlers from Europe had transplanted into the culture of their new country a traditional European "orientalist" view of Asia as an exotic, backward, and barbaric land. In addition, the migration of a sizable population of Chinese laborers to the western United States during the third quarter of the nineteenth century had stimulated a backlash of resentment by white laborers and nativists. In order to justify their calls for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, these groups helped manufacture and disseminate a series of racist stereotypes of Asians as treacherous, servile, and uncivilized. In 1882, the year Franklin Roosevelt was born, Congress obliged nativists by passing the first of several Chinese Exclusion Acts. In addition, by the turn of the century "scientific racism" had become a dominant force in American thought. Adapting and distorting the work of Charles Darwin and his followers, some social scientists asserted that human life was governed by the evolutionary competition for resources between opposing "races" and that therefore the Japanese were innately hostile to people of European descent. Prominent Americans, drawing on elements from all these sources, warned that Japanese expansionism represented a "yellow peril," an Asian challenge to "Anglo-Saxon" and Christian civilization.
Asian civilization from his earliest days. Roosevelt's fascination with Asia was nourished by numerous family connections. His maternal grandfather, Warren Delano, was involved in the China trade (in which he made, lost, and remade a fortune) and lived for ten years in Canton (now Guanzhou). Roosevelt's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, often recounted to her son vivid stories of the girlhood trip she had made with her father to the Far East in the mid-1860s. The Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, where FDR grew up, was full of vases and artifacts that his grandfather Delano had brought back from China, including a large temple bell which dominated the front room. Because of his family background, Roosevelt in later years referred to himself as an "old China hand" (although he never visited China or studied Chinese culture in any formal way), and he spoke frequently, if sometimes paternalistical1y, of his attachment to China.
of both sides of Roosevelt's family had traded with or visited Japan, and the Hyde Park estate contained Japanese porcelains and other cultural artifacts. Warren Delano had been part-owner of the boat that brought over Manjiro Nakahama, the first reported Japanese to settle in the United States, in 1843. In 1934 Roosevelt proudly wrote Nakahama's son that he remembered his own grandfather's stories of the elder Nakahama as the Japanese boy who lived across the street from the Delano house in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, and often went to church with the Delano family
1902, during his college years at Harvard University, Roosevelt met and grew close to Otohiko Matsukata, the son of a distinguished Japanese mercantile and political family, through Matsukata's friendship with Roosevelt's cousin Lyman Delano and his family and through Matsukata and Roosevelt's common membership in Harvard's Delphic Club (where they each gained a reputation for generously providing liquor). Roosevelt also became friendly with Ryozo Asano, a friend of Matsukata who was a Harvard classmate and friend of FDR's brother-in-law G. Hall Roosevelt. In 1911 Asano and Hall stayed with FDR and his family at their summer home at Campobello, New Brunswick. In 1915, during his tenure as assistant secretary of the navy under President Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt became friendly with Captain (later Admiral) Kichisaburo Nomura, the Japanese naval attaché in Washington. In addition to their professional relationship, he and Nomura met socially on several occasions over the following two years, and Nomura also became acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt (possibly at a dinner which the Roosevelts attended at the Japanese Embassy in November 1915).
1919 Matsukata wrote asking FDR to assist one of Matsukata's colleagues in lobbying the Wilson administration to approve the laying of a new trans-Pacific wireless cable. The following year, he sent a telegram congratulating FDR on his nomination for the vice presidency. Matsukata and Asano again renewed their contacts with Roosevelt after he entered the White House in 1933, and he conferred privately with each of them in order to keep himself informed on the state of Japanese liberal opinion. Meanwhile, Roosevelt and Nomura kept up their relationship through correspondence. In 1937 Roosevelt wrote Nomura, "As I have often told you, I hope the day will come when I can visit Japan. I have much interest in the great accomplishments of the Japanese people and I should much like to see many of my Japanese friends again."
share popular racist views of Asians as innately menacing or uncivilized. Still, despite his friendships with Japanese and his genuine interest in Japanese culture, Roosevelt adopted an increasingly wary position toward Japanese power during the first decade of the twentieth century. This shift has often been interpreted as a by-product of FDR's Chinese chauvinism. He favored China over Japan whenever the two countries were comparedin a letter he wrote in 1898, he told his parents that a Groton lecturer on China "ran down the poor Chinaman a little too much and thought too much of the Japs." In 1923 he admitted that the pro-Chinese attitude of many Americans, among whom he clearly included himself, made it difficult for them to see the Japanese point of view.
China in his foreign policy. A more important cause of Roosevelt's shift was his evolving perception of Japan as a potential military and economic rival of the United States, a view catalyzed by his reading of the works of Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. In his seminal books The Influence of Sea Power on History (1890) and In the Interest of America in Sea Power, Past and Present (1897), Mahan had promulgated the thesis that a nation's greatness was directly dependent on its control of the seas, and he strongly urged the United States to live up to its potential greatness by augmenting its naval strength and joining other nations to preserve a stable world order. Mahan's books and articles were enormously influential. In the United States, they were largely responsible for reviving the navy, which had shrunk significantly in size and power after the Civil War. Under the leadership of Mahan's disciple President Theodore Roosevelt, the American navy attained an unprecedented level of technical and strategic capability. On the international level, Mahan inspired several other countriesnotably Japanto concentrate on naval strength as a source of national prestige and political power.
at the age of eleven, and he reread it repeatedly, to the point where, as Sara Delano Roosevelt later recalled, he had practically memorized it. He received a copy of Mahan's Interest of America in Sea Power at Christmas 1897 and quickly absorbed it as well. The following spring, he cited Mahan in his first surviving public "speech," a Groton debate in which he was assigned to oppose the annexation of Hawaii. Roosevelt continued to rely on The Influence of Sea Power on History in later years. In 1922-23, he several times spoke of his plans to draft and publish an updated edition of the work.
naval power in international relations, FDR grew concerned that the Japanese naval buildup might presage expansionist ambitions in the Pacific. Many years later, in 1934, Roosevelt would recount a conversation he had had in 1902 with a Harvard classmate, a "Japanese boy of Samurai class" (obviously Otohiko Matsukata, who had an aristocratic background and was the only Japanese student then at Harvard). This "boy" told him of the existence of a secret Japanese fifty-year plan to establish complete dominance over East Asia and the Western Pacific through a naval buildup, war with an Asian and a European power, and then a takeover of Manchuria, China, and the Philippines. Whatever was in fact said during the conversation, the young Roosevelt clearly took away from it the conviction that Japan's desire for naval power was not designed simply to protect against encroachment by the Western powers.
after Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. When Japan first became embroiled in a war with Russia, virtually no one believed that the small island nation could defeat a major European power with an imposing army and fleet. Many Americans felt great sympathy for the Japanese "underdogs" confronting the Russian empire; they included Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote her fiancé Franklin: "Everyone is talking war madly at present, and the Japanese certainly seem to have made a good beginning. I do hope they will win for I suppose that their defeat might bring about an international war. Besides they are, from a distance at least, such a plucky and attractive little people, don't you think?"
their honeymoon cruise to Europe, Japan was close to victory. FDR showed his budding political and strategic interests during the voyage by befriending a group of six Japanese naval officers en route to England, from whom he sought information on Japan's strengths and motives. He wrote to his mother from the ship, "I have had several interesting talks with [the Japanese] though their English is not voluble, and I find myself giving out more information than I receive." Eleanor added in her own letter to Sara that Franklin had spent a great deal of time "trying to talk to the Japs."
support to the Japanese cause, grew concerned that the total defeat of Russia would destroy the balance of power in Asia. He thus offered to act as a mediator between Russia and Japan, and he succeeded in brokering the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the war without crippling Russia's strength in the Far East. "It's nice news, isn't it?" Eleanor and Franklin wrote to Sara from England when the news of the treaty reached them. "We had really begun to think it would not be and Uncle Ted must be gratified to have done so much toward it."
Eleanor later recalled that he was more interested in the unexpected efficiency of the Japanese navy and in the implications of the Treaty of Portsmouth on the naval balance of power, particularly its provisions granting Japan de facto control of southern Manchuria and awarding the Japanese new naval bases in Asia. Like Mahan, who had written a series of articles on the war for Collier's Weekly and the National Review, he now considered Japan to be America's chief rival in the Pacific.
the New York State Senate. Although no record remains of his views about Japan during this period, FDR evidently remained heavily influenced by the personality and ideas of his cousin and hero President Theodore Roosevelt. The young FDR admired TR so greatly that he cast his first vote for President for him in 1904, despite the Democratic voting tradition of the Hyde Park branch of the Roosevelt family, and he attended the inauguration in March 1905. The young Roosevelt also enthusiastically supported TR's imperialist foreign policy, including his subjection of the Philippine independence movement. It is therefore important to examine the evolution of TR's own policy toward Japan.
esteemed Japan. The Japanese "character," with its military spirit and emphasis on honor, epitomized his vision of national greatness. TR was so impressed by Bushido: The Soul of a Nation, Inazo Nitobe's 1905 book on Japan's warrior code, that he ordered sixty copies for friends, and he tried to persuade Americans to take up judo as a popular sport. He sympathized with Japanese resentment over unfair treatment by Europeans. However, despite his affection for the Japanese, TR considered Japan a potential rival for world power. In 1905 he told a friend, "What a wonderful people the Japanese are! They are quite as remarkable industrially as in warfare. In a dozen years the English, Americans and Germans, who now dread one another as rivals in the trade of the Pacific, will have each to dread the Japanese more than they do any other nation."
the Japanese threat, TR sought to build up a strong naval fleet in the years after 1905. In 1907, in a gesture meant to demonstrate America's strength in the Pacific, the President sent the navy's "Great White Fleet" on an around-the-world cruise, including a stop in Japan. In the meantime, TR sought to placate Japan and avoid war in order to give the navy a chance to complete its building program. He negotiated the Taft-Katsura Agreement of 1905 and the Root-Takeshira Convention of 1908, in which both countries pledged to maintain the status quo in Asia and the Pacific. TR likewise encouraged the Japanese to establish a protectorate over Korea and to increase their trade with China. He believed that these actions not only would distract Japan from challenging American interests in the Pacific but also would exert a civilizing influence on the backward Koreans and Chinese, just as U.S. occupation acted as a "civilizing" force in the Philippines.
undermined by domestic events, in the form of controversy over Japanese immigrants in the United States. As Japan industrialized during the last third of the nineteenth century, many impoverished farmers and factory workers sought to improve their prospects by emigrating to Hawaii and the United States, as well as to Canada, Brazil, Peru, and other nations. By the early 1900s, some 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry lived in Hawaii, more than any other ethnic group, and Japanese workers dominated the islands' plantation labor force. Meanwhile, another 150,000 Japanese had settled on the U.S. mainland, mainly on the West Coast. The immigrants were initially welcomed for their willingness to work long hours for little money However, as the number of immigrants increased and as the Japanese farm workers began to use the savings they had accumulated to buy land of their own, self-interest, greed, and bigotry fanned the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment among white commercial, labor union, and nativist groups. Mobilizing the same hostile stereotypes that they had employed a generation before against the Chinese (whose exclusion had created the very demand for agricultural workers that the Japanese had originally filled), anti-immigrant agitators conjured up racist images of the Japanese as menacing and immoral. Nativist forces also drew on the "yellow peril" anxieties aroused by Japan's new power in the Western Pacific by claiming that the immigrants had been sent to the West Coast to prepare the way for a future Japanese military conquest. Ignoring the fact that Japanese farmers owned barely 10,000 of California's 500,000,000 acres of farmland, white agitators charged that the Japanese were seizing control of the state's food supply.
passed an official resolution calling for the legal exclusion of Japanese immigrants. A year later, in October 1906, San Francisco's school board (encouraged by the labor-friendly San Francisco Chronicle as well as by Mayor Eugene Schmitz and local political leaders) issued an order providing that children of the Japanese "race" would henceforth be required to attend the separate Asian schools to which children of Chinese ancestry had already been relegated. The board's avowed purpose for this action was to reduce Japanese immigration.
Americans. However, it aroused immediate and impassioned protest from the Japanese government, which followed the treatment of its overseas nationals with intense interest. In the eyes of many Japanese, discrimination against Japanese people anywhere was not only an insult to their human dignity but an intolerable reminder of the days of unequal treaties and Western domination. Such an assault on the nation's honor could be avenged only by war against the perpetrator.
Despite his concerns over war, the President was sympathetic to the idea of restricting Japanese immigration. Like most educated Americans of the period, TR's views on society were heavily marked by the work of Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and other Social Darwinists, who had adapted Charles Darwin's biological theories of evolution and natural selection to the study of human society. According to these so-called Social Darwinists, humanity was divided into different races, which were made up of groups of people living in separate environments. Over multiple generations, these races evolved specific biological characteristics which promoted survival in that environment. Each member of such a race inherited these physical and character traits from birth and passed them on to their children. Unlike the majority of Social Darwinists, who used the Darwinian principle of "survival of the fittest" to justify notions of white supremacy, TR considered the Japanese substantially equal to whites in their level of civilization, and he in fact believed that Japan had much to teach the West. Nevertheless, he shared the Darwinists' view that the Japanese were fundamentally different according to what he termed "the great fact of race." That is, over the generations that the Japanese "race" had remained isolated from the West, the Japanese people had developed personality traits that were distinct from those of whites.
when it was a matter of interaction between small numbers of educated people, but that large-scale immigration of Japanese was not possible because the two populations could not be merged. Ordinary Americans naturally felt hostility and resentment when forced into contact with large numbers of people whose essential nature diverged so strongly from their own, and the Japanese could not undo in a few generations the biological conditioning they had acquired over countless centuries. TR likewise opposed immigration because it would likely lead to intermarriage, which he wished to avert at all costs. According to Social Darwinist theory, social cohesion within a "race" grew out of its members' shared biological characteristics. Intermarriage between different races led to the birth of "hybrids"children who possessed no clear and unified set of racial characteristics and who thus remained without any social identity. TR warned that "it is not only undesirable but impossible that there should be racial intermingling and the result is sure to bring disaster."
by his distress over the San Francisco school board's segregation policy. TR was offended by the naked racial bigotry of Californians, and he privately fumed that the board had enacted a provocative policy without considering the injury it would inflict on the national pride of the Japanese. If the policy was not halted, the President warned his advisors, it might well draw Japan into declaring war on the United States, which was unprepared for such a conflict. The President's fears were shared by his longtime friend Admiral Mahan. Mahan wrote TR that he took the possibility of war seriously, although he believed that war was ultimately worth risking to restrict Japanese immigration. Mahan warned the President that the Japanese had caught the Russian fleet while it was divided and had crushed each part in turn. The U.S. Navy should remain massed in case of attack by Japan, so that the same thing would not happen to them.
Excerpted from BY ORDER OF THE PRESIDENT by GREG ROBINSON. Copyright © 2001 by Greg Robinson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., author of A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917 - 1950
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Greg Robinson is Assistant Professor of History, Université du Québec à Montréal.
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