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A Review Of By Order Of The President:fdr And The Internment Of Japanese Americans


Thursday, Oct. 11, 2001

Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press 2001)

By Order of the President

is a fascinating and powerful examination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s involvement in (and responsibility for) the military orders that led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Lucidly organized, well written, fair minded, and extensively researched, Greg Robinson’s work was a pleasure to read — though certainly a very somber pleasure. I recommend it highly.

"The Most Tragic Act of His Administration"

Robinson asks a trenchant question: How could a President esteemed for his humanity and celebrated for his progressive policies have participated in, and, indeed, sponsored, such a clearly invidious policy directed at American citizens? (Some of the internees were still citizens of Japan, but the majority were American citizens by virtue of birth in the United States.)

While clearly an admirer of FDR’s, and sympathetic to the enormous difficulties faced by a president in the midst of a world war, Robinson presents no apology for FDR’s actions. He recognizes the internment as one of the great stains on the record of one of our most popular presidents, labeling it "the most tragic act of [FDR’s] administration," and he does little to spare FDR from responsibility for that stain.

By the time Robinson is finished reviewing the evidence, it is clear that FDR not only was aware of the policy, but was a primary moving factor in its institution and development. It is also clear that FDR knew that the policy was of dubious military value, since his own specially commissioned investigators repeatedly told him that the overwhelming majority of Japanese Americans were devotedly loyal to the United States.

The force of Robinson’s critique of FDR is enhanced by the evenhanded character of his prose. Admirably, he does not stoop to melodrama nor to recriminations — it is enough to simply set forth the facts. The fairness evident in Robinson’s attitude renders his conclusions regarding FDR’s responsibility all the more devastating.

FDR’s Contextual Racism and the Need to Win the War

Robinson’s evaluation of FDR’s motivation is complex, referencing a variety of critical factors that affected FDR’s decision-making. These factors included public pressure from politically powerful anti-Japanese interest groups, bad advice from senior staffers, FDR’s free-wheeling administrative style, and outright dishonesty on the part of key administration officials. Ultimately, however, there are two factors that seem to bear most of the weight of Robinson’s answer to his fundamental question of how FDR could have sponsored his administration’s evacuation and internment policy.

The first is the impact on the young FDR of then-common views of "scientific racism." Today, we are prone to ascribe such Social Darwinist thinking to the losers in World War II (Nazis and Fascists), rather than to the winners. Yet Robinson correctly points out how prevalent those views were throughout the Western world during FDR’s life.

Most importantly (and most effectively for his thesis), Robinson goes beyond simply identifying and quoting from the popular Social Darwinist texts of the time, he connects those texts specifically to FDR’s own early writings and speeches. We read FDR echoing enthusiastically the conclusions of American militarists that the Japanese were genetically predisposed to oppose "Western" values and thought; that Japanese American citizens were essentially "inassimilable" into American society; and that Anglo-Saxon racial purity should be maintained through preventing intermarriage between the races.

According to Robinson, this view conditioned FDR to think of the Japanese as fundamentally alien. Thus, when the military suggested that all Japanese be evacuated from the West Coast on the grounds that it was impossible to distinguish between loyal and disloyal Japanese, FDR was prepared to believe that the military view was correct.

Robinson’s second major thesis is that FDR’s critical energies, and his focus, were so absorbed with winning the war (and his own declining health) that he was simply not equipped to do anything other than follow the military’s lead. This thesis is, of course, more sympathetic to FDR’s actions, since Robinson clearly feels that FDR was correct to place a higher priority on winning the war than on arranging for the details of a humane domestic Japanese American policy.

True to form, however, Robinson only goes a limited distance in accepting this thesis as a justification for the internment. He correctly notes the real irony in sacrificing the rights of an ethnic minority during a war that was ostensibly being fought to defend liberty elsewhere in the world. There are some actions that are so contrary to basic constitutional principles that any President ought to be able to identify and avoid them, no matter how distracted he may be by external events.

The Banal Administrative History of a Racist Policy

One of the most interesting features of By Order of the President is the detailed attention it brings to the day-to-day administration of the evacuation and internment. In some respects, this administrative history is even more chilling than the overt racism that led to the adoption of the policy in the first place.

Robinson reports instance after instance of administrative bungling, moral failure, and bureaucratic turf battles that exacerbated the internment’s devastating impact. These decisions were not even ostensibly justified by the war effort. Rather, they were just typical government responses to an administrative issue — as if the issue were the treatment of a particular tax subsidy or new piece of environmental legislation, rather than the imprisonment of American citizens. They are the American edition of the banality of evil; Kafka in D.C.

In the episode that I found most disturbing, Robinson reviews the government’s pathetic failure to address the issue of Japanese American property. Well in advance of the evacuation, government officials (including FDR) realized the necessity of an "alien property custodian" to protect Japanese property rights during any relocation. As the evacuation began, subordinate officials pleaded for the appointment of such a custodian.

Bureaucratic infighting between the Treasury and Justice Departments, and FDR’s indifference, however, postponed and ultimately prevented the appointment of any federal custodian. As a result, thousands of Japanese American internees lost virtually all of their land and property, in "fire sales" or outright abandonment, to no end whatsoever.

The Ghost of the Death Camps

One of the few problems with the book is a critical philosophical issue that it does not tackle. Although it avoids the topic almost entirely, By Order of the President is haunted by the potential analogy between FDR’s responsibility for the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps and Adolf Hitler’s responsibility for the "Final Solution" in Nazi Germany.

Both cases involved the incarceration of a disfavored ethnic minority in concentration camps. Both relied on racial, and ultimately racist, theories to justify their policy. And, in both cases, subsequent apologists have tried to argue that the leader in question did not really intend the horror that his subordinates inflicted in his name, pointing out the lack of tangible evidence that the leader specifically ordered the result.

Of course, I do not (and would not) contend that FDR’s responsibility for the internment camps was the moral equivalent of Hitler’s responsibility for the Nazi death camps. The question of why not, however, is important and worth examining.

If FDR was willing to tolerate the deprivation of liberty for Japanese-American citizens because he thought it was necessary to the war effort, how far is it from that willingness to the deprivation of life? What is the limiting principle that assures us that FDR would not have gone that far if he had felt that it was "necessary" to winning the war? And who would have stopped him?

It is probably too much to expect a historical case study like By Order of the President to handle such a thorny moral issue. I don’t believe you can study the Japanese internment camps, however, without coming to grips with a comparison to the Nazi death camps. It would have made By Order of the President a richer study if Robinson had done so.

In any event, it certainly would have been possible to examine FDR’s thinking on Hitler’s treatment of the Jews during the war, as well as to consider the extent to which FDR’s contemporaries thought the camps were comparable. There are source materials on both issues that could have provided a platform for such an examination.

An Unexpected Timeliness

The power of By Order of the President is magnified, naturally, by the events of September 11, 2001. The coincidence of events gives the book an unexpected timeliness.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the American government succumbed to hysterical xenophobia and inflicted great, and unnecessary, pain on a helpless ethnic minority. Now, in the aftermath of September 11, the country has been offered another opportunity to respond to an attack on U.S. soil carried out by members of another distinctive ethnic minority.

How will history judge the response of our leaders in light of the Japanese internment? One would hope that our present foreign policy administration would not need a primer on the need to avoid racial scapegoating, but many expected that of FDR, too.

There have been a number of individual anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attacks. Yet shameful as those attacks have been, they remain the actions of isolated criminals, rather than our government or the people as a whole.

The real challenge may come when American dead begin returning from Afghanistan in large numbers, or if the present anthrax attacks increase to the point where many Americans are infected or threatened. When and if those horrors appear, By Order of the President will be an even more timely reminder of the dangers of ethnic hatred within our own borders.

David C. Lundsgaard, a 1992 graduate of Yale Law School, is a partner with the Seattle law firm of Graham & Dunn.

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