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FDR and Manzanar By: Lowell Ponte
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 04, 2002

"AMERICA IS EVIL AND RACIST," echoed the usual Leftist chant on 100 college campuses during recent protests against the War on Terrorism. And what is the evidence given by those opposing enhanced surveillance, expanded detention of suspects, and ethnic profiling of potential terrorists? "Look," shout the protestors, "at this nation’s World War II internment of Japanese Americans!"

That episode (also invoked in recent years to justify reparations for slavery and many other "Blame America First" exercises) is the subject of an incisive new book by University of Quebec Montreal historian Greg Robinson. The policy of relocating Japanese Americans away from the West Coast during that war was more reasonable than now believed, he concludes, but its emotional roots in the racial prejudices and politics of Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt are harder to forgive or forget.

Robinson’s book takes us not to relocation camps like Manzanar, nor into the lives of Japanese Americans affected by FDR’s decisions. It focuses instead on FDR, his background, and the day-to-day pressures and personalities shaping his decisions inside the White House. Bolstered by 46 pages of sources and footnotes, Robinson provides a close-up portrait of FDR shockingly more ugly than even conservatives have perceived him.

As a modern academic, Robinson speaks "Political Correct-ese" fluently. His problem is that the facts about FDR here contradict what a Leftist icon is supposed to be. "I grew up thinking of FDR as a hero," he said during a recent speech on C-SPAN, "but now I think of him as a tarnished hero."

Facing this P.C. dilemma, Robinson tries to rationalize and expiate FDR’s worst sins while touching all the bases of Japanese American obeisance. It’s a stretch that leaves his history strangely thin and full of holes. I shall fill in a few of those holes here.

Was the World War II relocation of about 113,000 West Coast Japanese Americans in any way justified? From where FDR sat, yes, says Robinson. "His paramount object was to win the war," writes Robinson. "He feared that Japanese Americans presented a danger to security and to West Coast morale." (1)

Japan had carried out a flawlessly-executed sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In the days that followed, President Roosevelt’s experts as well as the press laid out scenarios for a "second Pearl Harbor" of espionage and sabotage by those of Japanese ancestry on the American mainland. (2)

"There are…Japanese in the United States who will tie dynamite around their waist and make a human bomb out of themselves," one memo warned FDR. "Dams, bridges, harbors, power stations, etc., are wholly unguarded everywhere. The harbor at San Pedro could be razed by fire completely by four men with grenades and a little study in one night. Dams could be blown and half of lower California might actually die of thirst. One railway bridge at the exit from the mountains in some cases could tie up three or four main railroads." (3)

"When the Pacific zero hour strikes," another author warned, "Japanese Americans will get busy at once. Their fishing boats will sow mines across the entrances of our ports. Mysterious blasts will destroy navy shipyards and flying fields and part of our fleet…. To add the final demonical touch, Japanese farmers, having a virtual monopoly of vegetable production in California, will send their peas and potatoes and squash full of arsenic to the markets, throwing the population into panic." (4)

"The free-floating anxieties (about Japanese Americans)" writes Robinson, "exploded into mass hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor, which appeared to confirm them." (5) And such potentials for sabotage "drove FDR into a flurry of anxiety." (6)

President Roosevelt’s fears were driven by more than hypothetical speculation. Government intelligence had identified – and within days after Pearl Harbor had apprehended – about 2,000 people of Japanese ancestry deemed to pose a serious threat to American security. (7)

Roosevelt also had MAGIC, secret U.S. decipherment of coded Japanese messages. Robinson mentions this only in passing. Perhaps political correctness prevented him from referencing the former special assistant to the director of the National Security Agency David D. Lowman and his book MAGIC: The Untold Story of U.S. Intelligence and the Evacuation of Japanese Residents from the West Coast During WWII (Provo, Utah: Athena Press, 2000). As actual intercepts published in this book make clear, FDR had good reason to believe that Japan had networks of spies and saboteurs along the West Coast, but to apprehend them too surgically might reveal to the Japanese that we were reading their encrypted signals. By interning them among tens of thousands of others, this could be concealed. According to Lowman, not a single official familiar with these Top Secret MAGIC messages disagreed with the course of action FDR took towards Japanese Americans.

FDR, like many military planners, seriously believed Japan might invade the West Coast. Robinson notes, as this column did last July, that Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen’s American military advisor Homer Lea early in the century had predicted that Japan would someday soon attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and go on to conquer parts of the West Coast. (8) As a young man FDR had read and been "stirred" by Lea’s racially-oriented writing.

As a student at Harvard University, notes Robinson, FDR had been friends with classmates from Japan’s ruling elite, one of whom "told him of the existence of a secret Japanese fifty-year plan to establish complete dominance over East Asia and the Western Pacific…." (9) As the grandson of a China trader who had lived a decade in Canton, FDR grew up as a Sinophile who easily turned Japanophobic after Japan defeated Russia by surprise attack and later invaded China and Manchuria. The Japanese, he would later confide to a relative, "seem to be carrying out this plan." (10)

Born in 1882 and raised in a pre-Nazi intellectual climate where Social Darwinian talk of racial differences, racial superiority, and miscegenation was fashionable, FDR according to Robinson was never quite a "racist." (To call this Leftist demigod "racist" would be P.C. heresy.) FDR never thought that Japanese people were inferior, writes Robinson. He merely saw them as "different," so different as to be forever "unassimilable" as Americans. In 1925 FDR wrote in a Georgia newspaper that Japanese should be excluded from the United States because intermarriage, the "mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results…." FDR advocated "racial purity." (11)

And that difference was more than cultural, as FDR saw it. He believed that Japanese possessed a "nefarious and warlike…character" and that aggression was "in the blood" of Japanese leaders. The Japanese were inherently "treacherous people," he told author Quentin Reynolds in January 1942. FDR related to one aide a Chinese myth that the Japanese people began from the mating of a Chinese princess with a baboon. (FDR, according to Robinson, held many eugenicist notions, e.g., joking at one point that Puerto Ricans should be mass sterilized.) (12)

None of this should surprise us, because FDR was a Democrat, a leader of the racist political party of the slave owners, the Ku Klux Klan (to which his last Vice President Harry Truman briefly belonged), Jim Crow, Bull Connor, and today’s exploitative, polarizing race-baiters Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. FDR held power because a Solid South of single-party segregationist states (that he never criticized) voted monolithically Democratic. The only surprise is why today any black, Latino, or Asian-American whose ancestors were enslaved, interned, or exploited by Democrats could ever be fooled into voting for one.

Because of FDR’s racial prejudice, writes Robinson, he was always prepared "to believe the worst" anyone said about the Japanese, indistinguishable in his mind from Japanese Americans who to FDR always seemed "foreign," never really "American," and always potentially "disloyal." "FDR had a long and unvaried history of viewing Japanese Americans in racialized terms," writes Robinson, "that is, as essentially Japanese in their identity and emotional allegiance, and of expressing hostility toward them on that basis." (13)

Virtually from the moment President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Asst. Secretary of the Navy (his cousin Teddy Roosevelt’s old post) in 1913, FDR was preparing for an attack by Japan and bolstering defenses at Pearl Harbor. As President, by 1934 he was acutely concerned about Japanese espionage on the West Coast and Hawaii, and by 1936 he was planning not only for Japanese invasion but also for "concentration camps" (FDR’s words) for Japanese Americans. (14)

By October 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR’s Navy Secretary Frank Knox was preparing for "concentration camps" and a year later, writes Robinson, FDR "conferred with his military advisors about how to maneuver Japan into firing the first shot" while predicting almost to the day when war would commence. (15) And yet we were "unprepared" and "taken by surprise" at Pearl Harbor, the Leftist historians say.

"The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor did more than sink ships and kill soldiers," writes Robinson. "It left a deep wound in the American psyche." It also unleashed demands not only from the populace but also from liberals such as California Attorney General Earl Warren (later U.S. Chief Justice), columnist Walter Lippmann, and New Deal congressmen such as John D. Dingell (Senior) of Michigan that the Japanese American peril be removed from our coastline. Canada began relocating its citizens of Japanese ancestry away from coastal British Columbia a month before we did. Under such emotional and political pressure, it was easy for FDR to shove aside those opposed to relocation (such as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover) and issue relocation Executive Order 9066 as he had long planned. But FDR never interned Hawaii’s Japanese Americans, who made up 35 percent of the islands’ population and whose labor was essential to the giant, politically-powerful sugarcane and pineapple enterprises. (16)

The facilities to which FDR’s "dangerous and foreign" Japanese American "evacuees" (70 percent of them American-born Nisei, many located with data illegally extracted from the U.S. Census) were taken were formally called "relocation camps," although Robinson prefers the word Internment and those even farther Left favor FDR’s own label Concentration Camps, a term coined during South Africa’s Boer War. (17)

Did it violate the Constitutional rights of innocent Japanese Americans to be thus relocated? Perhaps, although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s actions, in 1943 and again, in an opinion written by ultra-liberal former Klansman and FDR-appointed Justice Hugo Black, in 1944. In 1988 Republican President Ronald Reagan signed an apology and granted a tax-free $20,000 in reparations to those relocated (but not – slave reparation advocates take note – to their descendants). (18)

But as we weep for these abused Japanese Americans, consider that under a Declaration of War all citizens lose some rights and liberties. In September 1940 – more than a year before Pearl Harbor – FDR imposed the first peacetime conscription in our nation’s history. Of the millions of Americans who fought in WWII, two-thirds were draftees. Approximately two-thirds of the 292,000 Americans killed and 671,000 wounded in that war were conscripts, in a sense slaves. Japanese Americans in relocation camps were exempt from the draft, and a higher percentage of them survived the war intact than did other ethnic groups of Americans, including the German and Italian Americans ("I don’t care about the Italians. They are a lot of opera singers," sneered FDR stereotypically to his Attorney General), a small fraction of whom also faced the internal exile of relocation. (19)

Imagine, as this columnist has suggested, that for the sake of national security FDR "drafted" 113,000 Japanese Americans and ordered them to sit out the war in army-camp-like Relocation Camps, safe from enemy fire, housed and idle and well-fed (many gained weight while other Americans faced wartime rationing) at taxpayer expense. As the poet John Milton wrote, "They also serve who only stand and wait." Other "drafted" Americans, meanwhile, were forced into combat and died from Nazi machine guns at Normandy, or from slave labor or germ warfare experiments in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. (Only in September 2001 did Japan "apologize" to its American and other prisoners of war, but it still offers them no reparations.) Whose families do you think are more deserving of reparations?

Beginning in 1943, 23,000 loyal Japanese Americans were gradually allowed to leave the camps and resettle away from the West Coast. FDR loved not only forced income redistribution but also coerced ethnic redistribution, cynically wanting to spread these citizens thin and politically impotent throughout the country. FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans, writes Robinson, "was not fundamentally inconsistent with his overall political philosophy and world view…." What Robinson hints, but cannot bring himself to admit (although no less a historian than Alistair Cooke did), is that FDR’s protean political philosophy was at root racist and National Socialist, differing from Hitler’s and Tojo’s more in degree and intensity than in kind. (20)

But 65,000 remained in the camps. "Many Issei (Americans born in Japan) were unhappy at the idea of being forced out of the camps, where at least their basic needs were met," writes Robinson. By 1945 the government literally had to shove the last of these retainers out the door. But always foremost a politician, FDR was careful not to fully open the doors or close down the camps until after his reelection in November 1944. (21)

Until his end, FDR scarcely spoke out in praise of the patriotism of most Japanese Americans or the valor of Nisei who volunteered to fight for their nation on European battlefields. "In the days to come," he told audiences, "I won’t trust the Japs around the corner." As Robinson notes, many of FDR’s supporters drew little distinction between "Japs" and Japanese Americans – but, then, neither did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (22)

When FDR died on April 12, 1945, flags were lowered to half-staff over the 55,000 Japanese Americans still in eight remaining camps – and over the 18,000 "disloyal" internees in the prison camp at Tule Lake, California, who held marches to honor Japan’s Emperor. Most in the camps mourned. But now some who were there like Norman Mineta, former Democrat congressman and now Bush cabinet Secretary of Transportation, have begun to speak out against the "wrong" this quintessentially-Democratic President FDR had done to them. (23)

Despite his straddling and waffling, Greg Robinson’s history gives us ample reason to dethrone FDR from the pantheon of great Presidents – and to reassign blame (now heaped on America as a whole) for whatever wrong was suffered by innocent Japanese Americans to this megalomaniacal man and his racist political party. But after writing this eye-opening book, Robinson clings by his fingernails to both his tarnished childhood idol and his politically-correct idolatry. It will be fascinating to see how many Leftists, after reading this book, can do likewise and defend both sides of this issue.


  1. Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese

    Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Page 245.

  2. Ibid., Page 90.
  3. Ibid., Pages 67-68.
  4. Ibid., Pages 88-89.
  5. Ibid., Page 89
  6. Ibid., Page 68
  7. Ibid., Page 64.
  8. Ibid., Pages 18-20, 25.
  9. Ibid., Page 12.
  10. Ibid., Page 49.
  11. Ibid., Pages 118, 242, 40, 43.
  12. Ibid., Pages 120, 49.
  13. Ibid., Pages 174-175, 115, 118, 59.
  14. Ibid., Pages 20-21, 51, 54-58.
  15. Ibid., Pages 61, 71.
  16. Ibid., Pages 240, 101-102, 106, 112-113, 65, 77, 79-80, 146.
  17. Ibid., Pages 72, 261.
  18. Ibid., Pages 191, 229, 251.
  19. Ibid., Page 111.
  20. Ibid., Pages 221, 224, 176.
  21. Ibid., Pages 224, 239.
  22. Ibid., Page 179, 226.
  23. Ibid., Pages 200, 249-250, 254-255.


Mr. Ponte co-hosts a national radio talk show Monday through Friday 6-8 PM Eastern Time (3-5 PM Pacific Time) on the Genesis Communications Network. Internet Audio worldwide is at GCNlive .com. The show's live call-in number is 1-800-259-9231. A professional speaker, he is a former Roving Editor for Reader's Digest.

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