Footnote to an Act of Domestic Terror

They were, in the parlance of Washington bureaucrats, "war-duration relocation centers." For Japanese-Americans, they were something far worse: places of despair where they lost their freedoms, their livelihoods, and their homes. Later generations of Americans have come to agree that these World War II internment camps represented one of the most shameful chapters in American history. Indeed, as the United States today grapples with elusive foes in a war on terrorism, the treatment of Japanese-Americans stands as a cautionary tale of how not to treat a class of Americans during a national emergency.

Most can agree that internment was wrong. The more difficult and complex task is understanding why the government evacuated more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast in early 1942 and confined them in 10 camps in western America for the duration of the war. It was once widely assumed that Franklin D. Roosevelt—a champion both of human rights and of the working man—had little to do with the evacuations. Instead, wartime hysteria was blamed for the wholesale violations of civil rights.

An outstanding new book by historian Greg Robinson of University of Quebec at Montreal—By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans—revisits this disturbing period and the President's role in it.

On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a bland decree that authorized the Army to establish military areas to which it could send civilians whom it deemed a threat to security. Robinson's book explores the reasons behind the subsequent internment and the executive order's eventual rescission at war's end. Along the way, Robinson seeks to puncture a number of myths. One was that Roosevelt went along with the evacuation out of military necessity. The military itself was split on what to do. While some generals did support evacuation, others did not. Ironically, Roosevelt failed to consult Gen. George C. Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were investigating West Coast security when the President signed Executive Order 9066. Some of Roosevelt's civilian advisers, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Francis Biddle, concluded that Japanese-Americans posed no threat to U.S. security.

Robinson sees a complex intersection of economic and social forces behind the President's decision to intern Japanese-Americans. Feeding these forces was racism. In one of the book's more-balanced chapters, Robinson traces Roosevelt's views toward Japan and Japanese-Americans. The author avoids the trap of branding FDR as an out-and-out racist. Instead, his portrait of Roosevelt is carefully nuanced. In many ways, Roosevelt's views were thoroughly conventional. FDR, who was born in 1882, came of age during a period of empire-building and fierce rivalry among the great powers of Western Europe and Asia. Like other Americans, he came to see the Japanese as inherently "different."

Roosevelt did deplore open prejudice, and he did admire Japan as an advanced nation that was equal in many ways to the West. But, as Robinson persuasively shows, the future President also shared nativist beliefs that Japanese immigrants could not be fully assimilated in America because of their supposed "differentness." This belief helps explain why Roosevelt ignored the advice of so many advisers and military officers in the early days of World War II: "Roosevelt's words and actions both before and after Pearl Harbor, when taken in their entirety, point to his acceptance of the idea that Japanese-Americans ... were still Japanese at the core. He regarded them as presumptively dangerous and disloyal on racial grounds."

It is a compelling, though flawed, thesis. In damning detail, the author portrays FDR as an aloof and uncaring leader who was blind both to the constitutional implications of his policies and to the human toll these policies inflicted on the Japanese-American community. That is true enough, and persuasively argued. But it is also true that earlier Presidents—namely, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson—took extraordinary steps during wartime to protect national security in the face of potential domestic threats. And it is also true that as cruel as internment was, it was just one of many crises that FDR struggled with during the war. With his health failing, the President faced the herculean task of overseeing a world war on two fronts against powerful enemies. FDR was ultimately responsible for internment and could have stopped it, but his aloofness went beyond racism and lack of interest.

Robinson's evidence shows that the Roosevelt Administration could not have proceeded without substantial support from the government and the country at large. Roosevelt favored interning the Japanese-American community in Hawaii, but, ironically, he was unable to push the policy through a reluctant state bureaucracy. In addition, his advisers and the military opposed interning Hawaii's Japanese-Americans because of the enormous logistic difficulties involved with removing them from these isolated Pacific islands. Internment on the mainland, by contrast, was feasible precisely because it was widely supported.

Among historians, Roosevelt remains a highly complex figure. Uncaring, blind to the implications of his policies—these all describe the President's actions in the case of Japanese-Americans. But he was also highly political and pragmatic. In reconstructing FDR's leadership style, Robinson made surprisingly little use of the explosion of scholarship on Roosevelt in recent years. Instead, the author relies on dated, albeit classic, works on FDR and the New Deal that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

Still, this is an extremely valuable book. It is well written, balanced—and disturbing.