February 14, 2014


Why Didn't FDR Help European Jews? Hints in His Decision To Intern Japanese Americans : Now, 70 years after the Supreme Court upheld the internment of civilians in WWII, it may revisit the ruling (Rafael Medoff|February 14, 2014, Tablet)

As it turns out, the parallels between anti-Jewish and anti-Japanese stereotypes to which Takei alluded are crucial to understanding both Roosevelt's decision on Japanese internment and his response to the Holocaust. Even FDR's most ardent supporters today concede that the internment was wrong. The website of the Roosevelt presidential library, in Hyde Park, N.Y., calls the decision "a blemish on Roosevelt's wartime record," and curriculum materials designed for schools by the museum characterize it as "a great injustice." At the same time, however, the museum, which recently re-opened after a nine-year, $30-million revamp and expansion, portrays the president as the victim of irresistible pressure from his military advisers and public opinion.

The museum's exhibition on the Japanese internment makes no mention of the last decade's most important new research findings concerning the motives behind the internment decision. By Order of the President, a critically acclaimed 2001 book by Greg Robinson, an American historian at the University of Quebec, revealed a number of incendiary articles about Asians that Franklin Roosevelt wrote in the 1920s. In those articles, the future president asserted that "the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results." FDR argued that because "Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population," they could not be trusted and their right to purchase land should be restricted.

Interestingly, the museum does include the cover of By Order of the President, and a brief excerpt from the book, in a side panel--so nobody can claim the museum completely ignores Robinson's book. But the excerpt they chose is from a passage that does not mention FDR's writings about Asians. That choice says a lot about what the museum wants visitors to see.

Robinson concluded that FDR's longstanding "negative beliefs about Japanese-Americans" played a significant role in the internment decision. Those beliefs help explain why Roosevelt was so quick to agree with the pro-internment positions of some of his advisers, despite the paucity of evidence of disloyalty among Japanese Americans. It also helps explain why he chose to imprison Japanese Americans, while not taking similar action against German Americans or Italian Americans despite their relation to countries America was fighting in the war.

Roosevelt's views about the Japanese dovetail with his privately expressed opinions about Jews. In my own recent research in the diaries and correspondence of Roosevelt Cabinet members and others close to FDR, I have found a number of troubling remarks by the president in this vein. For example, he complained about Jews "overcrowding" certain professions in Germany, North Africa, and even in Oregon. He was one of the initiators of a quota on the admission of Jews to Harvard. He boasted to one friend--a U.S. senator--that "we have no Jewish blood in our veins." He claimed antisemitism in Poland was a reaction to Jews dominating the local economy. And he embraced an adviser's proposal to "spread the Jews thin" around the world, in order to prevent them from dominating their host countries.

FDR's writings and statements indicate that he regarded both Jews and Asians as having innate biological characteristics that made it difficult, or even impossible, for them to become fully loyal Americans. Certain individual, assimilated Jews could be useful to him as political allies or advisers, but having a substantial number of Jews, especially the less assimilated kind, was--in his mind--inviting trouble.

FDR's private views help explain an otherwise inexplicable aspect of his response to the Holocaust-his administration's policy of suppressing refugee immigration far below the legal limits. The quota of immigrants from Germany (about 26,000 annually) was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt's 12 in the White House. In most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. If public or congressional opposition prevented liberalizing the entire immigration quota system, why not at least permit the existing quotas to be quietly filled? The answer is that Franklin Roosevelt's vision of America did not make room for substantial numbers of Asian or Jewish immigrants.

Posted by at February 14, 2014 4:21 AM

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