Douglas Brinkley: FDR's WWII roundup of Japanese Americans into internment camps was his biggest mistake
He says it was an overreaction, punishing all Japanese Americans for crimes they didn't commit
Donald Trump's proposal about Muslims darkly echoes this, Brinkley says
Editor’s Note: Douglas Brinkley is CNN presidential historian and author of the forthcoming “Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.”
Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes was livid. On February 19, 1942, 74 days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, 62% of whom were American born.
Ickes was outraged by Roosevelt’s arresting of fellow citizens, calling it un-American. To drive his dissent home, Ickes soon had four Japanese-American men and three women transferred from a relocation camp in Arizona to his home in Olney, Maryland. “I do not like the idea of loyal citizens whatever their race or color,” he told the New York Times, “being kept in relocation centers.”
Donald Trump has defended his call to stop all Muslims from entering America, approvingly invoking FDR’s mistaken action of 1942 as his benchmark. FDR, in my opinion, was the greatest president in U.S. history. But EO 9066 was his biggest mistake.
Roosevelt’s decision to round up American citizens was clearly a flagrant violation of human rights and morally reprehensible. It grew out of Roosevelt’s exaggerated post-Pearl Harbor fear of Japanese sabotage on the American mainland. Indeed, as if to prove Roosevelt’s point, four days after EO 9066 was signed, the Japanese bombed the town of Goleta, California, firing on the Ellwood Oil Field from a submarine in the Pacific.
While little damage was inflicted – an oil well was temporarily decommissioned and an orange grove caught fire – the attack sounded alarms throughout the West. If Japan could shell Goleta, then wasn’t the entire Pacific Coast at risk?
“We must guard against Japanese incendiary bombs and incendiary fires during the dry season,” FDR wrote the head of the Bureau of Budget. “This is essential for our national future.”
What really concerned Roosevelt was that Congress was defunding his pet New Deal project: the Civilian Conservation Corps. From 1933 to 1942, the CCC had enrolled more than 3.4 million previously unemployed men to plant 3 billion trees and protect the Western forests from fire. The CCC had erected 3,000 fire-lookout towers and manned them.
On May 4, 1942, Roosevelt made a last-ditch plea to retain at least a skeleton network of CCC camps in the West to protect against Japanese arsons. The House denied his request and defunded the CCC that June. The CCC boys now enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces or headed to work in wartime factories in cities such as Detroit and Norfolk, Virginia.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas tried to solve the problem of vulnerable Western forests by suggesting “civilian irregulars” and “wilderness patrols” along the West Coast under federal supervision to keep an eye out for wildfires. But even this modest proposal couldn’t get funded by Congress.
So Roosevelt decided that the Japanese-American roundup was necessary to save U.S. timber reserves. He then took to the airwaves asking Americans to patrol forests and report potential sabotage.
“Uncontrolled fire, even in normal times, is a national menace,” he proclaimed. “Today … when agents of our enemies are seeking to hinder us by every possible means, it is essential that destructive fire be brought under stricter control in order that victory may be achieved at the earliest date.”
Before long, the War Advertising Council started a campaign to warn Westerners about arson and careless matches. American homes were flooded with mail inserts and leaflets depicting Japanese Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo with a deadly match in hand, ready to burn a national forest to the ground.
Overall, Roosevelt’s industrial mobilization effort from 1942 to 1945 was masterfully executed. “Dr. New Deal” indeed became “Dr. Win the War.”
Yet, as Ickes knew, the roundup of Japanese Americans would leave a dark stain on the administration. Roosevelt’s concern about Japanese incendiary bombs burning Western forests was legitimate. What was illegitimate was Roosevelt’s overreaction to the threat, punishing all Japanese Americans for crimes they didn’t commit.
Thankfully, President Ronald Reagan, in 1988, apologized to Japanese Americans for Roosevelt’s internment camp blunder. That Trump approves of Roosevelt’s World War II era mistake, as late as the 21st century, should give voters grave concern that he is fit to be commander in chief.
For as President Obama rightfully said at a Capitol Hill ceremony Wednesday marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, Americans must always “remember that our freedom is bound up with the freedoms of others, regardless of what they look like or where they come from, or what their last name is or what faith they practice.”