Warning about a rising tide of xenophobia, the American Civil Liberties Union assailed the White House’s most recent executive order as “the greatest deprivation of civil liberties in this country since slavery.” The administration that the ACLU had in its sights, however, was not that of Donald J. Trump. It was that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, champion of political progressivism.
Seventy-five years ago, on February 19, 1942, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans. The order came barely two months after Japan’s surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, which shocked the nation out of its isolationist complacency. Challenged in court, Roosevelt’s authority was upheld by the equally progressive Supreme Court by a vote of 6-3. As President Trump’s critics warn of a constitutional crisis over his attempt to temporarily ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, they might reflect on the full-throated support by liberal elites for far more draconian policies—policies fueled not only by fear but by the intoxicating effect of unchecked executive power.
Hagiographic FDR biographers—Doris Goodwin Kearns and Robert Dallek chief among them—want us to believe that Roosevelt “reluctantly” signed the executive order, against his better instincts, because of pressure from his advisors. Nonsense. Gen. Mark Clark, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover all opposed the policy. Harry Stimson, Secretary of War, after a visit with Roosevelt in February, recorded in his diary: “He was very vigorous about it.” As Thomas Fleming notes in The New Dealers’ War, the president sought even more aggressive action than his cabinet. After issuing the order, he told Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that he wanted Hawaii’s 140,000 Japanese evacuated as well, and was not worried about “the constitutional question.” (Military leaders objected—they needed the skilled labor of the Japanese in Hawaii for the war effort—and prevailed over the White House.)
Not surprisingly, FDR’s presidential library, though acknowledging the executive order as “a blemish on Roosevelt’s wartime record,” also shifts the blame to other actors. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies, says the museum portrays the president “as the victim of irresistible pressure from his military advisors and public opinion.” FDR admirers tend to take the same line.
But that propagandistic version of events ignores the fact that Roosevelt was quite willing to overrule his military advisors on other war-related matters. Moreover, rather than being a victim of public opinion, FDR was a willing slave to it. Although there were security risks from Japanese resident aliens, his policy was emblematic of a “New Deal” presidency prepared to violate constitutional norms when it sensed no political cost for doing so.
Moreover, Roosevelt already had sought and won an unprecedented third term as president. After he first assumed office in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression, he grew accustomed to using a national crisis to expand the powers of government. Thus FDR’s order gave the military broad authority to remove “any and all persons” from a 50- to 60-mile-wide coastal area stretching from Washington state to California, and to forcibly transport them to internment camps in the interior of the country. At least 120,000 Japanese-Americans living in the region were swept up in the net. The order was also applied to U.S. citizens of German and Italian descent: about 11,000 German-American residents were arrested and more than 5,000 interned, while roughly 3,200 Italian-Americans were arrested, about 300 interned.
The policy enjoyed tremendous popular support. The liberal press, enamored with FDR’s New Deal, was predictably compliant. The New York Times editorial page—which has savaged President Trump’s immigration ban as “cowardly and dangerous”—was not exactly a profile in courage during the Roosevelt era. The Times editors offered the meekest of criticism, lamenting that the Japanese internment was causing a shortage of lilies—since lily bulbs, according to the editors, usually came from Japanese gardeners. “We’re even short of cut flowers,” the paper complained.
A 1980 congressional commission report found that FDR’s internment policy, stoked by racism and war hysteria, represented “a failure of political leadership.” We are still learning about the human costs of that failure. In the fog of war, Roosevelt’s executive order turned thousands of patriotic, law-abiding citizens into suspected saboteurs. It left them, in the words of the executive order, “subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” Thousands of families were separated, traumatized, and persecuted. Livelihoods were ruined. Entire communities were uprooted. “Most of them, citizens and aliens alike, were fiercely patriotic,” writes Richard Reeves in Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. “Guarded by soldiers in machine-gun towers, none of them were charged with any crime against the United States.”
President Trump’s executive order, blocked by the Ninth Circuit Court, has been widely criticized as discriminatory, ill-conceived, and clumsily executed. A little historical perspective, though, might embarrass some of the violent and vitriolic protestors: compared to the racist, dehumanizing, and socially destructive policies of Franklin Roosevelt—icon of modern liberalism—Trump’s three-month travel ban looks like afternoon tea at the Ritz-Carlton.
None of this is a defense of either the tone or posture of the Trump White House toward immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. A policy that cannot distinguish between desperate refugees fleeing the violence of radical Islam and the perpetrators of that violence is not merely an embarrassment; it is a morally and spiritually debased policy. Nevertheless, liberalism has generated far greater assaults on our democratic ideals than anything yet proposed by the current occupant of the White House.
Progressives now claim a vigilant—if not belated—regard for the constitution. We’ll be watching.
Joseph Loconte, PhD, is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority. Caption: “Persons of Japanese ancestry arrive at the Santa Anita Assembly Center from San Pedro. Evacuees lived at this center at the former Santa Anita race track before being moved inland to relocation centers.” April, 5 1942. Photo provided by U.S. National Archives & Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.
 Thomas Fleming, The New Dealers’ War: FDR and the War Within World War II (Basic Books, 2001), 110-111.
 Rafael Medoff, “Why Didn’t FDR Help European Jews? Hints in His Decision to Intern Japanese Americans,” Tablet, February 14, 2014. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/162780/roosevelt-japanese-internment
 Brian Thornton, “Heroic Editors in Short Supply During Japanese Internment,” Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 23, 2/3, Spring/Summer 2002, 99-113. http://www.academia.edu/746517/_Heroic_Editors_in_Short_Supply_During_Japanese_Internment._