The National Catholic Review

When democracies like the United States go to war, it is up to the leaders of these duly elected governments to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens. Military conflicts have presented a special challenge to democratic ideals and principles, as the laws of the land can be severely tested. As a war is prosecuted, the civil rights of citizens can be and have been curtailed under the guise of national security. Individuals associated, either by birth or ancestry, with the now demonized enemy are viewed with suspicion; their loyalty to the nation is called into question; and their civil rights are violated. Such was the case in the United States during the Second World War concerning the plight of Japanese Americans. In By Order of the President, Greg Robinson, an assistant professor of history at the Université de Québec à Montréal, examines the motives and influences that account for Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to issue Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the internment of Japanese-American citizens.

Analyzing F.D.R.’s writings, both public and private, on the subject of Far Eastern affairs, Robinson argues that Roosevelt’s personal views of the Japanese as well as his leadership style played as important a role in his decision to remove Japanese-American citizens from the West Coast of the United States as did the actions of his political and military advisors and the political pressures exerted by the people of the Pacific states. No longer the icon of American democratic ideals and freedoms, Franklin Roosevelt is presented as a pragmatist who was more concerned with waging a war than with protecting and upholding the constitutional rights of American citizens. Once the enemy threat abated, one finds a president reluctant to release those he had interned and even more unwilling to assist them to return home and start life anew.

Franklin Roosevelt’s attitude toward Asia and Asian culture, Robinson found, was molded in his youth, as his family had numerous connections with the Far East. Admiration for things Asian notwithstanding, F.D.R. did not believe that Japanese immigrants, the Issei, were capable of assimilating into American society. Even second-generation Japanese, the Nisei, Robinson points out, were viewed the same way by Roosevelt, even though these people were American citizens. The president believed that Japanese aliens and American citizens of Japanese descent were innately foreign and would always remain so. Roosevelt’s impression of the Japanese, however, was not unlike the attitudes held by a majority of white Anglo-Saxon Americans in the early 1900’s.

Ostensibly, the impetus for removing Japanese Americans from the West Coast was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; but, as Robinson details, the attack only provided a pretext for nativist American action against Japanese-American citizens in the United States. Desiring revenge for the sneak attack, as well as coveting Japanese-run agricultural lands on the West Coast, white Americans began to call for the removal of the Japanese from the Pacific states soon after December 7; racism and greed, Robinson writes, merged into each other. When the civilian call to rid the Pacific states of Japanese was coupled with the military’s desire to establish a zone of Japanese exclusion on the West Coast, a predisposed Roosevelt was ready to accept internment.

Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to intern Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens, Robinson concludes, was based on inaccurate and incomplete information, bad counsel and political pressure, combined with the president’s own training, background and personality. Robinson presents a president who was prepared to believe the worst concerning his own citizens even when presented with information to the contrary. The writer also finds a president selectively listening to his military advisors. While Roosevelt followed the counsel of the West Coast commander, Army General John L. DeWitt, who vigorously argued for a policy of removal on the basis of military necessity, the president failed to consult General George C. Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff before signing the executive order. Ironically enough, this work shows that once Roosevelt signed 9066, he was unable to get his Hawaiian military governor, General Delos Emmons, to intern the Japanese on the island of Oahu, as economic necessities overrode military concerns. By Order of the President ultimately presents a practical-minded president making a pragmatic decision in a time of crisis. The result of that pragmatic decision was the evacuation of over 110,000 people from the American West Coastthe largest migration in American historyand the attending loss of an estimated $500 million in personal property.

Robinson is critical of Roosevelt’s indifference to the hardships endured by loyal Japanese Americans once the evacuation of the West Coast began. The government, he demonstrates, was reluctant to protect Japanese-American property and the president was reluctant to issue a statement in support of loyal Japanese-American citizens in 1942, thus adding to the suspicion and stigma of disloyalty surrounding their removal. More importantly, this research causes one to pause and consider the power of the government to suspend an individual’s civil rights. In signing Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt approved the internment of American citizens, which violated the constitutional privileges of due process, equal protection of the laws, and habeas corpus ordinarily afforded citizens.

Even though the Second World War has been called by many the last moral conflict undertaken by the United States, the actions of the American government against its own citizens, especially those of Japanese descent, demonstrate the shortcomings of this great democratic crusade. By Order of the President, while a detailed case study of the decision-making process of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is a work all Americans should read, especially as the United States and George W. Bush prosecute a war against terrorism. Violation of American civil liberties under the pretext of national security and without due process of the law, as prescribed in the Constitution of the United States, can become an act of state terrorism against the very people the president, the Congress and the courts are supposed to protect.

R. Bentley Anderson, S.J., is an assistant professor of history at St. Louis University.