The Magazine

Second-Guessing FDR

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By KEN MASUGI
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By Order of the President
FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans
by Greg Robinson
Harvard University Press, 336 pp., $27.95

Free to Die for Their Country
The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II
by Eric L. Muller
University of Chicago Press, 256 pp., $27.50

AMONG THOSE WORRIED that the United States may react to the slaughter of September 11 by turning against Arab Americans, frequent reference is made to the relocation of 110,000 ethnic Japanese (among them my parents and other relatives) from the West Coast a few months following Pearl Harbor.

A pair of recent books unwittingly aid in understanding that widely condemned action: Greg Robinson's "By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans" and Eric L. Muller's "Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II." Muller, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, interviewed Japanese Americans who turned against their country in time of war and resisted the draft (an uncle of mine was among these). Robinson, a historian at the University of Quebec, notes the translation of Roosevelt's suspicions of Japan into virtual dismissal of Japanese-American loyalty.

These are scholarly contributions in a field where publication is dominated by popularizers and ambulance chasers, but they aim merely to confirm what has become conventional wisdom: Few actions of the Supreme Court have occasioned so much criticism as the 1944 Korematsu v. United States decision, which legitimized the relocation.

In the years since, popular novels and films, such as "Snow Falling on Cedars," have trumpeted the injustice of the drastic action. Racism, economic opportunism, and wild charges all befell the hapless minority. In 1988, following the recommendations of a commission appointed by his predecessor, President Reagan signed a bill apologizing to those relocated and giving $20,000 to each of those still living.

But, in fact, the case for relocation was a much closer call at the time than hindsight has allowed it to be. Both Robinson's "By Order of the President" and Muller's "Free to Die for Their Country" are forced to ignore important parts of the historical record in order to assert their conclusion that "ethnic profiling" is reprehensible even in time of war, with all the undermining of national security that might follow. As Robinson puts it, Roosevelt "refused on racial grounds to accept them on equal terms as Americans. . . . This refusal blinded him to the invidious and undemocratic character of the repressive actions he and the government undertook."

To advance his case, Robinson sifts through the disputes within the government and among Roosevelt's special advisers over the loyalty of ethnic Japanese. Some advocated total relocation, while others maintained that loyalty interviews should suffice for isolating the potential subversives. Hadn't the most dangerous ethnic Japanese already been picked up immediately following Pearl Harbor? Robinson argues that "Roosevelt's failure was a lack of compassion, or, more precisely, of empathy"--an odd charge to make of a president at war.

OF COURSE, one must take seriously Robinson's arguments about Roosevelt's political opportunism in 1944, when he delayed the closing of the camps. This may have been nothing more than an example of the political calculations Roosevelt was forced to make, as was Lincoln in the Civil War. But, for Robinson, what lies at the bottom is Roosevelt's prejudices about race and nationality. "During the prewar years the president consistently regarded Japanese Americans as adjuncts of Japan and therefore as potential enemies despite their American birth or decades-long residence in the United States. . . . Roosevelt automatically extended . . . hostility and suspicion to the entire Japanese American community."

What Robinson is finally incapable of appreciating is Roosevelt's strategic vision. After all, if Imperial Japan thought in racial terms, must Roose-velt ignore this? Though he cites the distinguished historian John J. Stephan's "Hawaii Under the Rising Sun," Robinson ignores the evidence Stephan presents about Imperial Japan's war plans for using America's Japanese in the occupation of Hawaii. The primary flaw in Robinson's argument is his failure to consider the relocation in the light of foreign policy exigencies.

Thus, Robinson completely omits the "Niihau episode." Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese fighter pilot landed his crippled Zero fighter-bomber on the tiny island of Niihau, at the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago. He was able to persuade an American of Japanese ancestry to assist him in taking over the island, with its small number of inhabitants, who knew nothing of the attack.