The Dark Side of the New Deal: FDR and the Japanese-Americans

Photo Source H.L.I.T. | CC BY 2.0

Ever since the election of Barack Obama, there has been a tendency for some on the left to hearken back to the New Deal as some kind of Golden Age. Early hopes placed in Obama becoming the reincarnation of FDR were soon dashed after he put the needs of “too big to fail” banks over that of distressed homeowners whose mortgages these banks treated as chips in a gambling casino.

The next FDR waiting in the wings was Bernie Sanders who swept millennials off their feet with calls to rein in the “billionaire class”. In 2015, he set the tone: “Against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day, people he called economic royalists, Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty, and restored our faith in government.”

In reality, the New Deal did very little to put people back to work outside of the WPA that consisted mostly of make-work projects at low pay. Instead, it was WWII that put millions back to work—and at a terrible cost. It is fair to say that Sanders is consistent with FDR at least on one basis. If military Keynesianism put America back to work starting in 1941, Sanders is ready to adopt the same approach as indicated by his vote to continue funding the F-35, a fighter jet that will cost $1.5 trillion over its service to American imperialism. Since they will be based in Burlington, Vermont, there is an element of pork barrel at work but that’s to be expected from a politician who values being re-elected more than reining in the Pentagon.

The latest homage paid to the New Deal comes in the form of a “Green New Deal” that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a wide swath of the left see as a combination of saving the planet and putting people to work building windmills, etc. Showing a poor grasp of how the Roosevelt and Truman administrations exploited the war and its aftermath to ensure American military and economic hegemony, Ocasio-Cortez told Huffington Post that “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan.” Since WWII and the Marshall Plan represent imperialist ambitions at their pinnacle, it strikes me as folly to invoke them on behalf of “democratic socialism” but who am I to advise such a successful politician?

For the DSA, the Sandernistas, and liberal opinion in general, FDR is likely the greatest president in American history for the past century just as Donald Trump is the worst. Since the 1930s was an era in which fascism took root and eventually precipitated a World War, it is natural to see FDR as the quintessential anti-fascist who would serve as a template for the kind of Democrat we need to replace Trump in the next election. Whether it is Bernie Sanders or some other candidate eager to invoke the New Deal legacy, how could anybody resist his or her appeal? With immigrant children herded into concentration camps, don’t we need a new anti-fascist government before it is too late?

Not long ago, I had lunch with Arn Kawano, a friend and Marxmail subscriber whose parents had been interned during WWII for no other reason than being Japanese-Americans living in California. I was anxious to discuss a film with him that I had reviewed recently titled “Resistance at Tule Lake”, which described how Japanese-Americans stood up for their rights as citizens against FDR’s fascist-like Executive Order 9066 that gave the green light to the camps.

Arn, who has a law degree, told me that despite liberal obsessions with constitutional rights, there is very little to protect such citizens when a government acts in the name of a national emergency. If anything, FDR’s willingness to shred the constitution should alert those invoking the New Deal as some kind of golden era for democracy and human rights to look more closely and objectively at American history. To give you an idea of the inability of American liberals to comprehend the depravity of FDR’s internment camps, Herbert Wechsler, an attorney who was part of the Nuremberg prosecution team, was also the government’s lawyer in a case defending the legality of Executive Order 9066. Later on, when Wechsler was teaching at the Columbia University law school, a student named Arn Kawano asked him if he had to do it all over again, would he have defended 9066? When he answered yes, Arn gathered up his books and walked out of the classroom.

A superficial understanding of the crime against Japanese-Americans might lead to the conclusion that Pearl Harbor was of such a profound blow to national security that internment was necessary. Keep in mind that even the Communist Party accepted the need to support Executive Order 9066 mandating the concentration camps. Through a front group called the Japanese American Committee for Democracy, it opposed Norman Thomas’s call for hearings on 9066 and endorsed army claims that an “evacuation” was necessary in the face of a potential Japanese invasion. As it happens, Japanese-Americans could avoid the camps if they agreed to evacuate California but the logistics of selling their homes and finding a new place to live elsewhere made this impossible.

In the course of our conversation, Arn recommended a book by Greg Robinson titled “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans”  that makes clear that 9066 was not only decades in the making but an Executive Order that FDR would have rejoiced in signing since his racist views on the Japanese dated back to his earlier years serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy between 1913 and 1919.

There were two powerful dynamics at work in American society in the years leading up to his appointment that helped to foment anti-Japanese hysteria. The first was social Darwinism that helped to view all immigrants as inimical to the preservation of the white race but Asians in particular. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, something you might be aware of if you have seen references to Ric Burns’s truly excellent documentary that can be seen online but there was also a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between Japan and the USA in 1907 that formally allowed immigration to the USA while simultaneously making the Japanese government place a ban on emigration. So, in effect, it was an exclusion act.

In 1923, FDR wrote an article for Asia magazine titled “Shall We Trust Japan” that sounds like it could have been written by Ann Coulter:

So far as Americans are concerned, it must be admitted that, as a whole, they honestly believe—and in this belief they are at one with the people of Australasia and Canada—that the mingling of white with oriental blood on an extensive scale is harmful to our future citizenship . . . As a corollary of this conviction, Americans object to the holding of large amounts of real property, of land, by aliens or those descended from mixed marriages. Frankly, they do not want non-assimilable immigrants as citizens, nor do they desire any extensive proprietorship of land without citizenship.

It should be understood that the hatred and fear of the Japanese was not like that directed toward African-Americans or Native Americans who were regarded as racially inferior. It was the prowess of the Japanese who had begun building a vibrant economy and a naval juggernaut that was a nightmare for FDR.

Among those who also feared the Japanese was Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Naval officer and historian, who extolled sea power as a way to build an empire. FDR considered Mahan as an expert on international relations. In a letter to a British journalist named Sir Valentine Chirol, who had deplored anti-Japanese riots in 1913, Mahan wrote:

While recognizing what I clearly see to be the great superiority of the Japanese as of the white over the negro, it appears to me as reasonable that a great number of my fellow-citizens, knowing the problem we have in the colored race among us, should dread the introduction of what they believe will constitute another race problem, and one much more difficult because the virile qualities of the Japanese will still more successfully withstand assimilation, constituting a homogenous foreign mass, naturally acting together, irrespective of national welfare, and so will be the perennial cause of a friction with Japan even more dangerous than at present.

Once he became President, FDR continued to view Japan warily. He also began to worry about Japanese-Americans constituting a threat to national security by virtue of their presence in Hawaii and California as a “fifth column”. With Japan beginning to colonize Manchuria and constitute a threat to American economic interests in East Asia, it was easy to anticipate an imperialist war between the two powers over who would control the oil, tin, rubber and other resources in the region.

As he began planning for war with Japan that included an expansion of the navy, FDR turned his attention to what he saw as Japanese assets in our hemisphere, especially in Hawaii. He commissioned a report on the Defense of Oahu that would impose martial law in Hawaii, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, register Japanese as “enemy aliens,” and selectively intern those believed to be dangerous. So if he was ready to resort to such measures before Pearl Harbor, should it be of any surprise that they would apply to California as well once the war started?

In 1940, tensions had risen to such an extent that FDR began laying the groundwork for the concentrations camps that would ensue. He transferred the INS from Labor to the Justice Department and required all aliens to register with the government. By now, he saw Japanese-Americans not only as aliens but as Japan’s fifth column. In October 1940 Navy Secretary Knox sent FDR a memo proposing fifteen steps to be taken “to impress the Japanese with the seriousness of our preparations” for war. They included the establishment of defensive areas by presidential proclamation, the transfer of the coast guard to the navy, and the seizure of Japanese and German ships in or near American ports. The most significant recommendation was Number 12 that read: “Prepare plans for concentration camps (Army-Justice).”

After Pearl Harbor, the wheels were put in motion to do to the Japanese living in the USA what Hitler had done to the left after the Reichstag fire and eventually what he would do to the Jews. To give the appearance of fair play, he asked John Franklin Carter, a former State Department Official and later on a prominent journalist, to prepare a report on the loyalty of Japanese-Americans in California. Carter urged him to issue a statement characterizing them as loyal and to eschew the “evacuation” that would condemn them to concentration camps and expropriate their property. FDR ignored Carter’s recommendations even if J. Edgar Hoover found them sensible.

In mid-1942 FDR commissioned Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, to prepare a report on various ethnic groups on how to assimilate them to American values after the war had ended. The esteemed anthropologist reminded him that their warlike character could be attributed to their less developed skulls. Greg Robinson reports that in a conversation with journalist Quentin Reynolds, FDR characterized the Japanese as a “treacherous people,” and “hissed through his teeth while quoting Japanese leaders in imitation of stereotypical Japanese speech patterns.” Robinson also reported:

FDR’s assistant, William Hassett, recounted in August 1942 that “the President related an old Chinese myth about the origin of the Japanese. A wayward daughter of an ancient Chinese emperor left her native land in a sampan and finally reached Japan, then inhabited by baboons. The inevitable happened and in due course the Japanese made their appearance.”

If this is not enough to cure people of their FDR idealization illness, I don’t know what else will.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.