New Deals, From FDR’s to the Greens’

Louis Proyect is one of the authors I look for on CounterPunch because he writes interesting articles on a wide variety of topics and has great insights into both history and the present, as well as great film reviews. But I have to take issue with some of the things he wrote in November 27ths The Dark Side of the New Deal: FDR and the Japanese Americans.

First, I think he wrongly conflates the New Deal with the abysmal treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The internment of Japanese-Americans was not a New Deal program. In fact, as of December 8, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt’s overriding priority was the defeat of Germany and Japan in that order. This was reflected in his 1943 aside to a reporter that, “Doctor New Deal” had done his job and now it was time to bring in “Doctor Win the War.” Louis also seems to assign all of the blame for the internment policy to FDR. But the press also played a significant role in stoking fears of a Japanese-American “Fifth Column” in the United States, while West Coast congressmen and California’s Republican Attorney General, Earl Warren, were also demanding that the federal government “do something” about Japanese-Americans.

Historians, legal scholars and others have had decades to look back on and reassess the internment policy and today it is almost universally viewed as one of Roosevelt’s worst decisions. But to really understand history, we need to consider the full context of a given period at that time and how it influenced decision-making.

In late 1941, Roosevelt and his aides were expecting a Japanese attack on U.S. forces somewhere in the Pacific. Indeed, according to Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson’s diary entry for November 25, 1941, Roosevelt was desirous of maneuvering the Japanese into “firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves” (some claim Roosevelt may have done even more to engineer the Pearl Harbor attack, see, Robert Stinnett, Day of Deceit). But most Americans were shocked, panicky, angry and desirous for revenge. No U.S. territory had been attacked by a foreign foe since the War of 1812. The casualties were horrific. Though the Japanese had intended to give the U.S. thirty-minutes notice that peace negotiations were at an end and an attack was imminent, it was carried out without any formal declaration of war and was seen as a supreme act of treachery.

Pearl Harbor was a national crisis and in times of crisis people quite often overreact, do and say things they may later regret and make bad decisions in the heat of the moment (9/11 is a more recent example). The highly charged atmosphere on the West Coast was satirized in the 1979 film, 1941, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, among others, which left out any mention of Japanese-American internment.

I agree with Louis that European-American and specifically FDR’s own racism towards the Japanese were clearly a factor in the internment decision. Comparatively small numbers of German and Italian nationals and American citizens of German or Italian descent were also interned in camps, however, it was nothing like the experience of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. But let’s examine this with more historical background.

Japan underwent one of the most astonishing transformations in history in the late 19thcentury, from a feudal backwater to a modern, industrial, Capitalist-Imperialist state in less than thirty years. Japan’s new modernity was coupled with retention of key aspects of its ancient culture, such as the belief that its emperor was descended from the gods and was, in fact, a deity himself. Closely related was the idea that the Japanese were a chosen people, a superior race with the right to dominate East Asia and the Pacific. Coincidentally, Japan was poor in the resources necessary to fuel an industrial economy.

These ideas and material realities first came into play when Japan went to war with the moribund Chinese Empire in 1894, to wrest control of Korea from the latter. Britain, France and Russia intervened to stop Japan from keeping some of its conquests, specifically strategic Port Arthur at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, but Japan did acquire the island of Taiwan, where it went on to brutally suppress the island’s indigenous population. Of course, right around the same time, the U.S. was brutally suppressing an indigenous independence movement in the Philippine Islands, in the wake of the Spanish-American War (1898).

Russia in turn acquired a lease for the Liaodong Peninsula, including Port Arthur, which it turned into a naval base and began making incursions into Korea. The Japanese were infuriated. On the night of February 8, 1904, they launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur crippling the Russian Imperial Far East Fleet. The Japanese then administered a series of humiliating defeats on the Russians, culminating in the great naval battle of Tsushima, sometimes called, “the Trafalgar of the East.” Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, took the initiative to organize a peace conference between the two belligerents for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize (TR’s own racism is a discussion for another time).

By 1910, Japan had officially annexed Korea, where again dissent was ruthlessly crushed. Japan sided with the Allies in World War I, so it could acquire German colonies in China and the South Pacific. In 1915, Japan presented a list of “Twenty-One Demands” to the new Republic of China, which greatly extended its influence over China’s economy. In 1931, Japanese military forces occupying Southern Manchuria created an “incident,” which they used to conquer the entire province. In 1937, the same technique was used again to justify going to war with China Proper. In December 1937, the Japanese occupied Nanjing and went on a six-week rampage of mass murder and rape. Casualty estimates run from anywhere 40,000 to 300,000. In one of the great ironies of history, John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member, acting in an official capacity no less, was instrumental in sheltering approximately 200,000 Chinese from molestation, torture or death. Around the same time, the Japanese attacked the gunboat USS Panay, while it was at anchor on the Yangtze River outside of Nanjing, with a loss of three Americans killed and forty-three wounded (we might certainly question what an American gunboat was doing on the Yangtze in the first place). Louis gives us a far more sanitized version of this history explaining that it was merely Japan’s “building a vibrant economy” and “naval juggernaut” that bothered FDR.

My point is not to exonerate Roosevelt for the Japanese-American internment or but only to show that, as man with a keen interest in foreign affairs, a former assistant secretary of the Navy and later president, most if not all of this history would have been well-known to him and it almost certainly influenced his opinion of the Japanese, however misguided the results might have been viz. Japanese-Americans.

Louis also claims 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.” But there’s more to this story as well. As part of his legendary first hundred days, Roosevelt’s first jobs program was actually the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which put men young, unmarried men to work in the national forests, providing employment for 2.5 million people over the next ten years. Enrollees worked 40 hours a week for $30 (equivalent to $567 in 2017). There was also a compulsory deduction of $22-25 if the enrollee had any dependents or family in need. Hardly a fortune but in those days $20,000 a year was considered a massive income. Reflective of the times, women were barred from the CCC, while quotas limited black men to just 10% of jobs and they were housed in segregated camps (see, Nancy E Rose, Put to Work: The WPA and Public Employment in the Great Depression).

However, in the decade or so of its existence, the CCC planted an estimated 3 billion trees, constructed trails, lodges and related facilities in over 800 parks nationwide, updated forest fire fighting methods and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas. The CCC also had separate programs for veterans and Native Americans. Approximately 15,000 Native Americans participated in the program.

Then there was the Public Works Administration (PWA), created in June 1933. The PWA did not employ men directly but contracted with private construction firms to do all kinds of large-scale public works projects. PWA projects included the Overseas Highway, connecting Key West Florida to the mainland, the Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City as well as the high school I attended on the north shore of Long Island many moons ago.

Next up was the short-lived, Civil Works Administration (CWA) (New Deal critics referred to these and other new federal agencies as “Alphabet Soup”), established in November 1933, which did employ people directly. By March 1934, when the program was terminated, the CWA had created work for 4.3 million people. The CWA laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe, built or made substantial improvements to 255,000 miles of road, 40,000 schools, 3700 playgrounds and nearly 1,000 airports (see, Charles Peter and Timothy Noah, Wrong Harry: four million jobs in two years? FDR did it in two months, Slate))

The WPA was a latecomer, not being instituted until 1935. But it employed a total of 8.5 million people until the program was ended in 1943. Hourly wages were typically set to the prevailing wage in a given area. Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school that was constructed by the agency. The WPA also sponsored Federal Project Number One, which employed musicians, artists, writers and directors in arts, drama, media and literacy projects. Actor/producers, John Houseman and Orson Welles were both part of Federal Project Number One’s Federal Theater Project, overseen by the indefatigable Hallie Flanagan (all of whom are portrayed in the 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock).

Louis takes my soon to be neighboring congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to task for “paying homage” to the original New Deal by proposing a new “Green New Deal.” The idea actually originated with the Green Party and was a prominent part of Howie Hawkin’s (a true political mensch if there ever was one) recent campaign for governor of New York State. The analogy may not be perfect but the Greens and Ocasio-Cortez are tapping into political imagery that still resonates well with many Americans for good reasons. The New Deal did a lot to make the United States a better place to live and work. Today’s Green Party, Green New Deal looks pretty good to me too.

Like all great leaders (“great” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”) Franklin Roosevelt was a complicated and often contradictory personality. He could be quite conservative at times but at others quite radical. What other president ever proposed capping top incomes (albeit, as a war measure)? What other president ever proposed a second, economic Bill of Rights that would have guaranteed every American the right to a decent paying job, housing, education and health care?

Roosevelt had his “dark side,” that is undeniable. The 1923 Asia magazine statement Louis cites about the, “mingling of white with oriental blood” is indefensible. But this was also a man who spent a considerable amount of his own money to establish the Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation (which still exists as part of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency), to try to help victims of polio, primarily children (though Roosevelt himself was diagnosed with polio in 1921, today it is believed that his symptoms were more consistent Guillain-Barre syndrome).

All things considered, If I had been forced to pick a leader of a major nation to live under during the period 1933-45, my lesser evil would have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hands down.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City