How Eleanor Roosevelt Tried to Stop Her Husband Approving Japanese Internment Camps During World War II

Following the Dec. 7th 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, there were many things that happened. Rumours of sabotageNervous Americans were aware of the possibility of further attacks and found it easy to believe that there would be more. In a press conference shortly after inspecting the damage, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox attributed (without evidence) their precision in hitting military targets to a “fifth column” in Hawaii who had aided the enemy. Speculation and panic proliferated—fishermen aiding the Japanese navy, farmers poisoning vegetables, and strikes on power lines and other critical infrastructure.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of America appealed to calm in this frenetic atmosphere. Just days following the attack, she traveled to California to be with her husband and to take photographs. Japanese Americans—a decision that angered many.
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Eleanor who Decowned “foolish prejudices about other races,” once again Implored readers of her newspaper and magazine columns that those of Japanese ancestry “must not feel that they have suddenly ceased to be Americans,” and that such a crisis was the time for “really believing in the Bill of Rights and making it a reality for all loyal American citizens, regardless of race.”

Those rights were in a precarious place within her husband’s administration. The government almost immediately froze many Japanese Americans’ assets, but she convinced the Treasury Department to allow withdrawals for critical living expenses.Und She returned to Washington and met with many officials to try to stop the trend towards sweeping actions against Japanese Americans.

Salinas, California. Persons of Japanese ancestry at one of the assembly centers where they lived temporarily before being transferred to relocation centers 3/31/1942
Universal Images Group—Getty ImagesJapanese Americans are pictured in assembly centres in Salinas (Calif.) on Mar. 3, 1942.

Other prominent voices continued to echo this sentiment Drumbeat of suspicion Februar 1942 influential writer Walter Lippman amplified Knox’s warnings of a “fifth column” comprised of immigrants and their descendants, and criticized Washington for hesitating to impose “mass internment” of these “enemy aliens.” Fellow columnist Westbrook Pegler likened him to a contemporary Paul Revere, and declared “to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.”

The rhetoric was a reflection of internal pressures that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt. General John DeWitt led the Western Defense Command. Submitted on February 14, 1942 that the “Japanese race is an enemy race” who, regardless of birthplace, would be ready to die for Japan. The lack of evidence that such plots existed was dismissed by he as an elaborate scheme to make a statement. False sense of security Earl Warren, then California’s attorney general, That was our agreement Japanese Americans were “ideally situated… to carry into execution a tremendous program of sabotage on a mass scale.”

San Francisco, California. On a brick wall beside air raid shelter poster, exclusion orders were posted at First and Front Streets directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from first San Francisco section to be affected by evacuation.
Universal Images Group—Getty ImagesExclusion orders were posted on a brick wall near the poster for the air raid shelter in April 1942, directing San Francisco residents to remove anyone of Japanese descent.

This racially charged language taps into long-standing hatreds and prejudices. Although it does contain a A small proportion of the population, Japanese Americans “were despised as economic competitors,” says Greg Robinson, Professor of HistoryAt l’Université du Québec À Montréal and author of By order of the President. For decades, Japanese immigrants had faced a host of laws barring them from land ownership, citizenship, and further immigration—antecedents of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882That targeted laborers from immigrant communities.

“I think the incarceration of Japanese Americans really was an outcome of the Peril Yellow stereotype that was fomented by politicians and institutionalized in other policies directed against Asians in the U.S.,” adds Russell Jeung Professor of Asian American StudiesSan Francisco State University

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This entrenched legal disenfranchisement made it easier to target “aliens” on pre-existing surveillance listsWho were they? Quickly taken into custodyWithout charge. For Japanese Americans, Roosevelt’s Depression-era warning that fear itself was to be feared was becoming a painful reality.He signed the document on February 19, 1942. Executive Order No. 9066This opened the door to the forced relocation of approximately 120,000 people. A national pollA majority of Americans believed this was necessary. Overnight, lives were torn asunder as “evacuees” were hastily gathered at “assembly centers” and taken to “relocation centers”— euphemisms for the camps that imprisoned them through much of the war.

Once the Order was in effect, Eleanor faced a quandary as the nation’s wartime first lady. “Unlike [her husband], she does not believe that wartime emergencies override civil liberties protections,” says Allida Black,The editor emeritus Eleanor Roosevelt Papers ProjectAnd a distinguished visitor scholarThe University of Virginia Miller Center for Public Affairs. So She disputed what she couldn’t. She offered her support in myriad ways, corresponding with Japanese Americans, donating from her own funds, meeting with civic groups, helping to establish scholarships—and later, meeting with wounded Japanese American soldiers.

Eleanor Roosevelt At Internment Camp
Francis Stewart—PhotoQuest/Getty ImagesJapanese Americans are seen at Pinal County’s Gila River Relocation Center, Ariz., greeting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (director of War Relocation Authority) and Dillon S Myer (director), during their April tour of the internment camps. 23, 1943.

In the spring 1943, her most prominent engagement was at the Gila River internment camps in Arizona. She refuted assertions residents were being “coddled” and praisedTheir improvements were made to desert environments. Unpublished Version draftAn article that she wrote Collier’s magazine, she wrote that “to undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally but we seldom have the foresight.”

media interviews, she was more measured, acknowledging the official line of military necessity but supporting conditional release, saying that the “sooner we get the Japanese out of relocation camps the better.” These public comments indicated that she was conflicted, but pragmatic. “She’s not actively challenging the policy,” says Robinson. “She’s trying to make things better for people within the policy.”

“She had no doubt that internment was unconstitutional,” says Black. Yet, for the remainder of her life, she refrained from criticizing her husband’s decision or mentioning her own advocacy.

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Many Japanese interned in camps in 1943 saw restrictions gradually lifted, though this was partly due to the flawed assumption that they were being held hostage. questionnaireintention to test their loyalty. Two of those questions caused deep rifts within incarcerated communities; one asked about the willingness of military-age men to be drafted, and the other asked them to swear allegiance to the United States—and forswear imperial allegiances they had never held. Numerous second-generation Nisei men took up the opportunity to enlist. However, others opposed what they considered unfair questions given their prison conditions and inability to become citizens. It was not a perfect solution: the divergence allowed the birth of the The 442nd Regimental Combat TeamThe whose Read the entire storyIt is a story of extraordinary bravery and sacrifice. However, it sent disloyals to California’s Tule Lake camp.

The Roosevelts Bring Prosperity
Transcendental Graphics—Getty ImagesAn illustrated portrait from the 1930s of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It is surrounded by small vignettes suggesting national prosperity.

Eleanor’s words about the challenges of undoing a mistake were prescient. Despite the loyalty questionnaire, military victories in the Pacific, and the fact that War Department officials had not seen the concerns about military necessity for internment borne out, it wasn’t until late in 1944—after much bureaucratic deliberation—that Executive Order No. 9066 was repealed.

Report by a congressionally-established commission later confirmed that “not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed” by those Order 9066 targeted. ItConcluded that “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” resulted in a “grave injustice” against them.

“We know that in periods of war, periods of pandemic, periods of economic downturn, racism increases against Asian Americans,” Jeung says. There were a lot of hate crimes committed last year against Asians The rise was 339 PercentAccording to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. A November 2021 survey by Stop Hating on AAPIJeung also co-founded the company. 1 out of 5 Asian Americans have reported hate incidentsSince the outbreak of the pandemic.

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Eleanor’s defense of Japanese Americans in that prevailing climate of hostility created added risks for her, too. “Eleanor is the most beloved and most hated first lady up until that time,” says Black, pointing to her refusal of Secret Service protection—instead choosing to Have her own gun—despite consistent death threats against her.

But fear has many facets—constructive and destructive—that emerge under duress. A reader asked the question.What she was most afraid of, the First Lady responded that it was to be “afraid—afraid physically or mentally or morally—and allow myself to be influenced by fear instead of by my honest convictions.”


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