New York Times, November 4, 2001
'By Order of the President': Under Suspicion By ALONZO L. HAMBY
THE forced relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War
II is little more than a footnote in most general histories of the war. Compared
with the Holocaust, the rape of Nanking, the siege of Leningrad or the indiscriminate
bombings of large cities by both sides, it can seem merely a misguided security
measure. But it was also a mass violation of civil liberties, rivaled in 20th-century
America only by the systematic segregation of African-Americans.
The standard narrative in a large scholarly literature on the subject stresses
longstanding prejudice on the West Coast, war-induced fear of a Japanese invasion
and the incompetence of on-the-spot military officials, who were afraid of a
Japanese-American fifth column. As a result, it is said, President Franklin
Roosevelt authorized the Army to remove designated civilians from Western military
command areas. Greg Robinson, an assistant professor of history at the University
of Quebec in Montreal, does not directly challenge this story. But the practical
effect of his investigation is to stand the received narrative on its head,
transferring prime responsibility from grass-roots bigots, local politicians
and erratic Army brass to the president and a small group in Washington.
A historical monograph, ''By Order of the President'' displays both the strengths
and weaknesses of a genre meant to contribute to knowledge through the intensive
investigation of a tightly limited topic. Robinson has probably dredged up every
comment Roosevelt ever uttered about Japanese-Americans over a 30-year period
-- and has very likely made his thinking more systematic than it actually was.
Roosevelt (like most Americans) saw little distinction between Japanese-Americans
and Japan; thus hostility toward Japan led easily to suspicion of Japanese-Americans.
The decision to evacuate Japanese-Americans from the West Coast was made carelessly,
Robinson says, without a conscious understanding that it would lead to internment
camps. Once implemented, internment was prolonged by the need to justify it
against legal challenges and by political pressures that kept most internees
in the camps through the 1944 election. Roosevelt emerges from this inquiry
with a coat of tarnish. So do icons like Secretary of War Henry Stimson, his
deputy, John J. McCloy, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. But
there is a problem of context.
As the author notes, Canada removed its Japanese population from British Columbia.
He might also have mentioned that Peru deported virtually every inhabitant of
Japanese descent to the United States for wartime internment. The suspicion
of ethnic Japanese was multinational, nonpartisan and nonideological. A long
list of liberal politicians supported the policy, including Earl Warren and
Fiorello La Guardia. The few principled heroes in this book include Eleanor
Roosevelt, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and the two civilian heads
of the War Relocation Authority, Milton Eisenhower and Dillon Myer. They struggled
futilely for an early end to the program against a flood tide of hysteria and
Robinson dutifully reports the larger context that brought the issue to Washington and to the president in early 1942. But the momentum of his narrative overrides this context, always taking him back to Roosevelt. He concludes that while the president ''should not be saddled with the entire burden of guilt'' for the internment, there was more than enough burden for him to bear. More generous observers, with a wider perspective, might see Roosevelt as a man at the end of a process that was all but unavoidable. A diligent work of scholarship, this book nonetheless takes too narrow a view of the responsibility for an episode of which we all must be ashamed. Alonzo L. Hamby, a professor of history at Ohio University, is currently at work on a study of the Age of Roosevelt in multinational perspective.