The End of History? FDR, Trump and the Fake Past

Photo Credit: Hackernoon

 

 

“I’m a student of history and I see what happens when you fire people and it’s not good.”
Donald Trump, remarks, April 26, 2019

 

Perhaps we are so inured to President Trump’s declarations of “fake news” that we don’t think much about his other methods of disinformation—history, for example—unless, of course, it is to chuckle at his apparent ignorance of the past when he makes a gaffe. But Trump is thinking more about history than we imagine and he is doing so in a way very different from former presidents, who used history as a way to unite the nation. For Trump history is a way to enhance his personal power. Occasionally Trump’s apparent ignorance of history makes headlines, and when it does we tend to dismiss it as not very serious in comparison with other presidential failings. But we should not be complacent. It is a powerful part of his political armamentarium aimed at our democracy.

TRUMP’S FAKE PAST

Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump moved a portrait of Andrew Jackson into the Oval Office. We soon learned that under the tutelage of chief strategist Steve Bannon, the president had become an admirer of Andrew Jackson—ironically enough the founder of the Democratic Party. But it wasn’t Jackson’s party affiliation that attracted the new president; it was his populism and strong man anti-establishment politics, qualities that Trump sees in himself.

The president’s apparently slender grasp of history grabbed headlines on May 1, 2017, when he gave an interview on satellite radio, telling the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito, that “had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”  

Of course Andrew Jackson died in 1845, sixteen years before the Civil War broke out. Trump may have been referring to the nullification crisis of 1832, a standoff between the federal government and South Carolina. But the facts of history have little relevance when Trump is making a point. The point was that in Trump’s view a powerful leader who breaks the rules can save the country, even from a calamity as “irrepressible” (to quote William H. Seward) as the Civil War.

The Jackson portrait controversially formed the backdrop for an event honoring World War II Navajo code talkers later in 2017, when the president created a spectacle by posing the Native American veterans in front of the Jackson portrait. Could it have been accidental—or simply boorish—that he drew attention to Andrew Jackson’s infamous 1830 Indian Removal Policy, the forced relocation of Native Americans from their homelands in the southeastern United States to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River in today’s Oklahoma? Are there echoes here of his white nativism and anti-immigrant policies? Politicizing the event further, Trump took the occasion to renew his attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren with the insulting nickname “Pocahantas.”   

President Trump at event honoring Navaho Code Talkers, November 27, 2019 Credit: AP

Trump is famously proud of what he sees as his intelligence, which often leads him to depart from prepared remarks. When he extemporizes about history, he betrays his abysmal ignorance—but it is worth remembering that such comments have their origins in a vainglorious desire to impress, not an innocuous ignorance. During Black History Month in 2017, Trump seemed to think Frederick Douglass is still alive. “I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” There were other times when his basic ignorance of history raised eyebrows: he inquired from the podium at a National Republican Congressional Committee fundraising dinner if anyone knew Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican.” Or when he spoke to the Women’s Empowerment Panel and asked his audience, “Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?”

He was rightly ridiculed for these remarks. But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has said, “History is no joke. It’s on the curriculum because it is only through it that the psyches of other nations can be understood and wars averted.” I would add that it is only through an understanding of American history that we can transmit the principles of our democracy to the next generation.  

 

THE END OF HISTORY?

The title for this piece is borrowed from Francis Fukuyama’s famous 1989 essay published in The National Interest. Fukuyama declared that with the fall of the Berlin Wall the world was about to experience the “end of history.”

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” he wrote, “or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such.” For Fukuyama writing in an age of hope for a new “post-ideological” world—that is, a world not driven by communism, fascism, or even monarchism and imperialism—it seemed that we had achieved a level of human political development marked by the triumph of liberal democracy in partnership with modern capitalism. He saw “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Fukuyama has been much criticized for his seemingly premature (if not naive) declaration of the triumph of liberal democracy, especially as the events of the past decade unfolded: the disastrous outcome of the Arab Spring’s promise of democracy; the rise of autocrats in Hungary, Turkey, Thailand, and Poland—not to mention China and Russia; and now the increasingly illiberal politics of nativist and anti-immigrant parties in France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. Britain struggles to define itself in the wake of Brexit . . . and in the United States the Trump administration has made common cause with dictators around the world and breathed new life into nativism, white nationalism, and isolationism.

We may, in fact, be witnessing the end of liberal democracy instead of the end of history. And closing our minds to the objective past can only hasten the process.

 

TRUMP ERASES HISTORY

In an impromptu press conference on the White House lawn before heading to a National Rifle Association event in Indiana, Trump reprised his notorious statement that there were “very fine people” on “both sides” of the August 12, 2017, riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. His comments were prompted by Joe Biden’s criticism of Trump’s response to Charlottesville as the centerpiece of his announcement of his presidential candidacy against Trump. In response, Trump pronounced that he had handled the incident “perfectly.” Denying that he was referring to white supremacists when he equated the opposing sides of the demonstrations that led to the riot, Trump insisted he was “talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general.” He continued, “People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.”

The history of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee sculpture controversy bears review. Its origins lie in the 2015 mass shooting in which nine African-American worshippers were murdered at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a neo-Confederate white supremacist seeking to incite a race war. In the wake of that shooting, Confederate monuments and symbols were removed nationwide. In Charlottesville local citizens petitioned the city council for the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee and other symbols. To decide the question, the city council appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces—which recommended removal, an action approved by the city council in February 2017. Opponents of removal, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans, filed a lawsuit against the city. By then the fate of the statue was the subject of intense local controversy. In May a notorious local white nationalist, Richard B. Spencer, led a torchlight parade protesting the removal of the statue; in July fifty Ku Klux Klan members held a rally to protest removing the statue, which attracted several hundred counter-protestors. Both events were dispersed by police, who used tear gas and made 23 arrests at the July rally.

Unite the Right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Image courtesy of Unicorn Riot via Wikipedia Commons

A larger gathering of white supremacists from several states, dubbed the Unite the Right rally, was called for August 11–12. Protesters included neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, and far right militia members. They chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans and displayed neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, and anti-Muslim regalia as they marched carrying lighted torches. They were met by counter-protestors, one of whom was killed and nineteen of whom were injured when a white nationalist plowed his car into the crowd of counter-protestors.

This nuanced and highly sensitive history is completely erased by Trump’s simplistic explanation of his comment that he was referring to nothing more complicated than protests and counter-protests over the statue of a “great general.” Given the circumstances of the events surrounding Charlottesville, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is deliberately distorting these events. Is he trying to solidify his electoral base by changing the facts to suit his purposes? And do those purposes include glossing over America’s troubled history of race relations?

In addition to simplification, repetition is an important part of Trump’s political strategy in using history. A series of extracts from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.com makes this clear. For example, on January 19, 2019, he declared:

Newt Gingrich just stated that there has been no president since Abraham Lincoln who has been treated worse or more unfairly by the media than your favorite President, me! At the same time there has been no president who has accomplished more in his first two years in office!

This statement was repeated 57 times. In rebuttal, Fact Checker states in part, “Trump, unlike many presidents in his first two years, had signed few major pieces of legislation. Certainly, the whirlwind of accomplishments under presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama exceed Trump’s efforts.”

Or there was this statement on February 12, 2019: “More people working today in the United States than at any time in the history of our country.” This claim was repeated 55 times and was rebutted in part by Fact Checker with these words:

Of course there are more Americans working. That’s because there are more Americans today than ever before. More meaningful measures of the overall health of the job market take population into consideration. The unemployment rate, or the share of people who don’t have jobs, was at 3.9 percent in December and that wasn’t a record low.

Or on February 21, 2019, the president proclaimed “the largest tax cuts in the history of our country” and repeated it 131 times. Fact Checker responded:

Trump’s tax cut amounts to nearly 0.9 percent of the gross domestic product, meaning it is far smaller than President Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981, which was 2.89 percent of GDP. Trump’s tax cut is the eighth largest tax cut—and even smaller than two tax cuts passed under Barack Obama.

Trump also declared, on April 15, “Our country has one of the best economies in many years, perhaps ever” and repeated it 134 times, but as the Fact Checker pointed out:

The president can certainly brag about the state of the economy, but he runs into trouble when he makes a play for the history books. By just about any important measure, the economy today is not doing as well as it did under Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson or Bill Clinton—or Ulysses S. Grant.

These distortions of the historical record are just a few excerpts from the first few months of 2019. Psychologists tell us that repeating an untruth has the effect of validating it as truthful. This is called the “illusory truth effect” and is used often in advertising, political campaigns, and propaganda. Researchers first identified it in 1977 but its practitioners date back to Quintillian, Napoleon, and Marcus Antonio in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. President Trump understands the truth effect and uses it artfully as part of his disinformation attack on American history.  

 

PRESIDENTIAL USES OF HISTORY

Politicians, of course, have always used history—and continue to do so today—to bolster their programs and policies. Some distort it to serve their purposes. Franklin Roosevelt spoke about how politicians use history to validate their positions at a Jackson Day dinner, January 8, 1940.

Millions of unnecessary words and explanations and solemn comments are uttered and written year in and year out about the great men of American history . . . to prove what Jefferson or Hamilton, Jackson or Clay, Lincoln or Douglas, Cleveland or Blaine, Theodore Roosevelt or Bryan, would have said or would have done . . . if they were alive today. . . . Yes, the devil can quote past statesmen as readily as he can quote the Scriptures, in order to prove his purpose.”

And yes, FDR massaged history to meet his political objectives . . . but I think there is much to be said about a president who communicates with the public secure in the knowledge that he and they share an understanding of a generally accepted “truthful” understanding of the American past.

According to Alexander Heffner, host of PBS’s Open Mind, Trump’s acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016—unlike the acceptance speeches of previous nominees—failed to mention a single presidential precedent.  Beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union speech on February 27, 1860, in which Lincoln showed that a majority of the signers of the Constitution opposed extending slavery into new territories, presidential candidates have bolstered their positions to the electorate with historical allusions. Lincoln was able to demonstrate that his position, and that of the new Republican Party, was hardly radical; it was the view of the majority of the Founders. Other Republican presidents have similarly borrowed from their forbears. When Theodore Roosevelt broke away from the Republican Party to start the Bull Moose Party, he cited Lincoln. On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Wendell Willkie—in his 1940 bid against Franklin Roosevelt—embraced TR’s motto “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” Ronald Reagan famously evoked the Puritans’ “shining city on a hill” to inspire his vision for a new America.

President Obama delivering his Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2013.
Credit: USA Magazine

Yes, we are in a “post-historical” era in which the traditional narrative of American history is much contested. But the fundamentals of the American creed of liberty and equality remain potent—as Barack Obama made clear in his Second Inaugural, which was anchored in the Declaration of Independence. He called upon Americans to remember the Revolutionary War, Lincoln, the Civil War, and John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural. He referenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the nation’s struggle for civil rights including Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.

As Obama and every successful president before him has demonstrated, the power to lead this nation is connected to the power to inspire people to act upon the generative ideas of American democracy. When the president and the American public share an understanding of American history, they are in communication with one another and engaged in an exchange of ideas that can result in persuasion, changed minds, leadership, and a stronger and more equitable democracy.  

Donald Trump’s uses of history are qualitatively different from those of other presidents. Unaware of or uninterested in the complexities of the past, history is useful to him only out of necessity when faced with the requirement to preside at an event with historical resonance (i.e., comments on Black History Month or before a group of feminist women), or when he finds himself in trouble for making insensitive comments (Charlottesville). These uses are, perhaps, easily dismissed by informed Americans for their obvious inaccuracy. But Trump also routinely turns to history to employ the “truth effect” on the record of his presidency. In broad, erroneous, and self-serving generalizations, he delivers a steady stream of disinformation: Trump has produced the best or the most successful economy or employment record, or the largest inaugural audience, or the most legislation and the most successful first hundred days of any president in American history. He bends and twists history to deliver a fake past that glorifies him and inflates his power. Americans who have an understanding of the nation’s past dismiss these conceits—but for many his “fake past,” like his pronouncements on “fake news,” take on the illusion of truth.   

 

FDR’S USES OF HISTORY

Franklin Roosevelt often led by using historical example. Sometimes he made light of it, as in his Second Fireside Chat when he used America’s most famous self-made man to criticize Wall Street speculators who chafed under the New Deal’s banking and investment regulations. “Only a very small minority of the people of this country,” he declared, “believe in gambling as a substitute for the old philosophy of Benjamin Franklin that the way to wealth is through work.” Then he cheekily pointed out that government regulation was even favored by America’s first Republican president. “I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that ‘the legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves.’”

Franklin D. Roosevelt Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

But if reference to the “great men” of American history does not resonate today, FDR also called upon the common narrative of American resourcefulness in a speech commemorating George Rogers Clark.

I have called those of us who are here today ‘pioneers of 1934.’ . . . We, too, . . . have come to a realization . . . that the accustomed order of our formerly established lives does not suffice to meet the perils and the problems, which today we are compelled to face. Again, mere survival calls for a new pioneering on our part.

In the midst of World War II, FDR used Washington’s Birthday as the opportunity to call the nation together, recalling Washington’s famous prayer at Valley Forge.

The skeptics and the cynics of Washington’s day did not believe that ordinary men and women have the capacity for freedom and self-government. They said that liberty and equality were idle dreams that could not come true—just as today there are many Americans who sneer at the determination to attain freedom from want and freedom from fear, on the ground that these are ideals which can never be realized. They say it is ordained that we must always have poverty, and that we must always have war.

Here and in many other speeches FDR linked the achievement of lasting world peace to his two new freedoms (freedom from want and freedom from fear) and the fundamental guarantees of the First Amendment, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Much as Obama linked the Declaration of Independence to civil rights, women’s rights, and the rights of the LGBT community, FDR—like any president seeking to strengthen the nation and the world—knew he could turn to history to support his case.

 

ON HISTORY AND AMERICAN LEADERSHIP

During their historic visit to the U.S. in 1939, the King and Queen of England visited Mount Vernon. Here they are pictured a few days later in front of the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park, June 8, 1939. From left: Eleanor Roosevelt, King George VI, Sara Delano Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, and Franklin Roosevelt. Credit: Legacy Files WordPress

In a telephone call to Mount Vernon I learned that Franklin Roosevelt visited Mount Vernon twelve times during his presidency, the most visits by any president before or since—most famously, perhaps, when he escorted the King and Queen of England to Washington’s home during their 1939 state visit. It was the first time that a reigning British monarch had set foot on American soil. With that visit FDR signaled the metaphorical end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the Anglo-American alliance that would be needed to defeat Hitler.  

It was recently reported that President and Mrs. Trump escorted President and Madame Macron on a visit to Mount Vernon in April 2018. The museum’s president and CEO, Doug Bradburn, conducted the tour but found it hard to hold President Trump’s attention. So he explained that Washington was a major real estate speculator in his time.  

Trump couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself. “If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”   

Bradburn then told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.

President and Mrs. Trump and President and Madame Macron at Mount Vernon,
April 23, 2018. Image courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies Association

But did Trump really get the point?

That Washington’s greatness was founded in his modesty, truthfulness, and above all his understanding that presidential power in a democratic republic requires the ability to turn away from it.

That Washington could have been king, or at the very least president for life. Everyone wanted him to remain in power but he returned to Mount Vernon.

That Washington knew he was establishing important precedents for every president to follow. Does Trump understand what every president before him has understood: the importance of historical precedent, not as useful for “cover,” self-promotion, or personal protection, but rather as fundamental to American governing?

Trump’s behavior suggests that he does not understand the basics of our form of government, all of which are grounded in history.

  • The separation of powers and the necessity for the executive to share power with Congress and the courts.
  • The importance of freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.
  • The importance of honoring and extending national values—among them, the U.S. as a haven for the world’s dispossessed.
  • An awareness of the accomplishments of past generations.
  • The need to continue the unfinished work of the promise of liberty and justice for all.
  • The importance of understanding the sources of U.S. power in its alliances, upholding its treaties, and in international institutions such as NATO and the UN.
  • And above all America’s role in the world as the exemplar of liberal democracy.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing on the eve of the millennium, was as confident as Fukuyama that we had achieved an historic triumph over the political ideologies of the past.

Our world at the millennium is plainly not Hitler’s world. 
The Thousand Year Reich had a ghastly run of a dozen years. 
Nor is it the world of Lenin and Stalin.  
The Communist dream turned out to be a political, economic, and moral nightmare.
Nor is it Churchill’s world. He was a great war leader, but he was the son of empire, and empires have faded into oblivion. 
Our world today is Roosevelt’s world.

For liberal democracy to survive, let alone to thrive as Schlesinger and Fukuyama saw it, the president must understand history and his place in it. And then he (or she) has to use it to lead all the people to a shared understanding of the meaning of American democracy.

In Trump I’m afraid we have literally come face to face with the end of historical understanding, which opens the door to that which our founders most feared—the abuse of power. In the 18th century the danger was the unbridled monarchy; today it is the autocrat, the demagogue. Let us reconfirm our national commitment to historical understanding as a vital force in animating American citizenship and democracy.

 

SOURCES
“Address at the Jackson Day Dinner, January 8, 1940.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt [v. 9]: War and Aid to Democracies, 1940. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Macmillan, 1941, p. 29.
“Second Fireside Chat of 1934, September 30, 1934,” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, v. 3: The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Random House, 1938, pp. 421-22.
“Address at George Rogers Clark Celebration, Harrodsburg, Kentucky, November 16, 1934.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, v. 3: The Advance of Recovery and Reform, 1934. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Random House, 1938, p. 457.  
“Radio Address on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1943.” Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt [v. 12.]: The Tide Turns, 1943. Edited by Samuel I. Rosenman. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950, p. 112.   
Telephone conversation, Karen Anson, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, with Jennifer Kittraus, George Washington–Mount Vernon Historic Site, January 20, 2006.  
Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr. Time, April 13, 1998.

Then and Now: When Presidents Fear

Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” the ringing words by which he inspired courage and hope in a nation devastated by the Great Depression.  Eight years later, in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this same president signed Executive Order 9066, which removed over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast and confined them to internment camps during World War II.

If Franklin Roosevelt, champion of the Four Freedoms, fell prey to xenophobia in 1942, with lasting injury to our democracy, what damage is being done today by the Trump presidency, which targets Muslims, Mexicans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Africans.

Greg Robinson’s historical paper was originally presented at our conference When Presidents Fear on March 4, 2017.   We post it now in remembrance of the 76th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

 

FDR’s Decision to sign Executive Order 9066: Lessons From History

Greg Robinson, Professor of History at l’Université du Québec À Montréal.

 

 

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D Roosevelt singed Executive Order 9066. As a result of the President’s order, over 110,000 Japanese Americans were ordered from their homes without trial and sent to camps under military guard. Some 70,000 of these people were U.S. citizens of an average age of approximately 18, and the rest were long-resident aliens who were predominantly middle-aged. They were allowed to take only what they could carry, and were thus forced to sell or dispose of homes, businesses, cars and all other personal property. The Japanese Americans were first herded into a network of “Assembly Centers,” which were generally disused fairgrounds and race tracks. There the inmates were housed in stables and animal pens. After several weeks or months, the Japanese Americans were sent on under guard to a network of “relocation centers,” camps operated by a new government agency, the War Relocation Authority. These American-style concentration camps were located in remote desert and swamp areas and were surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries. The inmates were housed in hastily-built tar paper shacks, with one room per family. Health and sanitary facilities were primitive, especially at the outset, and food was limited and poor quality. Although all adults were expected to work, their maximum salary was set at $19 per month. The stark conditions of the camps and the stigma of arbitrary imprisonment led to trauma and conflict among the inmates, and sparked several strikes and riots in the camps. In the end, most Japanese Americans remained in the camps throughout the war years.

How could this have happened in a nation fighting a war to preserve freedom against fascism? In particular how could it have happened during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, a President justly renowned for his humanitarianism and support for democracy? This is the question with which I began my inquiry. Still, it is possible to identify several important factors that shaped the President’s actions. As Milton Eisenhower, who became the first director of the WRA, the civilian government agency that ran the camps, later stated, “The President’s final decision was influenced by a variety of factors, by events over which he had little control, by inaccurate or incomplete information, by bad counsel, by strong political pressures, and by his own training, background and personality.”

In my book By Order of the President (Harvard University Press, 2001), I discuss at length how all these factors influenced the actions of President Roosevelt, first in his decision to approve the mass removal of West Coast Japanese Americans, and subsequently in his actions in support of the policy. Although sporadic, these decisions were essential in determining the duration of the incarceration and the consequences to its victims. What I would like to explore is to look at the role played in the President’s decision by the last of the factors cited by Eisenhower, namely the President’s training, background, and personality. From this point of view, the President’s past attitudes towards Japanese Americans must be considered as a significant factor in his decision to approve Executive Order 9066. Franklin Roosevelt had a long history of viewing Japanese Americans in undifferentiated racial terms as essentially Japanese, and of expressing hostility to them on that basis.

In order to understand this history, it is necessary to look back at the turn of the century American society in which the young Franklin Roosevelt grew up and came of age, and how he was shaped by dominant ideas. At the time, the nation’s intellectual climate was dominated by Darwinian or biological thinking. According to the ideas of Charles Darwin on animal evolution, which were adapted to human society by such thinkers as Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, humanity was divided into different groups, or races. Just as the various species of animals adapted in order to survive more easily in a given environment, each race developed particular characteristics that gave them an advantage. Thus, the various races developed not only different physical characteristics—height, skin color, body shape, skull shape, and so forth—in response to their particular surroundings, but also particular personality traits.

How did these ideas affect the young FDR? He deplored visceral prejudice, and he expressed interest in Japanese culture and became friendly with a number of Japanese. Nevertheless, he regarded the Japanese as a danger. In 1913, shortly after Roosevelt was named Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the government of Woodrow Wilson, the protests of California whites against Japanese immigrant farmers led to the Alien Land Act, as I mentioned, which forbade these immigrants property rights. The passage of the law set off vigorous protests within Japan, and when an extreme nationalist called for a blockade of America in return, Roosevelt had drawn up a plan for naval war between Japan and the United States and recommended the massing of the Pacific fleet in preparation for such a war. Although the immediate crisis abated following some careful diplomacy, in the years that followed, even as the United States moved closer to involvement in World War I, he continued to call for the arming of the Pacific fleet for war against Japan, which he considered the most dangerous foreign threat. The greatest lesson he took from the incident was that Japanese Americans were a source of trouble—friction with their neighbors and aggression by Japan.

 Even when FDR’s attitude towards Japan began to change, following the end of the First World War, his opinions about Japanese Americans remained constant. In 1922-1923 FDR was invited by his old friend George Marvin to write an article for Asia magazine about Japanese-American relations. It was a time of international tension, following the Washington Naval Conference. Roosevelt feared that a resurgence of militarism would set off a futile and costly war between Japan and the United State, and he decided to write in opposition. By March 1923 he had produced the first draft of a text called “The Japs – A Habit of Mind.”  After Marvin made some minor stylistic changes and inserted some additional factual material, the piece appeared under the title “Shall We Trust Japan?”  in the July 1923 issue of Asia.

“Shall We Trust Japan?” was designed as a plea for a “pacific attitude” in the Pacific and for an end to the instinctive hostility most Americans felt for Japan. Roosevelt’s principal argument was that, even assuming that it had been “natural” in the past for Japan and the United States to consider each other as “the most probable enemy” and to plan for war against the other, the new era crystallized by the Washington Naval Conference made such thought obsolete. FDR expressed confidence that, once the “yellow peril” fears of Japan were eliminated, the two countries could resolve peacefully the underlying causes of Japanese American friction.

Roosevelt confessed that the principal cause of such friction, which had to be eliminated, was the presence of Japanese immigrants and their children in the United States. FDR brought up this vital question with reluctance, because, as he said, it was so difficult to discuss without sparking “unreasoning passions on one side or both.” Nevertheless, while he conceded that the Japanese, as well as other groups such as the Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians, were “ a race…of acknowledged dignity and integrity,” they nonetheless had to be excluded on racial grounds from the United States

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 Canada and Australasia—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.

The assertion that Americans (whom Roosevelt clearly assumed were white) “honestly” believed that they had to combat mixed marriages through discriminatory legislation and that people of “oriental blood” were inherently and ipso facto unassimilable, constituted an undeniable rationalization of white prejudice both towards Japanese immigrants and towards their native-born children in the United States. Roosevelt continued that immigration restriction, whether by laws or by the Gentleman’s Agreement, was morally justified because it was reciprocal :

The reverse of the position thus taken holds equally true. In other words, I do not believe that the Americans people now or in the future will insist on the right or privilege of entry into an oriental country to such an extent as to threaten racial purity or to jeopardize the land-owning privileges of citizenship. I think I may sincerely claim for American public opinion an adherence to the Golden Rule.

Even ignoring the fact that white Americans never in fact obeyed the “golden rule”—the United States held colonies in Asia and American investors enjoyed extensive property rights and extraterritoriality in Asia—Japan was not a nation of immigrants, and there never were any large groups of Americans who wished to emigrate there. Although Japan limited immigration, it never singled out Americans or whites for exclusion on a racial basis.

In any case, Roosevelt’s assertion that discriminatory laws had been passed in order to preserve “racial purity” was illogical. White-Asian intermarriage was statistically insignificant on the West Coast, where such laws existed, and in any case laws banning the practice had existed long before passage of the Alien Land Act, so it could not have been passed to prevent the threat of mass intermarriage. Instead, as Roosevelt well knew, such laws were passed to reduce economic competition Japanese immigrant farmers and landowners and to stigmatize them as undesirable. 

Roosevelt nevertheless continued to believe that the Japanese would not object to race-based exclusion. In 1925, while on his first visit to the Georgia resort of Warm Springs, to take treatments for his wasted legs, he began a short-lived substitute newspaper column in the nearby Macon Telegraph. One of his columns, dated April 30, 1925, explored the “Japanese question.” It was written during a minor diplomatic crisis between the United States and Japan prompted by the announcement that the US Navy would be undertaking naval maneuvers in Hawaii designed to guard against an eventual Japanese attack. Roosevelt agreed that the Americans had a perfect right to defend their coasts, in which the Hawaiian bases played a vital role, but he deplored the announcement as needlessly provocative. FDR declared that the announcement paralleled the campaign by “troublemakers” on both sides of the Pacific that had led to the Japanese exclusion law. He contended that the United States, instead of using economic arguments, should instead justify its policy on racial grounds. He saw no contradiction between American-Japanese friendship, on the one hand, and the exclusion of Japanese immigrants as a racial danger:

It is undoubtedly true that in the past many thousands of Japanese have legally or otherwise got into the United States, settled here and raised children who become American citizens. Californians have properly objected on the sound basic ground that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. If this had throughout the discussion been made the sole ground for the American attitude all would have been well, and the people of Japan would today understand and accept our decision.

Roosevelt was sure that if the United States defended exclusion on a purely racial basis, the Japanese would not protest and relations between the two countries would remain harmonious. After all, he said, the Japanese were known to have strong taboos against interracial marriage, and would not want to have their national culture polluted by such inter-mixtures:

Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results…The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated, and delightful Japanese. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to have thousands of Americans settle in Japan and intermarry with the Japanese as I would feel in having large numbers of Japanese come over here and intermarry with the American population. In this question then of Japanese exclusion from the United States, it is necessary only to advance the true reason—the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples.  

These words and action point to Roosevelt’s continued acceptance, in the months after Pearl Harbor, of the idea that Japanese Americans, whether citizens or longtime residents, were essentially Japanese and unable to transform themselves into true Americans. Therefore, in a time of conflict between the United States and Japan, they could be presumed to be supportive of their Japanese brethren. This presumption was not absolute—Roosevelt could well imagine that there existed loyal Japanese Americans. But in the absence (and sometimes in the presence) of significant evidence testifying to their loyalty, the presumption remained and controlled Roosevelt’s actions in regard to the Japanese American community generally. Roosevelt’s ideas about the Japanese left him prepared—even overprepared—to believe the worst of Japanese, and to accept without challenge in the wake of Pearl Harbor the military’s false accusations regarding the disloyal activities of a Japanese American fifth column, even if he had solid proof to the contrary. He therefore gave the Army much too free a hand in dealing with West Coast Japanese Americans.

Roosevelt’s basic attitude towards Japanese Americans may have also shaped his response to the moral and constitutional questions involved in mass evacuation. FDR’s refusal to admit the discriminatory purpose behind race-based exclusion of Japanese immigrants during the 1920s and his contention that Californians rightly objected to the Japanese presence in their midst also serves as a model for his voluntary blindness to the essential role of racial hostility and economic jealousy in motivating calls for mass removal of Japanese Americans by Californians with a long history of nativist bias. Moreover, during his 1920s articles, Roosevelt defended the denial of property rights to Japanese immigrants as a way to ensure racial purity. This attitude could well have contributed to Roosevelt’s unwillingness to stake steps to protect the property of the evacuees such the appointment of a strong Alien Property Custodian, with the result that the interned Japanese Americans were forced to sell off their property at ridiculously low prices or were stripped of it by the white “friends” to whom they entrusted it, or were forced to place it in unguarded warehouses which were looted and vandalized.

Perhaps the most important part that Roosevelt’s anti-Japanese prejudices played in shaping his decision to approve mass removal and his subsequent actions in support of the policy was in nourishing an indifference to the condition of the Japanese Americans involved. As extraordinary as it may seem, Roosevelt was ready to approve mass removal without hesitation precisely because the matter was unimportant to him. In the end, it is this indifference, which marks not only Roosevelt’s decision to sign Executive Order 9066, but his involvement in the policy that followed. In that sense, the sin that pervaded the President’s actions, if we can use such a loaded term, was not hostility but indifference.

 

 

GREG ROBINSON is Professor of History at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. A specialist in North American Ethnic Studies and U.S. Political History, he has written several notable books, including By Order of the President: (Harvard UP, 2001) which uncovers President Franklin Roosevelt’s central involvement in the wartime confinement of 120,000 Japanese Americans, and A Tragedy of Democracy: (Columbia UP, 2009), winner of the 2009 AAAS History book prize, which studies Japanese American and Japanese Canadian confinement in transnational context. His book After Camp: (UC Press, 2012), winner of the Caroline Bancroft History Prize, centers on post war resettlement. His most recent book is The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches  (UP Colorado 2016) an alternative history of Japanese Americans through portraits of unusual figures.

CHRISTMAS, 1941

Roosevelt addresses the crowd at the Christmas tree lighting ceremony from the White House South Portico on December 24, 1941. Churchill can be seen on the right. (FDR Presidential Library)

It was Christmastime when Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington on December 22, 1941—two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and eleven days after Hitler audaciously declared war on the United States.

For eighteen months Churchill had wooed Roosevelt, cajoling, charming, and even begging him to bring the United States into the war against Germany. Now Churchill’s prayers were answered:  the United States would certainly enter the war. On learning of the attack, Churchill later wrote, “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the thankful and the saved.”

Churchill had come to Washington to make sure that earlier agreements of an Anglo-American alliance against Germany (should America enter the war) remained firm in the face of the Pearl Harbor attack. Understandably, the American people had an overwhelming desire to strike back at the Japanese. Churchill needed to turn them from thoughts of revenge to Britain’s view of the realities of the Axis threat. His task was made more difficult by Japan’s stunning victories in the weeks following Pearl Harbor. In the Philippines American troops were trapped on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula and the Rock of Corregidor. Within a matter of days, Guam, Wake, and Hong Kong had fallen. American territories were being invaded and American lives lost. Americans wanted to throw everything they had against the Japanese.

Yet there was Britain’s precarious position to consider: if the Soviets fell, Hitler would throw his full strength into the temporarily delayed invasion of the United Kingdom. If Britain fell, what would be next for the United States? Germany was the more powerful of the foes. In an Anglo-American alliance, Churchill’s longstanding policy was the defeat of “Germany First.” He needed to make sure that the great power of the American war machine was leveled first against Hitler and second against the Japanese. Fortunately, Roosevelt agreed with him. But his position was not without dissent from some military advisors—and critics in the press and public.

Whatever his motives, Churchill’s presence was a tonic to the shattered Americans. On December 23 he joined FDR in a news conference in the Oval Office. More than two hundred journalists crowded into the room, some using edges of the president’s desk to take notes. “Wearing polka dot bow tie, a short black coat, and striped trousers,” Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us, Churchill

stared imperturbably into space, his long cigar between his compressed lips as Roosevelt spoke. When the time came for the prime minister to speak, reporters in the back called out that they could not see him. Asked to stand, Churchill not only complied, but scrambled atop his chair. “There was a wild burst of applause and then cheering,” The New York Times reported, . . . “as the visitor stood there before them, . . . with confidence and determination written on the countenance so familiar to the world.” (p. 303)

Bernard Baruch was among those invited to the White House that Christmas season. He “believed that Churchill’s visit would ‘galvanize’ American public opinion,” according to Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook.

With the Pacific fleet in ruins, Wake Island fallen, Singapore besieged, and the Philippines invaded, Baruch considered Churchill “the best Christmas present” to restore heart and hope to the Allied world. “The pink-cheeked warrior in the air raid suit” was the leading symbol of resistance to the Blitz: “Do your worst, we can stand it,” his presence seemed to say. “We won’t crack up.” (Cook, pp. 409–410).

Wartime blackout regulations and tight security precautions were already in place in Washington; nevertheless, Roosevelt insisted on lighting the national Christmas tree. Various reports describe the event. “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies,” he declared. Churchill joined Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the balcony of the White House before a crowd of 20,000 and in a national radio broadcast that reached millions. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter,” Churchill said, and then:

Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.

On December 26 Churchill addressed a Joint Session of Congress, declaring himself half-American. “By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own.” Much to Eleanor Roosevelt’s distress (who had a more internationalist vision), he stressed the unity and implied superiority of the English-speaking world, speaking of the “outrages they have committed upon us at Pearl Harbor, in the Pacific Islands, in the Philippines, in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.”

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt give a joint press conference in the Oval Office of the White House, December 23, 1941. (FDR Presidential Library)

The White House hosted a steady stream of diplomatic and military dignitaries during Churchill’s two-week visit. Meetings were held every day and long into the night—including Christmas day when a War Council was held from 5:30 to 6:45 pm. The war planners set themselves to the business at hand: North Africa, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, military strategy, war production, tonnage, and the Far East were among the subjects of talks. Ambassador Maxim Litvinov from the USSR, Prime Minister Mackenzie King of Canada, and the chiefs of the American Republics of South America and the Missions of the Allied Power and Refugee Governments came and went.

Since Churchill’s arrival he and FDR had been working on a Joint Declaration of Unity and Purpose for the Allies. As they laid the groundwork for war, they also began to frame the peace. It was FDR who suggested to Churchill on the morning of December 29th the name that would signify both war power and the promise of peace: the United Nations.

On New Year’s Day Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Maxim Litvinov of the USSR, and T. V. Soong of China signed the Declaration of the United Nations. An exultant Churchill declared, “Four fifths of the human race” has resolved Hitler’s end.

The next day twenty-two additional countries signed: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa, and Yugoslavia. Subsequently Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela signed.

Those countries that signed by March 1945 would become the founding members of the United Nations.

The Declaration read in part:

The Governments signatory hereto,

Having subscribed to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland dated August 14, 1941 known as the Atlantic Charter.

Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world,

Declare:

(1) Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.

(2) Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.

 

What then was this Atlantic Charter that underpinned the entire agreement?

It was nothing less than a declaration of goals for the postwar world, an instrument for peace forged in the exigencies of war: “after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny, [it envisioned] . . . a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.”

To ensure that world, Roosevelt and Churchill called for permanent disarmament and envisioned a “permanent system of general security.”

All of the nations of the world, for realistic as well spiritual reasons, must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea, or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten aggression outside of their frontiers, [the signatories] believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential.

Churchill had come to the Atlantic Conference seeking American entry into the war against Hitler to preserve the British Empire. The Atlantic Charter was Franklin Roosevelt’s vision, a reimagining of the lost promise of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s failed vision for an end to all war. Out of it grew the United Nations—an ambitious idea for a post-war world of peace, disarmament, decolonization, democratic self-determination, respect for human rights, and free trade.

This is the legacy of Christmas 1941—and a reminder of work we have yet to complete.

 

Sources:
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, Volume 3, 1939–1962. New York: Viking, 2016.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

 

The Real 100 Days

Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering his inaugural address, March 4, 1933. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, image 48224291.

The chronically insecure Richard Nixon appointed a Hundred Days Group to try to ensure passage of the requisite amount of legislation in his first hundred days.

Newt Gingrich declared one in 1995, pledging that the Contract with America would be passed in one hundred days.

In 2011 Andrew Cuomo congratulated himself on a successful first hundred days when the New York legislature passed an on-time budget for the first time in many years.

And so it has been for elected officials since 1933—many of them trying to evoke for themselves the warm glow of accomplishment that accrued to Franklin Roosevelt after his famous first hundred days, March 9 to June 16, 1933.

Much is being made today about the impending end of President Trump’s first hundred days and whether his record of accomplishment will live up to his promises. But it was the news media, not Franklin Roosevelt, who gave the benchmark its name. Its origins might give students of history pause.

The first “first hundred days” marked the period between Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba on March 20, 1815, the turbulent battles including his defeat at Waterloo that ensued, and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII—under escort from the Duke of Wellington—on July 8, 1815. (It was actually a period of 111 days, but the French are not such sticklers for precision in the face of a grand pronouncement.) Thus it was the prefect of Paris, Gaspard, Comte de Chabrol, who first used the term “les Cent Jours” in welcoming the return of the king and the Bourbon monarchy. Were the newsmen of 1933 being ironic in dubbing the Roosevelt’s first months in office a modern-day “cent jours”?

We will never know, but it may be worth revisiting the historical context of the modern concept of the hundred days. Roosevelt took office at a time of unparalleled national despair. Trump may have described the country as beset by American “carnage” in his inaugural, but it is impossible for us to imagine the state of the nation when Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933.

A string of bank closings beginning on February 14 had sent the nation’s financial system into a new crisis.  Most of the nation’s banks were closed. On inauguration morning the governors of Illinois and New York closed the Chicago and New York stock exchanges.

These were the final weeks of what historians have come to call the “interregnum,” the seemingly interminable four months between the election and inauguration of FDR. After this terrifying episode of presidential limbo, Inauguration Day was changed from March 4 to January 20.

But the conditions in 1933 were just the most recent in a series of economic disasters. Since 1929 the Great Depression—the deepest and longest in our history—had tested the endurance of Americans. Eighty years later the grim statistics of life in the United States in 1933 remain shocking.

Depression era breadline, New York City, 1932. Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, image 7420(244).

In a population of about 125 million, one in four workers was jobless.  In industrial cities like Youngstown, Ohio, close to three-quarters were unemployed.

Nineteen million Americans depended upon meager relief payments to survive. There was no national safety net.

Those lucky enough to have jobs earned (on average) 30 percent less than three years earlier.

Over 1,300 municipalities—and many states—had defaulted on their obligations to creditors.

Two statistics, selected from thousands, capture the sense of paralysis that gripped the nation.

  • In 1929 the US Steel Corporation—a cornerstone of the American economy—boasted 225,000 full-time employees. In 1933 it did not have a single full-time worker.

 

  • The nation’s farmers were in even worse shape. Farm prices fell 53 percent from 1929 to 1932; farm income fell 70 percent. By early 1933, 45 percent of farmers were delinquent on their mortgages.

Violence erupted at farm foreclosure sales and the homeless gathered in tent cities called Hoovervilles.

Some voices, fired by desperation and fear, even called for a suspension of constitutional government and near-dictatorial powers for the president. Instead the new president famously declared in his first Inaugural Address:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

He called for “action, and action now.”

Immediately on taking office, the banking crisis consumed the president and his advisors.  Columbia law professor Raymond Moley, head of Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, and the new Treasury Secretary William Woodin worked day and night with Hoover’s financial team, including former Secretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills and other holdovers from the previous administration.

The plan they adopted was essentially that of Hoover’s team, a conservative approach designed to save rather than subvert the capitalist system.

On his first full day in office, by executive order, Roosevelt declared a four-day national banking holiday effective Monday, March 6.

He then called Congress to Washington in special session. Their first task was to pass legislation under which the banks could be reorganized and reopened.

On March 8, to explain the banking plan, FDR held the first of the 997 press conferences of his twelve-year presidency.

On March 9, five days after his inauguration, he signed the Emergency Banking Relief Act. It gave him broad discretionary powers over banking and currency and was introduced, passed, and signed in less than eight hours.

Roosevelt’s advisors believed it was key to get people to deposit, not withdraw, their savings from the banks. To explain the plan to the public, the president delivered his first Fireside Chat, on banking, on March 12.

In plain language Roosevelt spoke to the America people as if speaking to a single family gathered around their firesides.

He calmly and clearly explained the reorganization. “My friends,” he said, “ I want to talk for a few minutes . . . about banking. . . . I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.” He explained the phased reopening of the banks, concluding by asking the public to return their savings to the reorganized banks. “My friends,” he assured them, “it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.” Amazingly, people returned their precious savings to the re-opened banks.

The people also began a national conversation with their new president. In the week following his inauguration, more than 460,000 people wrote to FDR. He was forced to replace Hoover’s one mailroom clerk with a staff of fifty; over the course of his presidency, an average of six thousand people a day wrote to their president.

On March 16 Roosevelt decided to keep Congress in session to move forward on the relief and reform measures that would address systemic problems in the financial system, agriculture, and industry—and meet the immediate problems of food, shelter, and work for the suffering masses.

The list that follows is the standard of accomplishment that has proved an elusive benchmark for every president who followed.

March 20, Economy Act. Ironically, an attempt to reduce the budget—this act cut veterans’ pensions, reduced federal salaries by 15 percent, and reorganized several government agencies. It was the opening salvo of the New Deal. Like most Democrats, FDR believed a balanced budget would put the government on sound financial footing. So the regular federal budget actually contracted even as the new emergency spending skyrocketed. He believed the Economy Act would save $500 million; the actual saving was about $240 million. The real value was probably in terms of morale, a signal of the new administration’s determination to act decisively.

March 22, Beer–Wine Revenue Act. As the repeal of the Volstead Act of 1919 made its way through the states, the Beer–Wine Revenue Act legalized the sale of wine and beer that contained no more than 3.2 percent alcohol—and people rejoiced. The act went into effect on April 7. The 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, was enacted on December 5, ending the failed experiment of Prohibition.

March 31, Civilian Conservation Corps Reconstruction Relief Act. This act created 250,000 road construction, soil erosion, flood control, national park, and reforestation jobs for young men on relief between the ages of 18 and 25. Those employed received $30.00 weekly, $25.00 of which was sent to their families. The CCC employed more than two million young men (referred to as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”) by the end of 1941 and is credited by some historians with a vital role in preparing young men for the war effort.

April 19, Abandonment of Gold Standard (executive order). This brought about a decline in the dollar value abroad, but commodity, stock, and silver prices increased on American exchanges.

May 12, Federal Emergency Relief Act. This act vastly enlarged and reorganized Hoover’s Emergency Relief Act. It was administrated by Harry L. Hopkins and was replaced by the WPA in 1935. Half of the $500 million appropriation was allotted to the states.

May 13, Agricultural Adjustment Act. At the time about 30 percent of the American workforce was agricultural. The AAA was designed to raise farm prices by cash subsidies or rental payments to farmers in exchange for curtailment of production and by establishing parity prices for certain basic commodities. Funds came from taxes levied on farm product processors. This feature of the AAA was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1936.

May 18, Tennessee Valley Authority Act. This act authorized the TVA to construct dams and power plants and to produce and sell electric power and nitrogen fertilizers in a seven-state region. It inaugurated Roosevelt’s vision for progressive land and social reform, model communities, and resettlement, reforestation, and agricultural educational programs.  It also provided the basis for the Sunbelt, the industrial development of the Tennessee Valley. Between 1933 and 1945, electrification grew from about 2 percent to 75 percent of the population in the Tennessee Valley.

May 27, Federal Securities Act. This act required most new securities issued to be registered with the Federal Trade Commission and established the Securities and Exchange Commission.

June 5, Abandonment of Gold Standard. FDR signed the gold repeal joint resolution—which canceled the gold clause in all federal and private obligations—making all debts and contractual agreements payable in legal tender.

June 13, Home Owners Refinancing Act. This act authorized the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to refinance nonfarm mortgage debts. HOLC made loans on about one million mortgages by June 1936, or about 20 percent of the nation’s mortgages.

June 16, National Industrial Recovery Act. This act created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and established regulatory codes for control of numerous industries. Employers were exempted from antitrust action; employees were guaranteed collective bargaining and minimum wages and maximum hours. The second section of the act established the Public Works Administration (PWA), which provided employment by public works construction. The PWA spent more than $4 billion on 34,000 public works projects. In 1935 the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional.

June 16, Glass–Steagall Act. The Glass–Steagall Act created the Federal Bank Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits, separated investment from commercial banking to halt speculation with deposits, and widened the powers of the Federal Reserve Board. The Graham–Leach Act of 1999 repealed important provisions of this act, leading—many observers say—to the abuses that resulted in the recession that started in 2008.

June 16, Farm Credit Act. This act reorganized agricultural credit activities and agencies.

June 16, Emergency Railroad Transportation Act. This act created the office of federal coordinator of transportation and gave the Interstate Commerce Commission supervision over railroad holding companies. It tried to smooth out operating duplications and inefficiencies and required national railroads to limit layoffs due to consolidation.

***

And then — and only then — Franklin Roosevelt took a vacation. He left Washington for a sailing vacation and returned to the family vacation home on Campobello Island, for the first time since contracting polio there in 1921.

 

On Democracy and the Election

fdr-1st-inaugural-copy

Franklin Roosevelt famously considered General Douglas MacArthur the most dangerous man in America.  Huey Long was number two.   What would he think of Donald Trump?

That got me thinking about what advice he might give us today.  When Roosevelt wanted the American people to face a difficult challenge, he often asked them to look to the past to find strength in the endurance of our forebears and wisdom in the actions of past leaders.  So, in the wake of our recent election, I turned to Roosevelt himself for some strength and wisdom.

Where, then, are the parallels for today? We face an uncertain future with an unproven president-elect whose campaign has stigmatized great swaths of the American public.

First of all, let us remember FDR’s charge to be wary of the hazards of fear.

Second, let us remember a comment from Woodrow Wilson that Roosevelt often repeated when things looked grim for progressive government. “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time” (as quoted in James MacGregor Burns, The Lion and the Fox, 1956, p. 54). Perhaps progressive government in our generation had its moment with the Obama presidency and the pendulum has swung back to the country’s natural center.

But Roosevelt also said in the aftermath of a conservative backlash in 1938, “You have read that as a result of the balloting last November, the liberal forces in the United States are on their way to the cemetery—yet I ask you to remember that liberal forces in the United States have often been killed and buried, with the inevitable result that in short order they have come to life again with more strength than they had before” (Address at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, December 5, 1938).

We are deeply worried today about our populace, which seems hopelessly divided into separate and antagonistic camps. Roosevelt had something to say about that too, and in the aftermath of this election it is a warning that bears serious attention. In 1940, with Hitler’s conquest of Europe complete but for the elimination of Great Britain, the United States was deeply divided—more divided, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, than he ever again experienced in his long life.

War hovered over all, and the argument between interventionists and isolationists grew each week more savage and despairing. There have been a number of fierce national quarrels in my lifetime—over communism in the later Forties, over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over Vietnam in the Sixties—but none so tore apart families and friendships as the great debate of 1940–41. Though historians have dealt ably with the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact in those angry days
[A Life in the Twentieth Century, p. 241].

While the attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to most national discord a year later, Roosevelt warned in his his 1940 Annual Message to Congress that internal conflict—which pits one group against another—is an open door to totalitarianism:

Doctrines that set group against group, faith against faith, race against race, class against class, fanning the fires of hatred in men too despondent, too desperate to think for themselves, were used as rabble-rousing slogans on which dictators could ride to power. And once in power they could saddle their tyrannies on whole nations and on their weaker neighbors.

Roosevelt was warning Americans to unite in the face of an external threat, but he was also speaking to a nation that was tearing itself apart. His deeper message was to strengthen democracy by uniting behind its values, which in 1940 as in 2016 require us to work together to use the tools of our democracy to preserve it.

Our times are not as desperate as those of 1933 or 1940. We are a nation that enjoys many blessings. We have serious challenges and we must meet them, but now is not the time for fear and dissention. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to strengthen our democracy, for what FDR said in 1940 must be reconfirmed in 2016. President-elect Trump used the tools of a demagogue to gain the presidency, but we must not allow the country to descend into autocracy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FDR’s Last Personal Diplomacy: Ibn Saud and the Quest for a Jewish Homeland

The alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States goes back seven decades, to when King Abdulaziz, the founder of the modern Saudi state, met President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aboard the U.S.S. Quincy at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal.

New York Times, September 29, 2016

 With Saudi-American relations in the news again, I thought it worth remembering that today’s alliance had its beginnings in one last bit of Rooseveltian personal diplomacy: an attempt to use his redoubtable skills on behalf of European Jews.

The meeting with King Abdulaziz (often known in the West as Ibn Saud) took place immediately following the Yalta Conference in February 1945 when the Big Three—Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and Roosevelt—hammered out the final diplomatic agreements of the Second World War. Besides the conference with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt also arranged meetings with King Farouk of Egypt and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia that are little remembered today.

By scheduling the meetings without Churchill’s knowledge, Roosevelt breached the United States’ longstanding hands-off policy respecting Britain’s sphere of influence in the region. When Churchill learned of the meetings, he hastened to schedule talks of his own. But a change was already under way.

The strategic importance of the Middle East had become increasingly clear during the war, and Roosevelt’s economic and military advisers were anxious to secure America’s military presence in the Middle East—as well as cement America’s budding oil-drilling partnership with Saudi Arabia. These were solid reasons for Roosevelt to meet with Ibn Saud, but there is ample evidence that Palestine was the main purpose of the president’s visit.

In 1944 both Republicans and Democrats vied for Jewish votes with pro-Zionist planks in their campaign platforms. But this statement from Roosevelt, read to the Zionist Organization of America on October 15, confirmed the loyalty of American Jewry to the Democratic Party. “I know how long and ardently the Jewish people have worked and prayed for the establishment of Palestine as a free and Democratic Jewish commonwealth.   I am convinced that the American people give their support to this aim, and if reelected, I shall help to bring about its realization” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 259).

Historian Robert Rosen and others point out that Roosevelt had also privately promised his Jewish friends to try to solve the problem of Palestine before the war was over. Before he left for Yalta, he conferred with Rabbi Stephen Wise and told his Cabinet that he would meet Saud and “try and settle the Palestine situation” (quoted in Rosen, pp. 409–410).  Historians Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman recount that after the election he began to make plans for the Yalta trip, stating to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, “I am going to take a trip [the Yalta Conference] this winter and will see a lot of people. . . . I want to see if I can’t unravel this whole situation [the question of Palestine] on the ground,” leading them to conclude that Roosevelt hoped to use his personal, persuasive diplomacy to settle matters on Palestine (p. 297). In early January, Roosevelt told Stettinius that when he met with Ibn Saud after Yalta, he wanted a map with him that showed the small size of Palestine in relation to the Arab world in order to make the case that “he could not see why a portion of Palestine could not be given to the Jews without harming in any way the interests of the Arabs with the understanding, of course, that the Jews would not move into adjacent part of the Near East from Palestine” (Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

 Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Franklin Roosevelt and Ibn Saud meeting aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, February 14, 1945.

Roosevelt’s translator at Yalta, Charles Bohlen, recorded in his memoirs Witness to History (p. 212) that Roosevelt raised the subject with Stalin during the Yalta Conference in a controversial conversation that contained an unfortunate remark that led some to label Roosevelt anti-Zionist. Breitman and Lichtman interpret the anti-Semitic exchange as an “ice-breaker,” which Roosevelt used to test the waters of Stalin’s potential opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine—and found no resistance (p. 301). Roosevelt biographer Frank Freidel agrees, “In actuality Roosevelt was stubbornly pro-Zionist, and had a difficult time with Ibn Saud when he tried to persuade the king to accept 10,000 more Jews in Palestine” (p. 594). Breitman and Licthman also tell us that Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who worked closely with the president, believed that Roosevelt “like the late Justice Brandeis, thought a Jewish state would become a model of social justice and would raise standards of living in the region. FDR also knew that Saudi Arabia badly needed outside funds for development. Surely a farsighted Arab leader would recognize such benefits—along with the advantages of American aid” (p. 299) Adding to all of these considerations, the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in late January revealed to the world the horrors of the Holocaust. Thomas Lippman, another scholar of the subject, states categorically that Roosevelt met with Ibn Saud because “the Jews had a claim on the world’s conscience, and on Roosevelt’s” (p. 3).

By all accounts the meeting with King Abdulaziz was extraordinary. Ibn Saud and his retinue of 47—which included an astrologer and food taster—traveled across the Arabian peninsula from Riyadh to Jeddah where they boarded the U.S.S. Murphy for a two-day sail on the Red Sea to Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal. Only once before had the king left the Arabian peninsula. Fitted out for the king’s use, the Murphy’s deck was covered with colorful carpets and shaded by an enormous brown canvas tent. A flock of sheep, brought along for fresh meat, grazed in a corral. Food was cooked on charcoal braziers on the deck. Abdulaziz, 64 years old, a large and imposing black-bearded man dressed in Arab robes, his headdress regally bound with golden cords, was seated on a golden throne. The king was attended by barefoot Arab warriors armed with long rifles, each with a scimitar bound to his waist. One American witness described it as “a spectacle out of the ancient past on the deck of a modern man-of-war” (quoted in Lippman, p. 2).

Roosevelt waited on the U.S.S Quincy, surrounded by his own retinue of admirals and high-ranking diplomats. Ibn Saud was transferred to the Quincy and the two leaders, meeting from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on February 14, 1945, forged an improbable alliance that linked the two nations and shaped the history of the Middle East for decades to come.

I first learned about the meeting between Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz in 2003 when American Counsel to Saudi Arabia, Hugh Geohagan, visited the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. His purpose was to discuss returning to the Library a collection of objects that had been borrowed a few years earlier for an exhibition, “Gifts of Friendship,” in the King Abdulaziz Archives in Riyadh. Held in 2002, the exhibition commemorated the centennial of Abdulaziz’s rule by displaying the state gifts that he and Roosevelt exchanged in their shipboard meeting in 1945.

DC-3 passenger plane given by FDR to King Abdelaziz.

Ibn Saud’s gifts to FDR included brightly colored camel’s hair robes embroidered with gold, hand-painted perfume bottles, a bottle of granular musk, lumps of ambergris, a gold dagger set with diamonds, and a gold filigree sword and belt set with diamonds. In return FDR famously gave the king a DC-3 passenger plane (fully staffed with a crew supplied by the U.S), which marked the beginning of the Saudi Air Force. When he saw that the king had trouble walking, FDR spontaneously gave him one of his wheelchairs. The gifts were extraordinary, but not as extraordinary as the meeting itself.

Formal talks began after they had exchanged the gifts and enjoyed lunch and Arabian coffee. “Roosevelt came straight to the most urgent point: the plight of the Jews and the future of Palestine, where it was already apparent that the governing mandate bestowed upon Britain by the League of Nations twenty years earlier would come to an end after the war” (Lippman, p. 8).

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

Memoir of the meeting by Col. William A. Eddy, U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and translator of the meeting.

An account of the conversation, FDR Meets Ibn Saud, was published by U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia Col. William A. Eddy, who was deeply involved in the intricate intercultural arrangements for the meeting. Born in what is now Lebanon, Eddy was fluent in Arabic, and as translator, was the only person to hear both sides of the conversation between the two leaders. As quoted from Eddy’s account in Rosen (pp. 412–413), “President Roosevelt was in top form as a charming host, witty conversationalist, with the spark and light in his eyes and that gracious smile which always won people over to him whenever he talked with them as a friend. . . . With Ibn Saud he was at his very best.” Roosevelt said that he felt “a personal responsibility” for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust who had suffered “indescribable horrors at the hands of the Nazis: eviction, destruction of their homes, torture, and mass murder” and asked the king for his advice. The king replied that the Allies as victors should give the Jews and “their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.” Roosevelt responded that the Jews had a deep desire to settle in Palestine and were fearful of remaining in Germany. The king said he did not doubt that the Jews did not trust the Germans, but “surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims. If the Allies do not expect firmly to control future German policy, why fight this costly war?” He lectured the president on the long history of animosity between Arabs and Jews.

Continuing with Eddy’s account as recounted in Rosen, Roosevelt persisted, saying that he counted on Arab “hospitality” and on the king’s help solving the problem of Zionism, but the king repeated his position. “Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives.” Later Roosevelt returned a third time to the subject. The king lost patience, observing that American “oversolicitude for the Germans was incomprehensible to an uneducated Bedouin with whom friends get more solicitude than enemies.” Ibn Saud’s final remark on the subject reiterated his unalterable position. According to Arab custom, he said, survivors and victims of battle were distributed among the victors according to their number and their supplies of food and water. Palestine, he said, was a small, land-poor country “and had already been assigned more than its quota of European refugees.” Still Roosevelt persevered. “The Arabs would choose to die,” he told the president, “rather than yield their land to the Jews.” Roosevelt offered economic aid, irrigation projects, and improved living standards for the Saudi people who were then poverty stricken by war-time disruptions to their economy (quoted in Rosen, pp. 413–414).

But the king was adamant. Was his confidence shaken? He later told Eleanor Roosevelt that his failure to convince Ibn Saud was his one complete failure. To Rabbi Wise he said, “I most gloriously failed where you are concerned.” To Congress, in his report on the Yalta Conference, he said only, “I learned more about that whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” He later reported to Wise:

There was nothing I could do with him. We talked for three hours and I argued with the old fellow up hill and down dale, but he stuck to his guns. He said he could see the flood engulfing his lands, Jews pouring in from Eastern Europe and from America, from the Riviera and from California, and he could not bear the thought. He was an old man and he had swollen ankles and he wanted to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause [quoted in Rosen, p. 415].

Roosevelt himself had less than two months to live. Judge Joseph Proskauer later recalled that FDR was frightened now for the Jews in Palestine. He believed that “either a war or a pogrom would ensue” (quoted in Rosen, p. 416).

 Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Diamond and gold dagger and scabbard given by King Abdulaziz to FDR. Courtesy FDR Library and Museum.

Why did he do it? This was one of Roosevelt’s last acts. Surely he knew that his life was slipping away. Too ill to endure a fourth inauguration ceremony on Capitol Hill, a swearing in was held at the White House followed by the second briefest inaugural address in history. Yet two days later he began his 14,000-mile journey to Yalta, where he secured his twin priorities of Soviet entry into the war in the Pacific and Stalin’s commitment to the United Nations. It was only Roosevelt’s vision of a secure and peaceful postwar world that sustained him—not only at Yalta, but also to extend his arduous journey and meet with King Abdulaziz.

Many historians have reported on Roosevelt’s supreme confidence, his steadfast belief that through personal diplomacy—by meeting adversaries face to face—he could solve problems that stymied others. Breitman and Lichtman report on a telling incident, “After attending a presidential session on the Middle East, State Department economic advisor Herbert Feis said, ‘I’ve read of men who thought they might be King of the Jews and other men who thought they might be King of the Arabs, but this is the first time I’ve listened to a man who dreamt of being King of both the Jews and the Arabs’” (quoted in Breitman and Lichtman, p. 299).

Despite his own failure at Great Bitter Lake, Roosevelt’s belief in the power of personal diplomacy was intact. It was, after all, the foundational idea for the United Nations—that is, that seemingly intractable problems can be solved in a world organization that brings people together to overcome their differences. A belief fervently shared by Eleanor Roosevelt, for FDR it was the only hope that the world could avert war.

With his health failing, FDR went to Warm Springs on March 30 to attempt to recover his strength. There he would write his “Jefferson Day” radio address, scheduled for April 13. He died on April 12.

 

With his powers of personal diplomacy failing, Roosevelt bequeathed to all of us the hope that what he knew about “science of human relationships” could be invested in a world organization. The fate of the Jews of Europe, like so much unfinished business of the Second World War, would fall to the United Nations. There has been no end to war, but neither has there been a Third World War.

 

Sources

Bohlen, Charles E. Witness to History: 1929-1969.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1973.

Breitman, Richard and Allan J. Lichtman.   FDR and the Jews. Cambridge:  Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2013.

Coppola, John.  “A Pride of Museums in the Desert: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Gift of Friendship’ Exhibition,” Curator 48/1 (January 2005): 90-100.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Rendezvous with Destiny.  Boston and New York: Little Brown, 1990.

Lippman, Thomas, W. “The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia’s Ibn Saud,” The Link (April-May 2005):1-13.

Rosen, Robert. N. Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006.