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.


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 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.



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 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.  



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.   



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.



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.


“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.