THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: ‘By Order of the President’ turns 20

bioline_Greg RobinsonThis year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of my book “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.” “By Order” was my first book. It introduced me to the public as a specialist in the history of Japanese American wartime confinement, and helped launch my career as both scholar and journalist. For this reason, it is interesting for me to reflect on how it came about.

First, for those who don’t know the book, it centers on the role of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans. It begins by recovering FDR’s long history of negative attitudes with regard to Japanese immigration to the United States. It then offers an executive history of Roosevelt’s decision to sign Executive Order 9066, and his direction of the mass removal of West Coast Japanese Americans that followed. In the process, the book shows how FDR’s personality and his presidential management style influenced the design and carrying out of mass confinement.

I first became interested in examining the subject of Roosevelt and Japanese Americans in mid-1996, when I was visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park in New York to research another project. As I was waiting for the boxes of documents I had ordered to be brought to me, I decided to kill time by looking through finding aids for various collections. One that caught my eye was a list of published writings by Roosevelt. I was intrigued to note that it included a number of pieces from his pre-presidential years. I had never thought of Roosevelt as a brilliant writer, on the level of Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle or others of his political contemporaries, and I wondered just what these early writings might contain. Just at that moment my precious boxes arrived, and I left the question in the back of my head as I went to work on the materials they contained.

Some months later, I was invited by a journal to write an article about Roosevelt, with the topic unspecified. My mind stretched back to the Reading Room at Hyde Park and the finding aid that I had seen. With the help of my friend Marco Mariano, who was making a research trip to the library, I ordered copies of Roosevelt’s early writings, with the thought that I would read them and see how the ideas he expressed in print during those early years might have anticipated his policies as president, particularly his New Deal economic reforms.

I received a package of photocopies during the Christmas 1996 holiday, and began my reading. I came upon Roosevelt’s 1923 article, “Shall We Trust Japan?” In this article, published in the journal Asia in the wake of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, he made the case for a friendly foreign policy toward Japan, in order to ensure international cooperation and avert a useless Pacific War. FDR asserted that the chief obstacle to good relations between Japan and the U.S. was tension over Japanese immigration, especially on the West Coast. He insisted that the continued exclusion of Japanese immigrants, whether by law or gentlemen’s agreement, and the discriminatory laws that barred Japanese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens or owning property in West Coast states, were all justified because they protected the “racial purity” of white Americans against the threat of interracial marriage.

I was stunned by this passage, which rationalized racial discrimination in the name of eugenics, and spoke of the peril of interracial marriage (in another article published during the same period, I soon discovered, Roosevelt put matters even more starkly: “Anyone who has travelled 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.”)

I thought to myself, ”Well, if that’s what FDR thought in the 1920s, in a time of peace, what did he think in the 1940s, in a time of war?” This brought me to the larger question of why FDR had signed Executive Order 9066, and whether he had contributed at all to either the making of the order or its subsequent execution.

I was determined to find the answer to these questions, if only for my own interest, and started reading up. I soon discovered, with equal parts amazement and excitement, that what seemed to me an essential question was absent from the historical literature. While no fewer than a dozen historians had mentioned the Asia magazine article or Roosevelt’s other 1920s writings on Japan, nobody (apart from a brief commentary by Ted Morgan) had seen fit to problematize the racial ideas therein or connect them to his wartime policies. Conversely, past scholars of Japanese Americans had neglected the president in their analyses. As I found more material, the project evolved from a scholarly article to an essay to a dissertation — I decided to drop a half-completed dissertation I had undertaken on another subject — and eventually a book.

What sticks out for me now about the writing of the manuscript that became “By Order” is the passion that went into it. I was brought up in a family that revered Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a great president, one whose New Deal helped save the country and who had then led the struggle to save the world during World War II. Now I felt an almost personal sense of betrayal. It wasn’t just FDR’s past expressions of racism, distasteful as they were. It was that he hardly seemed to have any real compassion or concern for the 120,000 men, women and children who were victimized by his policy. (In fact, the title of my original dissertation, which referenced FDR’s attitudes, was “No Consideration.”) I was hurt by this apparent indifference, which I considered informed by racism, that at times I couldn’t sleep at night after writing about it. As I think of this now, I am put in mind of Oscar Wilde’s bon mot: “Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”

Perhaps as a result of my powerful engagement with the material, my work on the thesis went exceptionally smoothly. After quitting my job to devote myself full-time to the project, I was able to complete my research and produce a near-final draft of the text within nine months, a level of speed that I have never since been able to come near to matching. The later transition from doctoral dissertation to book manuscript was equally smooth, with the result that the published version came out less than two years after my dissertation was approved.

It was while I was writing the initial manuscript that I came across the records of a controversy that had erupted in the 1980s, when David Lowman, a former national security analyst, asserted that the MAGIC intercepts of coded Japanese diplomatic messages by U.S. counterintelligence revealed massive spying by Japanese Americans, and that this was the actual (and justified) cause behind Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. I then discovered the refutations that John A. Herzig and others had made of Lowman’s claims, and considered them sufficiently convincing that I relegated the whole matter to a brief footnote. Four years later, the right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin would publish her own book, which largely recycled Lowman’s discredited charges. The appearance of her book made me wish that I had addressed the matter at greater length in “By Order.” Instead, I joined forces with my fellow scholar Professor Eric Muller to refute Malkin in a series of blog posts.

In October 2001, Harvard University Press published “By Order” in book form. It was a peak moment for me, after five years of living with the project. In good part because the book appeared right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when questions of racial profiling and national defense were at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, it garnered far more significant public attention than would normally greet a book of that kind. It was widely reviewed in the mainstream press in the United States and elsewhere (I was gratified by a laudatory review in the British newspaper The Economist), and I was invited to make speeches and media appearances.

Looking back on “By Order” 20 years later, I feel great pride. It remains by far my best-known work. It is included in book lists and course syllabi, and is often cited as a general reference on wartime Japanese American confinement. I have learned much more on the subject since it was published, and there are some things that would be different if I were writing it today — for example, I no longer use the term “internment.” All the same, I am glad to stand behind my overall analysis and conclusions. I fondly hope that it will continue to be read, and to inform, but whether or not it will stand the test of time is for future readers to decide!

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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