THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Rethinking “By Order of the President”


bioline_Greg RobinsonIn my Aug. 19, 2021 column of the Nichi Bei Weekly, I commemorated the 20th anniversary of the publication of my first book, “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans,” by recounting the origins and development of the project first as a dissertation, then as a published volume. I mentioned that while I would certainly stand behind what I wrote more than 20 years ago, if I were writing it today, I would do some things differently. An eager reader of my column asked me if I could speak more precisely about what I would change.

It is difficult for me to state in minute detail how I would revise the book, as I haven’t read it from cover to cover since it was published. Nonetheless, if somehow the volume disappeared and I had to write it over, there would be some important changes. To begin with, if I were writing “By Order” in 2021, I would use terms such as “removal” and “confinement” rather than  “internment.” To be sure, at the time that I first wrote it, almost 25 years ago, there were ongoing debates over what language to use to describe the official wartime treatment of Japanese Americans. Critics of the use of the word “internment” complained, with justice, that the term indicated confinement of enemy aliens under international law. At the same, it seemed to me that “internment” was still the most commonly understood and accepted term for the wartime events, and so I used it (capitalizing “Internment”). In order to explain this choice, I placed a “terminological note” in my book. I have since changed my mind, and in all my subsequent books I have used other terms, while mentioning that these events are “commonly, if imprecisely, known as the Japanese American internment.”

Another thing that I would do differently would be to make good use of the archival documents and original sources that have been produced in the two decades since “By Order” first appeared. When I was writing in the late 1990s, I already had access to collections of essential print and microfilm collections of documents that had been previously unearthed and arranged by various scholars (notably Roger Daniels and Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga). However, the enormous pile of digitized oral histories, newspaper files and photos that have become available since then, would give me greater insight, in particular to the voices of Japanese Americans themselves.

I would also make more use of my own archival research. One of the richest sources of information for “By Order” was the personal diaries of Roosevelt advisors such as Harold Ickes, Henry Morgenthau Jr. and Henry Stimson, plus drafts of memoirs by Francis Biddle. I even unearthed a pseudonymous novel written by FDR’s confidential agent and “spymaster” John Franklin Carter, who used his close knowledge of the real Roosevelt and his policy choices to put words in the mouth of his character “Franklin Roosevelt” regarding his treatment of Japanese Americans. (Thanks to the managers of the Argosy Book Store in New York, who kindly allowed me to review the original manuscript, I was even able to do some critical exegesis and clear up the meaning of an ambiguous passage in the published text). In the end, for various reasons, I put aside the largest part of the original material that I located.

An additional significant change I would make today would be to pay more attention to the wartime confinement of ethnic Japanese elsewhere in the Americas, which was a central theme of my second book, “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America.” For one thing, I did not mention in the book the collusion between the Roosevelt administration and the government of the Republic of Panama, which led to all ethnic Japanese in Panama being rounded up on Dec. 7, 1941 and confined within the American territory of the Panama Canal Zone, before being shipped to the United States mainland in early 1942 for mass internment.

Most notably, there is the case of Canada. In February 1942, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (who expressed in his private diary feelings of racial hostility to citizens of Japanese ancestry as potential spies) ordered the mass removal and confinement of 22,000 men, women and children. Such a comparative view would have enabled the reader to better place Roosevelt’s actions in larger context and would provide a useful standard of comparison for policy choices. For example, in “By Order,” I discussed Roosevelt’s expressed goal during 1944 to end permanently the “Japanese problem” by resettling camp inmates in small family groups throughout the country, in the process annihilating ethnic communities and forcing Japanese Americans to “assimilate” to mainstream culture. I dismissed this project as utopian and tyrannical. I did not grasp at the time that the Canadian government had actually implemented a policy that led to ethnic Japanese being stripped of their property and scattered around the country. Japanese Canadians were not permitted to return to the Pacific Coast until April 1949, nearly four years after the end of the war. Whatever the nature of Roosevelt’s private preferences, the United States government carried out a more moderate and humane policy than their northern neighbors.

Finally, if I were to write “By Order” today, I would include more material on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt publicly supported Executive Order 9066 after it was issued, but privately clashed with her husband over the policy, and subsequently pushed him in various ways to take action on behalf of confined Japanese Americans. In fact, when I first began the thesis that became “By Order,” I planned a final chapter on her involvement with Japanese Americans, as a means of demonstrating the alternatives open to FDR if he had chosen to pursue them. I soon found that there was so much to say about Eleanor Roosevelt that it risked unbalancing the project. With a heavy heart, I cut my material on Mrs. Roosevelt out of the manuscript, except in places where I considered it indispensable. In response to pleas from my friend Blanche Wiesen Cook, the prolific biographer of Mrs. Roosevelt, I restored some of the cuts, but she still gets rather short shrift in the final work.

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’Universit “du Qu’bec” Montreal. 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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