On February 19, 1942—two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the forced imprisonment, or internment, of Japanese Americans. This was upsetting news to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who, less than two weeks after the Pearl Harbor bombing, had urged non-Japanse Americans not to turn against Japanese Americans in her syndicated column, “My Day.”
“We, as citizens, if we hear anything suspicious, will report it to the proper authorities,” she wrote in her December 16 column, acknowledging that the United States was at war with Japan, Germany and Italy. “But the great mass of our people, stemming from these various national ties, must not feel that they have suddenly ceased to be Americans.”
As first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt could not and did not want to publicly disagree with her husband’s executive order. (Despite their disagreements, she was a fierce protector of FDR’s image and legacy.) Instead, she attempted to assist Japanese Americans who were in the camps, while publicly praising their loyalty and work ethic in order to convince other Americans that they were not a threat.
Opposing ‘Mass Evacuation’
By the fall of 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt knew that U.S.the United States entry into World War II was a possibility. And she worried about what that would mean for Japanese Americans. At the time, the United States still barred first-generation Japanese immigrants, known as Issei, from becoming citizens under the 1790 Naturalization Act. Second-generation Japanese Americans, known as Nisei, held U.S. citizenship because they were born in the United States. But this did not protect them from racism and discrimination.
The first lady reached out to the Justice Department about what might happen to Japanese Americans in the event of war, writes Greg Robinson, a history professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, in By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. On December 4, 1941—three days before the Pearl Harbor attack—the first lady publicly stated that if the country entered the war, the government would not discriminate against any law-abiding noncitizens living in the United States.
That proved very quickly to be untrue. After the U.S. declared war on Japan on December 8, the Treasury Department froze all assets of Issei residents. Eleanor intervened to convince the Treasury Department to relax the restrictions so that families could withdraw $100 a month. Over the next few months, prominent white Americans in the government and media began calling for something even more drastic: the “mass evacuation” of citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent.
The first lady was not immune to the anti-Japanese misinformation circulating among white Americans at the time. By January 1942, she believed incorrectly that the government had revealed some Japanese Americans to be spies. (In reality, the government never identified any ethnically Japanese spies living in the United States during the war.) Even so, she opposed the idea of mass evacuation.
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One of her allies within FDR’s administration was Attorney General Francis Biddle, who tried to advise the president against mass evacuation. But when it became clear that FDR was going to issue an executive order authorizing the forced removal and internment of Japanese Americans, Biddle declined to have the Justice Department intervene.
Supporting the Release of Internees
Under Executive Order 9066, the United States forced more than100,000 Japanese Americans out of their homes and into remote military internment camps. Each camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. When internees protested the unsafe conditions and inadequate food rations, military police often responded with violence.
Publicly, Eleanor did not criticize this internment. Privately, she began corresponding with Japanese Americans in the camps. And she began advocating for a program to transfer Nisei students out of the camps so they could go to college. Her efforts led to the formation of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council in May 1942. That year, she also asked the Department of War if she could visit one of the camps. They denied her request.
When she asked again if she could visit a camp in early 1943, government officials were more amenable. By then, the Army had “opened up enlistment to Japanese American male volunteers, and Franklin Roosevelt endorsed their loyalty,” says Robinson in an interview with HISTORY.com. “He gave a public statement saying Americanism is a matter of the mind and the heart, and not of ancestry.”
In April 1943—not long after Eleanor learned that the U.S. hadn’t actually discovered any Japanese Americans spies, as she had previously believed—the first lady made an approved public visit to the Gila River Relocation Center in Pinal County, Arizona. In her “My Day” column about the visit, she praised the internees as hard-working, law-abiding and loyal to the United States. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published that month, she said that “the sooner we get the young Japanese out of the camps, the better.”
“She’s very careful not to say ‘my husband was wrong,’ or ‘this policy was wrong,’” says David B. Woolner, senior fellow and resident historian of the Roosevelt Institute, and author of The Last 100 Days: FDR at War and at Peace. Instead, she tried to convey that “it would be safe to close those camps.”
Protecting FDR’s Legacy
In December 1944, the U.S. Army issued a proclamation that Japanese Americans could soon begin leaving the internment camps. In March 1946, the last camp finally closed.
Following FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt sent President Harry Truman a letter about the racism that Japanese Americans were encountering as they reentered U.S. communities after their incarceration. Yet publicly, she was mostly silent on the subject of Japanese internment.
One notable exception appeared in the forward she wrote to the 1952 book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire: The Arts of the Japanese in Our War Relocation Camps. In it, Robinson says, “she claimed that the government had acted to confine Japanese Americans because of fear about riots against Japanese Americans.”
It’s a puzzling and objectively false assertion from a woman who opposed the forced internment of Japanese Americans—yet continued to protect the legacy of the man who authorized it, even after his death.