Thursday, December 10, 2015

June 1919

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, putting into motion the internment of Americans of Japanese descent - one of the grossest human rights violations in U. S. history.  It was an egregiously out of character action for the man who was the only world leader to speak out against Kristallnacht in 1938, and who exhorted Americans to be “particularly vigilant against racial discrimination in any of its ugly forms”.
I will not spend time detailing the humiliation the Japanese-American community was put through, or the degrading conditions they endured.  The fact that, four decades later, President Reagan apologized for the policy, and reparations were paid to the survivors, speaks volumes of history’s verdict.  Today, few but lonely bigots and Internet trolls dare to defend such a ludicrous policy – which did nothing to protect “national security”.  At one point, Roosevelt tried to rationalize the policy to J. Edgar Hoover (who opposed internment) by arguing that separating Japanese-Americans from the rest of the population was for their own protection against what today are called “hate crimes”.  Fear of espionage and sabotage were foremost in Roosevelt’s mind, and he was hardly alone - either in his concerns or his prejudice against the Japanese - regardless of whether they were born in the United States or elsewhere.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt - who was skeptical of her husband's policy - openly referred to the Japanese as "Japs", although she never called Germans "Krauts" or Italians "Dagos."  Indeed, while some German-Americans and Italian-Americans were under increased scrutiny during the war, their treatment does not compare to that of Japanese-Americans.
Franklin Roosevelt was a very private man.  He seldom revealed his innermost thoughts to anyone – even his family.  But one event, seldom mentioned by historians, may provide some context for Roosevelt’s actions.
In 1919, Roosevelt was a junior member of Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet: Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  On the evening of June 2, Franklin and his wife Eleanor were walking home from a dinner party (this was two years before FDR lost the use of his legs).  As they turned onto "R" street, they observed a large explosion directly across from their townhouse.  Franklin broke into a sprint toward their home, where he spotted a severed limb on the doorstep.  Seeing that the windows had been shattered, he burst through the front doors and up the stairs to his son James’ room.  He immediately spotted his eleven year old son, dazed but unharmed looking out the window - shattered glass on the floor.  Franklin grabbed his son into an embrace so tight, James later recalled “I thought my ribs would crack.”  It was the only time Franklin’s family saw him in a state of near panic. 
It was revealed the bomb was an attempt by anarchists to assassinate Attorney General Mitchell Palmer – who lived in the home where the bomb exploded, as part of a coordinated series of attacks across the country.  The severed limb on FDR's doorstep belonged to Carlo Valdinoci, one of the anarchists – killed when the bomb exploded prematurely.  The events of that evening would haunt Franklin Roosevelt for the rest of his life – which is saying something for a man who survived a February 1933 assassination attempt with remarkable stoicism.   
Recently, Donald Trump praised Roosevelt’s policy of Japanese internment and cited it as a model for his plan in dealing with Muslims.  With the many ridiculous statements Trump has made in recent months, it’s astonishing to me that he remains the leader in the GOP Presidential race.  But his bluster and wealth allow him to stand out, even in the current field of buffoons and loons presented as part of the GOP’s race to the intellectual bottom.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  We will not make our nation safer by stooping to our enemy’s level.  Indeed, Trump's own words play right into ISIL's blood-soaked hands.