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Why Didn’t FDR Help European Jews? Hints in His Decision To Intern Japanese Americans

Now, 70 years after the Supreme Court upheld the internment of civilians in WWII, it may revisit the ruling

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The evacuation of the Japanese Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Japanese Americans going to camp at Owens Valley gather around baggage car at the old Santa Fe Station in Los Angeles. (Lee Russell, Library of Congress)
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Robinson concluded that FDR’s longstanding “negative beliefs about Japanese-Americans” played a significant role in the internment decision. Those beliefs help explain why Roosevelt was so quick to agree with the pro-internment positions of some of his advisers, despite the paucity of evidence of disloyalty among Japanese Americans. It also helps explain why he chose to imprison Japanese Americans, while not taking similar action against German Americans or Italian Americans despite their relation to countries America was fighting in the war.

Roosevelt’s views about the Japanese dovetail with his privately expressed opinions about Jews. In my own recent research in the diaries and correspondence of Roosevelt Cabinet members and others close to FDR, I have found a number of troubling remarks by the president in this vein. For example, he complained about Jews “overcrowding” certain professions in Germany, North Africa, and even in Oregon. He was one of the initiators of a quota on the admission of Jews to Harvard. He boasted to one friend—a U.S. senator—that “we have no Jewish blood in our veins.” He claimed antisemitism in Poland was a reaction to Jews dominating the local economy. And he embraced an adviser’s proposal to “spread the Jews thin” around the world, in order to prevent them from dominating their host countries.

FDR’s writings and statements indicate that he regarded both Jews and Asians as having innate biological characteristics that made it difficult, or even impossible, for them to become fully loyal Americans. Certain individual, assimilated Jews could be useful to him as political allies or advisers, but having a substantial number of Jews, especially the less assimilated kind, was—in his mind—inviting trouble.

FDR’s private views help explain an otherwise inexplicable aspect of his response to the Holocaust–his administration’s policy of suppressing refugee immigration far below the legal limits. The quota of immigrants from Germany (about 26,000 annually) was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt’s 12 in the White House. In most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. If public or congressional opposition prevented liberalizing the entire immigration quota system, why not at least permit the existing quotas to be quietly filled? The answer is that Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of America did not make room for substantial numbers of Asian or Jewish immigrants.

It’s not that prejudice was the only factor that went into Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese or his response to the Holocaust. Obviously there were various political, military, and other factors that figured into the mix. But museum curators and historians who discount the importance of the president’s personal feelings are missing a crucial, and undeniable, aspect of the story.

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Why Didn’t FDR Help European Jews? Hints in His Decision To Intern Japanese Americans

Now, 70 years after the Supreme Court upheld the internment of civilians in WWII, it may revisit the ruling

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