Franklin D. Roosevelt B

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Pearl Harbor

Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Japan, December 1941.
Roosevelt signing the declaration of war against Japan, December 1941.

Roosevelt was less keen to involve the U.S. in the war developing in East Asia, where Japan occupied French Indo-China in late 1940. He authorized increased aid to China, and in July 1941 he restricted the sales of oil and other strategic materials to Japan, but also continued negotiations with the Japanese government in the hope of averting war. Through 1941 the Japanese planned their attack on the western powers, including the U.S., while spinning out the negotiations in Washington. The "hawks" in the Administration, led by Stimson and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, were in favor of a tough policy towards Japan, but Roosevelt, emotionally committed to the war in Europe, refused to believe that Japan might attack the U.S. and favored continued negotiations. The U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew, passed on warnings about the planned attack on the American Pacific Fleet(i)s base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but these were ignored by the State Department.

On 7 December 1941 the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, damaging most of it and killing 3,000 American personnel. The American commanders at Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short, were taken completely by surprise, and were later made scapegoats for this disaster. The fault really lay with the War Department in Washington, who since August 1940 had been able to read the Japanese diplomatic codes and had thus been given ample warning of the imminence of the attack (though not of its actual date). The War Department had not passed these warnings on to the commanders in Hawaii, mainly because its analysts refused to believe that the Japanese would really have the effrontery to attack the United States.

It has become a staple of postwar revisionist history that Roosevelt knew all about the planned attack on Pearl Harbor but did nothing to prevent it so that the U.S. could be brought into the war as a result of being attacked. There is no evidence to support this theory. On 5 December the Cabinet discussed the mounting intelligence evidence that the Japanese were mobilizing for war. Navy Secretary Knox told the Cabinet of the decoded messages showing that the Japanese fleet was at sea, but stated his opinion that it was heading south to attack the British in Malaya and Singapore, and to seize the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies. Roosevelt and the rest of the Cabinet accepted this view. There were intercepted Japanese messages suggesting an attack on Pearl Harbor, but delays in translating and passing on these messages through the inefficient War Department bureaucracy meant that they did not reach the Cabinet before the attack took place. There is no evidence that Roosevelt was made aware of them. All contemporary accounts describe Roosevelt, Hull and Stimson as shocked and outraged when they heard news of the attack.

The Japanese took advantage of their pre-emptive destruction of most of the Pacific Fleet to rapidly occupy the Philippines and all the British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia, taking Singapore in February 1942 and advancing through Burma to the borders of British India by May, thus cutting off the overland supply route to China. Pearl Harbor was followed immediately by declarations of war on the U.S. by Germany and Italy. Isolationism evaporated overnight and the country united behind Roosevelt as a wartime leader. Despite the wave of anger that swept across the U.S. in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt decided from the start that the defeat of Nazi Germany had to take priority. Fortunately, in a major foreign policy blunder, Nazi Germany played directly into Roosevelt(i)s hands when it declared war against the USA on December 11 which removed any meaningful opposition to fighting the Third Reich. He met with Churchill in late December and planned a broad alliance between the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union, with the objectives of, first, halting the German advances in the Soviet Union and in North Africa; second, launching an invasion of western Europe with the aim of crushing Nazi Germany between two fronts, and only third turning to the task of defeating Japan.

Although Roosevelt was constitutionally the Commander-in-Chief of the United States armed forces, he had never worn a uniform and he did not interfere in operational military matters in anything like the way Churchill did in Britain, let alone take direct command of the forces as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin did. He placed great trust in the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, and later in his Supreme Commander in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, and left almost all strategic and tactical decisions to them, within the broad framework for the conduct of the war decided by the Cabinet in agreement with the other Allied powers. He had less confidence in his commander in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, who he rightly suspected of planning to run for President against him. But since the war in the Pacific was mainly a naval war, this did not greatly matter until later in the war. Given his close personal interest in the Navy, Roosevelt tended to intervene more in naval matters, but strong Navy commanders like Admirals Ernest King in the Atlantic theater and Chester Nimitz in the Pacific enjoyed his confidence.

The Japanese-American issue

Following the outbreak of the Pacific War Roosevelt came under immediate pressure to remove or intern the estimated 120,000 people of Japanese origin or descent living in California, two-thirds of them American-born, on the grounds that they were a threat to security. Pressure came from California Governor Culbert Olsen (a Democrat), the Hearst newspapers and General John L. De Witt, the U.S. Army Commander in California, whose simple attitude was that "a Jap is a Jap." Opponents of the suggestion were Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, Attorney-General Francis Biddle and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who said that there was no evidence of Japanese-American involvement in espionage or sabotage.

On February 7, 1942 Biddle met with Roosevelt and set out the Justice Department(i)s objections to the proposal. Roosevelt then ordered that a plan be drawn up to evacuate the Japanese-Americans from California in the event of a landing or air attacks on the West Coast by Japan, but not otherwise. But on February 11 he met with Secretary of War Stimson, who persuaded him to approve an immediate evacuation. There was evidence of espionage on behalf of Japan in the U.S. before and after Pearl Harbor; code-breakers decrypted messages to Japan from agents in North America and Hawaii. These MAGIC cables were kept secret from all but those with the highest clearance, such as Roosevelt, lest the Japanese discover the decryption and change their code.

On February 19, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to relocate people from "combat zones" (such as California) on security grounds, without specifically mentioning the Japanese-Americans. As a result, 120,000 people, half of them U.S. citizens, were interned without charge or trial. Roosevelt also wanted the 140,000 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii deported to the mainland, but the territorial authorities, including the Army, objected on the grounds that they were indispensable to the Islands(i) economy; thus the plan was dropped. Japanese-Americans continued to serve in the U.S. armed forces throughout the war, although they were not employed in the Pacific theatre. (The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was composed almost entirely of formerly interned Japanese-Americans and remains the most highly decorated unit in U.S. military history.) Conditions in the camps, in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, were tolerable by most accounts (and quite pleasant according to others), but detainees naturally resented being detained and there were repeated disturbances in the camps, which resulted in 15,000 people being interned in a higher-security center at Tule Lake, California. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the executive order, which remained in force until December of that year.

By contrast, there was no mass internment of German-Americans or Italian-Americans. Out of 60 million Americans of German descent, only 11,000, some American citizens, were placed in internment camps. As well, about 4,000 German nationals were deported from Central American countries for internment in the U.S. Interior Secretary Ickes lobbied Roosevelt through 1944 to release the Japanese-American internees, but Roosevelt did not act until after the November presidential election. A fight for Japanese-American civil rights would have meant a fight with influential Democrats, the Army, and the Hearst press and would have endangered Roosevelt(i)s chances of winning California in 1944. Critics of Roosevelt(i)s actions believe they were motivated in part by racism. In 1925 he had written about Japanese immigration: "Californians have properly objected on the sound basic grounds that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population... Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European and American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results." But when activating the 442nd RCT on February 1, 1943, Roosevelt said, "No loyal citizen of the United States should be denied the democratic right to exercise the responsibilities of his citizenship, regardless of his ancestry. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."

Civil rights and refugees

Roosevelt(i)s attitudes to race were also tested by the issue of African-American (or "Negro", to use the term of the time) service in the armed forces. The Democratic Party at this time was dominated by Southerners who were opposed to any concession to demands for racial equality. During the New Deal years, there had been a series of conflicts over whether African-Americans were eligible for the various government benefits and programs. Typically, the young idealists who ran the programs tried to make these benefits available regardless of race. Southern Governors or Congressmen would then complain to Roosevelt, who would to keep his party together intervene to uphold segregation. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, segregated their work forces by race at Roosevelt(i)s insistence after Southern governors protested at unemployed whites being required to work alongside blacks. Roosevelt(i)s personal racial attitudes were conventional for his time and class. He was not a visceral racist, but he accepted the common stereotype of African-Americans (whom he had little contact with in his entire life) as lazy, if good-natured, children just as they were shown in popular entertainment. He did little to advance civil rights, despite prodding from Eleanor and liberals in his Cabinet such as Frances Perkins.

Roosevelt explained his reluctance to support anti-lynching legislation in a conversation with Walter White of the NAACP. "I did not choose the tools with which I must work. Had I been permitted to choose then I would have selected quite different ones. But I(i)ve got to get legislation passed by Congress to save America. The Southerners by reason of the seniority rule in Congress are chairmen or occupy strategic places on most of the Senate and House committees. If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep America from collapsing. I just can(i)t take that risk."

Despite Roosevelt(i)s apparent inability to support civil rights, he was still perceived as a black-friendly threat in the American South. A popular anti-Roosevelt song declared: "You kiss the niggers / I(i)ll kiss the Jews / We(i)ll stay in the White House / As long as we choose."

The war brought the issue to the forefront. The armed forces had been segregated ever since the Civil War. African-Americans in the Army served only in rear-echelon or service roles, the Navy was almost entirely white and the Marine Corps wholly so. Neither the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, nor the Navy Secretary, Frank Knox, were Southerners (Stimson came from a New York abolitionist family), but they were aware that the officer corps of both services were drawn heavily from Southern military families, and feared disturbances or even mutiny if integration of the armed forces were imposed. "Colored troops do very well under white officers," said Stimson, "but every time we try to lift them a little beyond where they can go, disaster and confusion follow." Knox was blunter: "In our history we don(i)t take Negroes into a ship(i)s company."

But by 1940 the African-American vote had shifted almost totally from Republican to Democrat, and African-American leaders like Walter White of the NAACP and T. Arnold Hill of the Urban League had become recognized as part of the Roosevelt coalition. In June 1941, at the urging of A. Philip Randolph, the leading African-American trade unionist, Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practice Commission and prohibiting discrimination by any government agency, including the armed forces. In practice the services, particularly the Navy and the Marines, found ways to evade this order — the Marine Corps remained all-white until 1943. In September 1942, at Eleanor(i)s instigation, Roosevelt met with a delegation of African-American leaders, who demanded full integration into the forces, including the right to serve in combat roles and in the Navy, the Marine Corps and the United States Army Air Force. Roosevelt, with his usual desire to please everyone, agreed, but then did nothing to implement his promise. It was left to his successor, Harry S. Truman, to fully desegregate the armed forces.

Roosevelt(i)s complex attitudes to American Jews were even more well-chronicled. Franklin(i)s mother Sara was well known for being an anti-Semite, an attitude common among Eastern Americans at a time when Jewish immigrants were flooding into the U.S. and their children were advancing rapidly into the business and professional classes, alarming those already there. Roosevelt apparently inherited some of his mother(i)s attitudes, and at times expressed them in private. Paradoxically some of his closest political associates, such as Felix Frankfurter, Bernard Baruch and Samuel I. Rosenman, were Jewish, and he happily cultivated the important Jewish vote in New York City (much as TR had done). He appointed Henry Morgenthau, Jr. as the first Jewish Secretary of the Treasury and appointed Frankfurter to the Supreme Court. But he once told Morgenthau and a Catholic economist, Leo T. Crowley: "This is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and the Jews are here on sufferance."

Roosevelt(i)s anti-Semitism was a possible factor in his deciding government policy on the Jewish refugee issue before and during World War II. Another possible factor was his fear of provoking isolationists.

During his first term Roosevelt condemned Hitler(i)s persecution of German Jews, but said "this is not a governmental affair" and refused to make any public comment. As the Jewish exodus from Germany increased after 1937, Roosevelt was asked by American Jewish organizations and Congressmen to allow these refugees to settle in the U.S. At first he suggested that the Jewish refugees should be "resettled" elsewhere, and suggested Venezuela, Ethiopia or West Africa — anywhere but the U.S. Morgenthau, Ickes and Eleanor pressed him to adopt a more generous policy but he was afraid of provoking the isolationists — men such as Charles Lindbergh who exploited anti-Semitism as a means of attacking Roosevelt(i)s policies. In practice very few Jewish refugees came to the U.S. — only 22,000 German refugees were admitted in 1940, not all of them Jewish. The State Department official in charge of refugee issues, Breckinridge Long, was a visceral anti-Semite who did everything he could to obstruct Jewish immigration. Despite frequent complaints, Roosevelt failed to remove him.

After 1942, when Roosevelt was made aware, by Rabbi Stephen Wise, the Polish envoy Jan Karski and others, of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, he refused to allow any systematic attempt to rescue European Jewish refugees and bring them to the U.S. In May 1943 he wrote to Cordell Hull (whose wife was Jewish): "I do not think we can do other than strictly comply with the present immigration laws." In January 1944, however, Morgenthau succeeded in persuading Roosevelt to allow the creation of a War Refugee Board in the Treasury Department. This allowed an increasing number of Jews to enter the U.S. in 1944 and 1945. By this time, however only a fragment of the European Jewish communities had survived Hitler(i)s Holocaust. In any case after 1945 the focus of Jewish aspirations shifted from migration to the U.S. to settlement in Palestine, where the Zionist movement hoped to create a Jewish state. But Roosevelt was also opposed to this idea. When he met King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia in February 1945, he assured him he did not support a Jewish state in Palestine. He suggested that since the Nazis had killed three million Polish Jews, there should now be plenty of room in Poland to resettle all the Jewish refugees. President Roosevelt(i)s attitudes towards Americans of Japanese origin, African heritage and Jewish faith remain in striking contrast with the generosity of spirit he displayed, and the social liberalism he practiced in other realms.

Strategy and diplomacy

Chiang Kai-shek of China, Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill of Britain at the Cairo Conference in 1943
Chiang Kai-shek of China, Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill of Britain at the Cairo Conference in 1943

As Churchill rightly saw, the entry of the U.S. into the war meant that victory of the Allied powers was assured. Even though Britain was exhausted by the end of 1942, the alliance between the manpower of the Soviet Union and the industrial resources of the U.S. was bound to defeat Germany and Japan in the long run. But mobilizing those resources and deploying them effectively was a difficult task. The U.S. took the straightforward view that the quickest way to defeat Germany was to transport its army to Britain, invade France across the English Channel and attack Germany directly from the west. Churchill, wary of the huge casualties he feared this would entail, favored a more indirect approach, advancing northwards from the Mediterranean, where the Allies were fully in control by early 1943, into either


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