Sunday, January 17, 2016

Harold Ickes on Japanese American internment camps: The camps are "both stupid and cruel"

(Harold Ickes and his wife Jane Dahlman at their home in Olney, Maryland, 1938. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Franklin Roosevelt's biggest mistake as president had nothing to do with the New Deal. Instead, his biggest mistake occurred in 1942, when he caved to military, political, and public hysteria, and signing Executive Order 9066, which authorized the relocation of Japanese Americans on the west coast to internment camps. The country had just been stunned by the Pearl Harbor invasion, and there was fear that some Japanese Americans might aid the enemy (or be the enemy). There was also hope on the part of some white Americans that the relocation of Japanese Americans would remove business and labor competition.

Harold Ickes, one of Roosevelt's top men, despised the racially-discriminatory policy of Executive Order 9066 and, as Secretary of the Interior, was aghast that he would have a role to play in it. He called the Relocation Centers, "fancy-named concentration camps," described them as "both stupid and cruel," and told the president that the camps were "turning thousands of well-meaning and loyal Japanese into angry prisoners." Roosevelt replied that he regretted the military necessity of the relocations. (T.H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold Ickes, 1874-1952, 1990, pp. 792-793)

In truth, and as I wrote in a previous blog post, the country would have been better off requesting help from Japanese Americans on the west coast. For those who might think this naive, they would do well to remember what did happen when we requested help from Japanese Americans, for example, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This was a volunteer Army unit that earned "9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and an unprecedented eight Presidential Unit Citations." The Japanese American Museum in San Jose explains one of their wartime actions: "Perhaps the most famous of the 442nd accomplishments was the heroic rescue of the Texas 'Lost Battalion' which had been caught behind enemy lines. In a ferocious battle, the 442nd suffered over 800 casualties (including 184 killed) to rescue 211 members of the Texas battalion."

(The 442nd in France, 1944. Photo courtesy of NPR and the National Archives.)

Today, there is all sorts of hateful talk about building walls, shooting refugees, and creating a database to track Muslim Americans. We shouldn't respect any of this foolishness. Instead, we should remember the words of Harold Ickes and remember the bravery of the 442nd. Ickes knew (and so should we) that our country is stronger when we bring people in and enlist their skill & labor to make a better world - and weaker when we exclude, stereotype, and demonize. This was true for Japanese Americans during World War II, and it's true for today's excluded and neglected groups, e.g., American Indians, refugees, minorities, and unemployed workers. These groups are an untapped well of greatness that we are failing to see because of fear and hysteria.


  1. This is not true only with Muslim Americans today, and refugees coming from the other side of the world, but also with refugees just south of us -- in Mexico and now mostly Central America -- whom we are deporting to a certain death, or putting them into for profit prisons indiscriminately. This all while corporations make millions, the public stays in fear of what they don't know, and mostly innocent women and children are running from murder, corruption and death to seek asylum here, yet they are turned away or treated like animals.

    What does that say about us as a country? Here is something I wrote, to show alternatives:

    1. Hi Ana, thanks for the comment. Interesting story of how your time in Minnesota, and the positive attitudes you encountered, endeared you to America. It might also interest you to know that Harold Ickes suggested the Virgin Islands and Alaska as possible waiting areas and settlement places for Jews to escape Nazi persecution in the late 1930s. The idea though, obviously, didn't gain steam.

  2. Thanks for letting me know about "the Virgin Islands and Alaska as possible waiting areas and settlement places for Jews to escape Nazi persecution in the late 1930s." I went to look it up to find out more about this, since I did not know, and because I did, I found something else I think you will like, since you are so into the arts.

    "In 1939 a well-publicized plight of Jewish refugees from Europe aboard the S.S. St. Louis first were refused permission to disembark in Cuba, then denied permission to emigrate to the United States. Because of strict immigration quotas in force at the time, Roosevelt had no choice but to refuse to accept these refugees and the ship was turned back to Europe. In 1944 President Franklin Roosevelt, under pressure from Congress and Jewish Americans, relaxed the quotas on Eastern European immigration to allow more Jews to immigrate and escape Nazi persecution. He also created a War Refugee Board to admit more refugees."

    In any case, they went on to talk about a musician, folk song collector, and singer Flory Jagoda who came to the United States as a "war bride" after World War II. Because of your comment, I found this delightful music as she performs songs of the Sephardic diaspora, but explains them too. THANK YOU!

    1. Excellent, thanks for the information!