Younger brother of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower and first director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), which administered the Japanese American concentration camps, Milton Eisenhower was born in Abilene, Kansas, on September 15, 1899. He was the youngest of seven children who were all sons. Eisenhower attended public schools and in 1923, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from Kansas State University. He taught journalism until 1925, and went on to serve as U.S. vice counsel to Scotland. From 1928 to 1941, he was the information director for the Department of Agriculture under Secretary William M. Jardine. Although trained as a journalist with no military experience, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Eisenhower director of the WRA in March 1942.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the military to remove and provide for anyone under the powers of “military necessity.” Later, the president issued an executive order that established the WRA, and named Eisenhower as its first director. Per the order, Eisenhower's responsibility was to “set up a War Relocation Authority to move the Japanese Americans off the Pacific Coast” (Eisenhower, 95).
At the time, Eisenhower knew very little about the problem of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. He was aware of rumors about a possible invasion by Japan of the Pacific Coast, and had heard about the hearings held to discuss a program of “national defense migration.” Despite his ignorance of the situation, he was in charge of the government agency responsible for planning and implementing the mass removal and detention of some 120,000 Japanese Americans.
Eisenhower quickly concluded that the forcible, mass eviction of Japanese Americans was unwarranted and extreme. However, he “spent little time pondering the moral implications of the President's decision,” Eisenhower later wrote (Eisenhower, 97), explaining, “it was clear to me that the question was not whether to evacuate the Japanese Americans (since that process was already under way) but rather how to carry out their relocation to the interior” (Eisenhower, 112). The WRA director was determined to carry out his duty as effectively and humanely as possible.
Eisenhower described his first three months as WRA director a nightmare. He had to staff the WRA. He looked at the Department of Agriculture where he had previously worked and the Department of Interior's Indian Service for models for his agency. Eisenhower attended numerous meetings, and traveled back
and forth from Washington to San Francisco, leaving him with little time to sleep. He also seemed bothered by the unsavory nature of the entire program, according to a story told by his successor, Dillon S. Myer.
Eisenhower struggled with the necessity of a complete, forcible removal of Japanese Americans, an alternative offered by government officials after the failure of a voluntary “evacuation.” Eisenhower had hoped instead for an exclusion policy in which “only men were evacuated [and] the women and children remain in their homes” (Eisenhower, 116). Regardless of his personal opinion, Eisenhower, felt pressed for time, noting “the longer the WRA took to develop a relocation center, the longer the evacuees would be kept in the assembly centers along the coast” (Eisenhower, 119). He knew that the assembly centers were “makeshift quarters of tar paper shacks thrown up at racetracks and fairgrounds. There was virtually no privacy, conditions were primitive, with overcrowding and minimal facilities” (Eisenhower, 119).
By June 5, 1942, Eisenhower secured 10 sites for the WRA's concentration camps. These were on government property, and were able to hold at least 5,000 people, and as was required by “military necessity,” they were located away from strategic installations. The WRA director explained: “we called the relocation camps ‘evacuation centers.' Never did we think of them as concentration camps” (Eisenhower, 122).
While he disagreed with the forced, mass removal, Eisenhower was proud of some of his initiatives. He met with a group of Japanese Americans and established an advisory council to represent those affected by the evictions. He noted that this was the wisest thing he did as WRA director. To ensure that Japanese American students complete their college education, he asked the American Friends Service Committee's Clarence Pickett to recruit leading university educators to form the National Japanese Student Relocation Council. The council relocated nisei students from the camps to college campuses. Eisenhower also tried to protect Japanese American assets by having the Federal Reserve Bank in California guarantee
the property and savings of those affected by the camps. That agreement failed to stop the millions of dollars lost by Japanese Americans during the war.
Of the wartime experience, Eisenhower wrote: “thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry were stripped of their rights and freedoms and treated almost like enemy prisoners of war. Many lost their homes, their business, their savings … [it] was a bad dream come to pass.” Eisenhower believed that the mass removal might have been avoided. In his memoir, he asked, “How could such a tragedy have occurred in a democratic society that prides itself on individual rights and freedoms? How could responsible leaders make such a fateful decision?” He conceded that the forcible, mass removal and detention was an “inhumane event” (Eisenhower, 125).
In mid-July 1942, Eisenhower left the directorship of the WRA to serve as associate director for the Office of War Information, a post he held from 1942 to 1943. Dillon S. Myer assumed the role as WRA director. In a memorandum to the president, Eisenhower noted that the future of the WRA program “will doubtless be governed largely by the temper of the American public opinion,” and, he added, the American people will hopefully “grow toward a better appreciation of the essential Americanism of a great majority of the evacuees” (Eisenhower, 123). Finally, Eisenhower recommended that Congress enact “a special program for the evacuees to help them find their place in American life after the war” (Eisenhower, 124).
After 19 years in the government, Eisenhower left the nation's capital to devote most of his time to education. On July 1, 1943, at the age of 43, Eisenhower became the president of Kansas State University, the institution where he had spent his years as an undergraduate. Eisenhower went on to serve as president of Pennsylvania State University (1950–1956) and Johns Hopkins University (1956–1967 and 1971–1972).
Eisenhower is remembered today as a government official and educator. He advised eight U.S. presidents, and worked as a high-level official for Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. He chaired five presidential commissions including the Commission on the Cause and Prevention of Crime during the start of the 1960s urban riots. He also served as a special ambassador to Latin America. Thirty-two U.S. and five foreign universities awarded Eisenhower 37 honorary degrees.
On May 2, 1985, Milton Eisenhower died in Baltimore, Maryland, from cancer.
Eisenhower, Milton S. The President Is Calling. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.