Eleanor Roosevelt, born Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (the Roosevelt surname was already in her family), married Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1905. In 1932, Eleanor Roosevelt became the 34th First Lady of the United States. As First Lady, Roosevelt had to choose between supporting her husband, the president, and her own personal politics. During the World War II, the forced removal and confinement of some 120,000 Japanese Americans was an ethical question about which Eleanor Roosevelt proved to be publicly ambivalent.
After Pearl Harbor, many of the nation's leaders and much of the greater U.S. public supported the idea of removing all persons of Japanese ancestry from the Western Defense Command. Eleanor Roosevelt was staunchly opposed to that displacement on the primary basis of “race.” Just prior to the U.S. declaration of war, with the permission of the Justice and State departments, First Lady Roosevelt issued a statement that vouched for the safety of Japanese Americans. It read: “I see absolutely no reason why anyone who has had a good record—that is, who has no criminal nor anti-American record—should have anxiety about his position. This is equally applicable to the Japanese who cannot become citizens but have lived here for thirty or forty years …” (Girdner and Loftis, 7).
After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Eleanor Roosevelt quickly embarked on a tour of the West Coast by train with New York mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. This was a strategic endeavor; in the wake of the surprise attack, the West Coast was brimming with hysteria at the thought of a Japanese invasion. The visit was an attempt to cleave the fast growing rift between the wider U.S. public and those who were being unfairly accused of being threats to national security, Japanese Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt took ample photographs with Japanese Americans, which were to be distributed by the Associated Press wire service. The campaign to quell the fear was effective in terms of publicity. On December 15, 1941, the New York Times published one of the tour photographs. One day later, Eleanor Roosevelt put words to the visual as she wrote in her “My Day” column: “This is perhaps the greatest test this country has ever met.” She continued, warning the United States that if it failed to act fairly with its own citizens, “then we shall have removed from the world, the one real hope for the future on which all humanity must now rely” (Beasley et al., 278).
Though perhaps grandiose in her estimation of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt's earnest appeal to the public may have held some sway with many readers. According to public opinion polls of the time, Eleanor was well-liked and respected across political parties, gender, and class. In 1993, the Siena Institute conducted a survey amongst historians and professors and Eleanor Roosevelt was rated the most influential woman of the 20th century. She was considered an unofficial diplomat and helped to secure allies for the United States. Yet, however popular the First Lady was and remains, her role as the president's wife afforded her no official governmental authority in affairs either foreign or domestic. As such, the extent of her social influence hardly reached the political grounds of the Japanese American concentration camps.
The forced eviction of Japanese Americans from their homes and relocation to internment camps would proceed without Eleanor Roosevelt's approval. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ultimately allowed for the forced removal and confinement of Japanese Americans in military zones. Although widely considered a champion of civil rights, very quickly after EO 9066 was issued¸ Eleanor Roosevelt publicly changed her position on the matter of concentration camps. In a radio broadcast she stated, “It is obvious that many people who are friendly aliens have to suffer temporarily in order to insure the vital interests of this country while at war” (Beasley et al., 279). This uncharacteristic backtracking is telling of Eleanor Roosevelt's personal and political bind. For the sake of a unified front around which the United States could rally itself, Eleanor Roosevelt publicly supported the internment of Japanese Americans. Yet in correspondence with a personal friend, Roosevelt wrote that the U.S. concentration camps were “just one more reason for hating war—innocent people suffer for a few guilty ones” (Beasley et al., 280).
Despite her rhetoric, Eleanor Roosevelt acted to help minimize the damage to Japanese Americans. She tried to ensure that even in the dislocation families remained together by intervening with the War Relocation Authority. She helped to
gain the early release of some internees, and had the bank accounts of released, “loyal” Japanese Americans made accessible to them after the banks had frozen their accounts. She appealed to the Justice Department to prevent Japanese American disenfranchisement and to investigate the claims of anti–Japanese American violence and employment discrimination. And she, in her “My Day” column, tried to present both the WRA and Japanese Americans positively.
In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt, at the request of the president, visited the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona after he became concerned with the demonstrations occurring within the camps. In her public report, she chose to avoid the topic of the political climate of the camps and focused on the perceived highlights, like attempts on the part of internees to organize schools and the esthetic quality of intern-made and tended gardens. What she chose to share with the public was that families were under great distress in the camps. She later urged President Roosevelt to relax the ban on Japanese Americans in the Western Defense Command, and noted that Japanese Americans had not only been moved for their own safety, as the government had rationalized, but because they were also feared as competitors. The racism of the exclusion did not escape First Lady Roosevelt.
For the remainder of her husband's presidency and life, Eleanor Roosevelt continued to negotiate the line between galvanizing the United States for the war effort and advocating for the civil rights of those Americans who were victimized by the war. After President Roosevelt died, Eleanor Roosevelt resumed publicly aligning herself with those who opposed the U.S. concentration camps.
Kia S. Walton
Girdner, Audrie and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of Japanese-Americans during World War II. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Ng, Wendy. Japanese Internment during World War II: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.