Franklin D. Roosevelt's record on civil rights
In June 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). It was the most important federal move in support of the rights of African-Americans between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The President's order stated that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. The FEPC enforced the order to ban discriminatory hiring within the federal government and in corporations that received federal contracts. Millions of blacks and women achieved better jobs and better pay as a result. The war brought the race issue to the forefront. The Army and Navy had been segregated since the Civil War. But by 1940 the African-American vote had largely shifted from Republican to Democrat, and African-American leaders like Walter Francis 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'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 Forces. Roosevelt agreed, but then did nothing to implement his promise. It was left to his successor, Harry S. Truman, to fully desegregate the armed forces.
Following the outbreak of the Pacific War, the War Department demanded that all enemy nationals and Japanese American citizens be removed from war zones on the West Coast. The question became how to imprison the estimated 120,000 people of Japanese and American citizenship living in California. On February 11, 1942 Roosevelt met with Secretary of War Stimson, who persuaded him to approve an immediate forced evacuation. Roosevelt looked at the secret evidence available to him: the Japanese in the Philippines had collaborated with the Japanese invasion troops; the Japanese in California had been strong supporters of Japan in the war against China. There was evidence of espionage compiled by code-breakers that decrypted messages to Japan from agents in North America and Hawaii before and after Pearl Harbor. 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, 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which ordered Secretary of War, and military commanders to designate military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded." Roosevelt released the imprisoned Japanese in 1944. On February 1, 1943, when activating the 442nd Regimental Combat Team -- a unit composed mostly of American citizens of Japanese descent living in Hawaii, he 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."
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 meant a fight with influential Democrats, the Army, and the Hearst press and would have endangered Roosevelt's chances of winning California in 1944. Critics of Roosevelt's actions believe they were motivated in part by racialism. In 1925 Roosevelt 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". In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the executive order in the Korematsu v. United States case. The executive order remained in force until December of that year.
The Holocaust and attitudes toward Jews
Some of his closest political associates, such as Felix Frankfurter, Bernard Baruch and Samuel I. Rosenman, were Jewish. He appointed Henry Morgenthau, Jr. as the first Jewish Secretary of the Treasury and appointed Frankfurter to the Supreme Court. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin cites statistics showing that FDR’s high level executive appointments favored Jews (15% of his top appointments at a time when Jews represented 3% of the U.S. population) which subjected Roosevelt to frequent criticism. The August, 1936 edition of "The White Knight" published an article referring to the New Deal as the “Jew Deal.” Pamphlets appeared such as "What Every Congressman Should Know" in 1940 (featuring a sketch of the Capitol building with a Star of David atop its dome) that proclaimed that the Jews were in control of the American government. Financier and FDR confidant Bernard Baruch was called the “Unofficial President” in the anti-Semitic literature of the time. The periodical Liberation, for example, accused FDR of loading his government with Jews.
During his first term, Roosevelt condemned Hitler's persecution of German Jews. 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 men such as Charles Lindbergh who exploited anti-Semitism as a means of attacking Roosevelt's policies. This led to increased tension.
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, insisted on following the highly restrictive immigration laws to the letter. As one example, in 1939, the State Department under Roosevelt did not allow a boat of Jews fleeing from the Nazis into the United States. When the passenger ship St. Louis approached the coast of Florida with nearly a thousand German Jews fleeing persecution by Hitler, Roosevelt did not respond to telegrams from passengers requesting asylum, and the State Department refused entry to the ship. Forced to return to Antwerp, many of the passengers eventually died in concentration camps.
After 1942, when Roosevelt was made aware of the Nazi extermination of the Jews by Rabbi Stephen Wise, the Polish envoy Jan Karski and others, he told them that the best solution was to destroy Nazi Germany. At Casablanca in 1943 Roosevelt announced there would be no compromise whatsoever with Hitler. 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. It also financed Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg's work in Budapest, where he and others helped to save 100,000+ Jews from deportation to death camps. By this time, however, the European Jewish communities had already been largely destroyed in Hitler's Holocaust.
- Keith Robar, Intelligence, Internment & Relocation: Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066: How Top Secret "MAGIC" Intelligence Led to Evacuation (2000)
- Irwin F. Gellman, Secret Affairs: Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull, and Sumner Welles(Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 150.
- See the on-line exhibit on the Voyage of the St. Louis at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.