[An anti-Japanese poster used in the 1920 campaign. From A More Perfect Union.]
First, an update on the Howard Coble front: Eric Muller over at Is That Legal? is posting hard copies of the documents surrounding FDR’s decision to intern the Japanese-Americans during World War II. Just in case there was any question whether Coble was wrong, despite his continuing defiance. Muller’s blog is Information Central on this matter.
Monkey Media Report raises an important point about the role that FDR’s personal views of the Japanese, which were egregiously racist, may have played in his decision to intern them:
- Oddly, none of the bloggers I've read who are diligently documenting Coble's wrong-headedness have bothered to mention the highly relevant fact of FDR's extraordinarily insulting views on race-mixing, discussed here Thursday. It's a strange absence, given the diligence with which everyone's been digging up information. Is the notion that FDR's racism might have played a role in the internment really that far beyond the pale? I sure don't think so.
He also includes a great quote from FDR that pretty clearly sums up his attitudes:
- The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated and delightful Japanese. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to having thousands of Americans settle in Japan and intermarry with the Japanese as I would feel in having large numbers of Japanese come over here and intermarry with the American population.
This is an important point because Roosevelt certainly was not alone in these attitudes. In fact, they were so commonplace as to be considered at the time “common sense” -- indeed, they had a significant niche as a formative influence in the labor movement, and so were extremely common among liberals. And the internment itself cannot be explained without accounting for the central and ultimately decisive role played in it by the widespread stereotypes and false racial conceptions that had been part of the conventional wisdom for the preceding 50 years and more.
Anti-Asian agitation originated in California as part of the decline in the 1870s of the general fortunes of the treasure hunters who still were flooding the landscape; the Chinese typically did not compete with whites, but were convenient scapegoats for the frustrated anyway. Indeed, the early labor movement in California, during that decade particularly, was almost single-mindedly organized around anti-Chinese sentiment. The Seattle Chinese Riot of 1886, in which six people were shot by troops trying to maintain order, was actually organized by a coalition of labor unions and left-wing utopianists. All this agitation culminated in the passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
A belief in the supremacy of the white race -- and the need for racial segregation -- was an often explicit, and always implicit, feature of the inflamed rhetoric aimed at excluding the Chinese. Speakers at rallies appealed to “racial purity” and “Western civilization” and described Asians in subhuman terms and simultaneously posing the most dire of threats, with a none-too-subtle sexual undertone. Moreover, agitators claimed, they were innately treacherous. Typical was this screed from a Knights of Labor pamphlet, “China’s Menace to the World,” by Thomas Magee, distributed in San Francisco in 1878.:
- By his industry, suavity and apparent child-like innocence, seconded by unequaled patience and the keenest business ability, the Chinaman is always the winner. Let white men set over him whatever guards they may, he can surpass them in threading the by-ways of tortuousness. Dr. S. Wells Williams, in his standard work on China, "The Middle Kingdom," makes these remarks on the untruthfulness of the Chinese: "There is nothing which tries one so much, when living among them, as their disregard of truth; or renders him so indifferent to what calamities may befall so mendacious a race. An abiding impression of suspicion rests upon the mind toward everybody here, which chills the warmest wishes for their welfare. Their better traits diminish in the distance, and the patience is exhausted when in daily proximity and friction with this ancestor of sins."
With American borders closed to Chinese immigrants after 1882, demand for the cheap labor they had produced along the Pacific Coast rose, and other Asians fit the bill nicely. This was particularly the case for the Japanese. Four years after the Chinese Exclusion, the government of Japan opened its doors outward and allowed its citizens to emigrate to America.
Within a short span of time, anti-Japanese agitation arose to take the place of its predecessors; indeed, many of the same voices were first to raise the fresh protests. Again, they were a popular scapegoat, and also became convenient targets for newspapers and politicians.
The Democratic mayor San Francisco at the turn of the century, James Phelan, was one of these. He was the featured speaker at the first mass rally against the Japanese, organized on May 7, 1900, in San Francisco largely by local unions, and he had a long political career built on bashing Asians, culminating with a seat in the U.S. Senate (1914-20). At that 1900 rally, he sounded a note that would continue to ring for nearly half a century:
- The Japanese are starting the same tide of immigration which we thought we had checked twenty years ago .... The Chinese and the Japanese are not bona fide citizens. They are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made. ... Personally we have nothing against the Japanese, but as they will not assimilate with us and their social life is so different from ours, let them keep at a respectful distance.
The whole issue of race was inextricably intertwined with economic competition for people like Phelan, as some of his later remarks make clear:
- “The Japanese question with us is not today a race question, but a labor question. The Japanese have established restaurants in the districts where working men live, and as they are not union establishments, union men are warned away. The same would be true of a non-union restaurant conducted by whites. The Chinese question has been solved by the restrictions of the immigration of coolies and the Chinese now are never molested.
"As soon as Japanese coolies are kept out of the country, there will be no danger of irritating these sensitive and aggressive people. They must be excluded because they are non-assimilable; they are a permanently foreign element; they do not bring up families; they do not support churches, schools, nor theatres; in time of trial they will not fight for Uncle Sam, but betray him to the enemy.
Note that he was saying this in 1907.
And then there was the press. In early 1905, the San Francisco Chronicle -- previously the model of Republican restraint, but in the midst of a fierce newspaper war with William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner -- began running a series of shrill articles decrying the growing presence of Japanese in the city’s midst. The headlines shrieked:
THE YELLOW PERIL -- HOW JAPANESE CROWD OUT THE WHITE RACE
JAPANESE A MENACE TO AMERICAN WOMEN
BROWN ARTISANS STEAL BRAINS OF WHITES
The campaign continued for months, with Hearst joining in the campaign and eventually outdoing the Chronicle in sensational viciousness in their coverage of the "Yellow Peril." Amid all this the Asiatic Exclusion League was born in San Francisco, dedicated to repelling all elements of Japanese society from their midst. Its statement of principles noted that “no large community of foreigners, so cocky, with such racial, social and religious prejudices, can abide long in this country without serious friction.” And the racial animus was plain: “As long as California is white man’s country, it will remain one of the grandest and best states in the union, but the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited Asiatic coolie invasion there will be no more California,” declared a League newsletter. As one speaker at a League meeting put it: “An eternal law of nature has decreed that the white cannot assimilate the blood of another without corrupting the very springs of civilization.” Anti-Japanese organizations soon sprang up everywhere in the coastal states.
The essence of the “Yellow Peril” was a conspiracy theory holding that the Japanese emperor intended to invade the Pacific Coast, and that he was sending these immigrants to American shores as shock troops to prepare the way for just such a military action. As Phelan put it in 1907, the Japanese immigrants represented an “enemy within our gates.” Agitators frequently cited a 1909 book promoting this theory, Homer Lea’s The Valor of Ignorance, which detailed the invasion to come and its aftermath. After Pearl Harbor, this book was frequently cited by anti-Japanese agitators as having been “prophetic.”
This agitation continued well into the next decade, when Phelan and his cohorts passed a succession of “Alien Land Laws” in all of the coastal states and a number of inland states as well (the first was passed in 1913 in California; they were still being approved by legislatures as late as 1924). These laws forbade “aliens ineligible for citizenship” -- Japanese immigrants were already forbidden by law from naturalization -- from owning or leasing farmland. Since nearly 70 percent of the Japanese population by this time was employed in agriculture, the laws’ intent was plain.
Underlying all of the anti-Japanese campaigns of the early 1900s were the bedrock principles of white supremacism. The widespread belief that white people were the consummate creation of nature, and that they were destined to bring the world civilization and light, went essentially unquestioned. And it was supported by popular literature and self-proclaimed “scientists” who used the questionable methodology of the day to lend an academic veneer to longstanding racial prejudices.
Among the most popular of the time were Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, who boasted credentials from Harvard and Yale universities respectively. They approached the matter of race ostensibly from anthropological and biological perspectives, but in fact largely did little more than clothe white supremacism in pseudo-scientific language. Wrote Grant, in his 1916 tome The Passing of the Great Race:
- “We Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century, and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss. If the Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control, and we continue to follow our national motto and deliberately blind ourselves to all ‘distinctions of race, creed, or color,’ the type of native American of Colonial descent will become as extinct as the Athenian of the age of Pericles, and the Viking of the days of Rollo.”
And as Stoddard would later write in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy -- a 1922 work complete with admiring introduction from Grant -- the real threat was not blacks in the South, but Asians: “There is no immediate danger of the world being swamped by black blood. But there is a very imminent danger that the white stocks may be swamped by Asiatic blood.”
Both of the men’s books were national bestsellers that underwent multiple printings. And their core arguments -- which became entwined with deeply cherished beliefs about the nature of race -- became the heart of the battle to exclude the Japanese. Ultimately the issue was couched, like many racial issues of the preceding century, in the terminology of eugenics, a popular pseudo-science that saw careful racial breeding as the source of social and personal good health. Thus many of the campaigns against non-whites cast the race in question as not merely subhuman but pernicious vermin who posed a serious threat to the “health” of the white race. As James Phelan, arguing for exclusion in California, put it: “The rats are in the granary. They have gotten in under the door and they are breeding with alarming rapidity. We must get rid of them or lose the granary.”
It’s also worth noting that these attitudes played a significant role in the war itself. The final blow against the Japanese came in 1924, Congress passed a bill that would limit immigration to a 2 percent quota for each nationality, but further prohibiting the admission of any “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” The bill easily passed the House, but once in the Senate, the provisions were altered to allow for a Japanese quota as well. However, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts then stood up in the Senate and denounced a letter from the Japanese ambassador -- which had warned of “grave consequences” for relations between the two nations -- as a “veiled threat” against the United States. Lodge led a stampede of support for the House version of the bill, and the era of the Gentlemen’s Agreement was over. Signed shortly afterward by President Calvin Coolidge, complete Japanese exclusion was now the law.
The next day mass protests exploded across Japan, and the talk thereafter among the Japanese turned to the view of an inevitable war. The American ambassador in Tokyo and the Japanese ambassador in Washington both resigned. There were anti-American boycotts and demonstrations -- one set off by a suicide on the steps of the U.S. embassy -- throughout Japan, as well as mass prayer meetings. The ill feelings did not subside for more than a generation.
As The Encyclopedia of Japanese-American History puts it:
- Reaction to the law in Japan was bitter and angry, while reaction in the United States was mixed, varying by region. … Since the passing of the bill meant the rejection of even a token quota amounting to no more than a couple of hundred persons, Japan viewed the legislation as a serious affront. Militarists in Japan could and would use the exclusion act as evidence of America’s feelings about Japan and as ammunition in arguing for a more aggressive military build-up.
Pearl S. Buck observed at the time that the bill’s passage also tolled the death knell for what was then a nascent pro-democracy movement among moderates, and assured the ascendancy of the militarists.
FDR’s racist editorials were certainly part and parcel of the same attitudes that helped wreak the war in the first place. And in the context of the post-Pearl Harbor environment -- particularly with a general in charge of the Western Command who was familiar with The Valor of Ignorance and demonstrably prone to believing the worst of the conspiracy theories about the Japanese -- it becomes clear these attitudes played a formative and decisive role in the public’s “common sense” belief that the “Japs” posed a dire sabotage and espionage threat against them. FDR, in that respect, was only acting on racial prejudices that were extremely common.
But also in that respect, it’s best to bear in mind Glen Kitayama’s entry on FDR in the Encyclopedia, which observes that FDR had proposed a plan to round up Japanese-Americans as early as 1936:
- Roosevelt’s plan served as a blueprint of events to come: special intelligence files were drawn up and concentration camps were used to imprison Japanese Americans. While FDR may not have been the driving force behind the internment, it is clear that he was no casual observer either.
Further reading: The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion by Roger Daniels.