Trump Repeats Roosevelt's Biggest Error

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at a rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C.,
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at a rally at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., Monday, March 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

During a recent interview with CNN, Donald Trump ramped up his anti-Muslim rhetoric with the ludicrous argument that all Muslims are potential threats to the U.S. "I think Islam hates us," Trump told CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper. He went on to say "its very hard to define" Muslims who are harmless "because you don't know who's who."

This comes on the heels of Trump's earlier call for a shutdown of the border for all Muslims and his despicable claim that if president he would not hesitate to kill the families of Isis fighters. He's not the only candidate to invoke extremism. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz's proposed a plan to "carpet-bomb Isis into oblivion," joking that we would find out if "sand can glow in the dark," with no thoughts of susceptible civilian casualties. Its difficult to imagine how such ideas would do anything but fray the social fabric in America and bring down the wrath of Isis fighters. Yet this is the nature of wartime fear: it's a fire that must always be stoked, every tactic must be more extreme.

The emotions provoked by this presidential season are reminiscent of the emotions in the wake of the surprise attack on the homeland on December 7, 1941. Immediately after Japanese airplanes bombed Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt signed Proclamation 2525 in accordance with the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, the legal basis for incarcerating immigrants from Japan, Germany and Italian and for confiscating their property. By February, the Department of Justice had arrested 2,192 Japanese, 1,393 Germans and 264 Italians. This same act is still in force and gives the President the authority to arrest, intern or deport immigrants in time of war. The new president will have the authority to close the border to Muslims, build a wall between Mexico and the U.S. and -- if he chooses -- to set up his own internment camps.

During the Christmas season of 1941, FDR called Francis Biddle, his attorney general, to the White House. Roosevelt told Biddle he wanted to intern all Germans living in the United States. "I don't care so much about the Italians," said FDR. "They are a lot of opera singers, but the Germans are different, they may be dangerous." Biddle recalled that FDR's checks were ruddy and he seemed energized and ready for the fight. Perhaps like Trump's facial gestures when he went on the attack.

Thus began one of the darkest chapters in our history. Historians and scholars now regard FDR's ruthless internment policies as the blight of his presidency from every vantage point - moral, humanitarian and strategic. After Pearl Harbor, the rhetoric was comparable to what we hear now. In Los Angeles, crowds of armed and angry white men poured into Little Tokyo. Some carried signs: "Open Hunting Seasons for Japs!" The great liberal, Earl Warren, then attorney general of California, argued that Japanese farmers had "infiltrated themselves into every strategic spot in our coastal and valley counties" and saw every Japanese as a potential threat.

Most Americans know about the internment of 110,000 Japanese, two-thirds of them Americans, during World War II but not the larger, more complex picture that occurred in Crystal City, Texas, a small desert town at the southern end of Texas only thirty miles from the border. The camp held multiple nationalities: Japanese, German and Italian immigrants and their American-born children.

The majority of the 6,000 internees who spent the war years behind barbed wire on a 290-acre site in Crystal City were immigrants from Axis countries that were loyal to the United States. They were never charged with any crime, yet on Roosevelt's orders, they were forced from their homes, arrested, and lost everything thing they owned including their hopes and dreams for the good life in America. The camp in Crystal City was the center of FDR's prisoner exchange policy. Over the course of the war, thousands of internees in Crystal City and their American-born children were traded for American prisoners of war, missionaries, diplomats and over. Many who were not traded were held in Crystal City until 1948, three years after the war was won.

Today, as during World War II, many of our leaders, inured to the bad treatment of minorities, continue to incite mistrust and hatred. We find ourselves trapped in the same old dreary circle of fear.

A few months ago, I spoke to an honors class in history and political science at the University of History in Houston. It was an honors class in history and political science. I showed photos of the children of the Crystal City Internment Camp. As I did, I saw several young Muslim American girls who wore hijabs lean forward uncomfortably in their seats. It was clear from the questions that these students asked that they were afraid that they too might be scapegoated.

One young man, Usayd Siddiqi, who was born in Houston to immigrants from India, told me that since 9/11 it hasn't been easy to be Muslim. "The thing that hurts the most is that every time something bad happens -- even before we know the facts -- we worry that a Muslim will be blamed. It's so hard." I asked him if he thought Muslims would suffer the same as Japanese, Germans and Italians. "I don't think so," he said cheerfully. "Most Americans are very smart. I think we've learned our lessons."

However, the political rhetoric this season would indicate that we haven't learned our lessons. The same was true in December 1942 as political and military establishment didn't seek an alternative even though Eleanor Roosevelt, who opposed her husband's internment policies, gave them one. On December 11, 1942 Eleanor went to Los Angeles and assured the Japanese American students she met with that they had nothing to fear. She was wrong, of course, but when she returned to the White House she wrote the following in her column, My Day on Dec. 16: "If we can not meet the challenge of fairness to our citizens of every nationality, of really believing in the Bill of Rights and making it a reality for all loyal American citizens, regardless of race, creed or color, if we cannot keep in check anti-Semitism, anti-racial feelings, as well as anti-religious feelings, then we shall have removed the one real hope for the future on which all humanity must now rely."

Imagine how disappointed Eleanor would be to see that we haven't learned from her husband's mistakes.

© 2016 Jan Jarboe Russell, author of The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II

Jan Jarboe Russell is a Nieman Fellow, a writer at large for Texas Monthly, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News, The New York Times, Slate, and other magazines. She is the author of The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, and has also compiled and edited They Lived to Tell the Tale. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell, Jr.

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