Donald Trump & FDR.

AuthorBerger, Joseph
PositionTIMES PAST - Franklin D. Roosevelt

When the Republican presidential candidate suggested barring all foreign Muslims from the U.S., he cited Franklin D. Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Are there parallels?

It was an audacious statement for a presidential candidate to make, even in response to a grisly terrorist attack.

A few days after two Islamic radicals living in the U.S. (one of them a U.S. citizen) shot and killed 14 people at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, Republican candidate Donald Trump proposed barring all foreign Muslims from entering the country until the nation's leaders can "figure out what is going on."

Americans have expressed strong opinions about Trump's proposal. In a December poll, 6 in 10 Republican voters agreed with it. "You can't look at a Muslim and tell if they're a terrorist or friendly," Susan Kemmerlin of Charleston, South Carolina, said at a Trump rally that month.

But other Republican candidates and many Americans of both parties were shocked by the idea, saying it violated the nation's ideals. "This country was founded on freedom of religion," says Nancy Morawetz, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in immigration, "so to try to put into law a religious test that if you're of this religion you can't come in, that's unprecedented."

Pearl Harbor & WWII

Still, as Trump himself pointed out, his idea does recall actions taken in the past by American leaders in the name of national security. "Take a look at what F.D.R. did many years ago, and he's one of the most highly respected presidents," said Trump, arguing that the U.S. is now "at war with radical Islam."

During World War II (1939-45), Japanese-Americans--and to a lesser extent, people of German and Italian descent--were suspected of secretly sympathizing with America's enemies. They were rounded up and forced into detention camps, or faced relocations, travel restrictions, curfews, property confiscations, and other indignities.

The internments began in February 1942--two months after Japanese warplanes bombed the American naval base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, prompting America to declare war against Japan and its Axis allies, Germany and Italy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forced nearly 120,000 people--all Japanese immigrants and their American-born children--to leave designated areas along the West Coast, including all of California, and surrender their homes and possessions. (Believing the West Coast was the most likely target for a second Japanese attack, military leaders feared that Japanese-Americans would aid the enemy.] They were limited to one suitcase per person, and eventually transported to 10 Army-run outposts scattered on Indian reservations and federal lands in bleak terrains of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming (see map, p. 18).

Surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, they lived in flimsy barracks, slept on cots, queued up for meals of canned wieners and boiled potatoes, and shared communal latrines.

The actor George Takei, who later played Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series, was S when two soldiers with bayonets marched up to the front door of his Los Angeles home and dispatched his family to a temporary shelter at the Santa Anita racetrack. They were later moved to a camp in Arkansas.

"We were housed in the horse stables," he recalled in a recent New York Times article about the Broadway musical Allegiance, inspired by his family's wartime experience. "Can you imagine, for my parents to be taken from a two-bedroom home in Los Angeles, with their three children, and to sleep in this smelly horse stall?"

Military leaders and advisers had expressed fears--most of them unsubstantiated, as it turned out--that some Japanese-Americans might spy or commit sabotage to aid Japan. Roosevelt had also been egged on by long-simmering animosity toward the Japanese. Newspaper headlines and neighborhood conversations were filled with slurs about "yellow dogs" and "nips." * Much of the hostility stemmed from selfish motives. Growers of fruits and vegetables, for example, had been chafing for years over competition from Japanese-owned farms. Though those farms made up 1 percent of California's cultivated land, they produced 40 percent of the crops.

Immigrants & 'Enemy Aliens'

German-Americans and Italian-Americans were also treated with suspicion, but they were ultimately handled far more gently. According to the 1940 Census, 1.2 million people in the U.S. at that time had been born in Germany, and 11 million had either one or two German parents. Of that group, 11,507 were detained--almost all German immigrants who had been automatically classified as "enemy aliens" upon America's declaration of war. Their cases were examined individually, and those who were flagged, sometimes because of rumors or reports by neighbors, wound up in internment camps. An additional 254 were evicted from their homes because they lived near vulnerable shipyards and defense plants.

Eberhard Fuhr was a star athlete at Woodward High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, when FBI agents showed up at his school and arrested him, leading to his internment for four years.

"There was a lot of fear, a lot of suspicion, especially in places like Cincinnati," Fuhr told a Cincinnati newspaper in 2007 at age 81. "The vast majority of these people had no political connections; they were just ordinary working people caught up in the times."

Of the 695,000 Italian immigrants or nationals living in the United States in 1942, 1,881 were taken into custody, most of them diplomats, businessmen, international students, and merchant seamen. Some were sent back to Italy, but 250 were interned for up to two years. The rest were forced to register as "enemy aliens" at local post offices, fingerprinted, photographed, and...

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