While there has yet to be a female president, first ladies have been important in shaping many presidencies and their policies. Following her article on Abigail Adams (here), Kate Murphy Schaefer considers the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in World War II. Specifically she looks at Eleanor’s opposition to the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A White House painting of Eleanor Roosevelt.

A White House painting of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tammy Wynette said “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” but it can be especially hard to be a woman married to a man in the public eye.[i] While history generally paints First Ladies as ornamental, many played important roles in guiding presidencies. Like Abigail Adams, a first lady can be her husband’s sounding board, confidante, and greatest supporter, but what if a first lady takes issue with her husband’s decisions and policies?

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reassurance there was “nothing to fear but fear itself” seemed hollow.[ii] As the nation went to war with the Empire of Japan, distrust and fear spread to anyone of Japanese descent. On Valentine’s Day 1942, General John DeWitt warned the president of the threat posed by Japanese Americans, saying, “racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race.”[iii] The absence of evidence supporting DeWitt’s claims of a fifth column of Japanese-Americans actively plotting against the government did not discredit them. Instead supporters like California Attorney General Earl Warren argued DeWitt’s claim was proof attacks were imminent and “(o)ur day of reckoning is bound to come.”[iv] Five days later, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, creating “military areas” in which thousands of Japanese-American men, women, and children would be interned for the duration of the war. Forcibly removed from their homes, their belongings, livelihoods, and civil liberties were forfeited because local military officials believed their presence near military bases and installations posed a threat to national security. Fear and suspicion trumped the protection of constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties, and Order 9066 gave Americans a legally-sanctioned domestic scapegoat on which to heap their outrage over the Pearl Harbor attack.


“You’ll have bad times and he’ll have good times, Doin’ things you don’t understand”

Eleanor Roosevelt was horrified. Taken under the wing of a progressive boarding school headmistress as a teen, she was dedicated to social justice. While many of her peers viewed education as preparation for an MRS, not a BA or MA, Roosevelt used it as a springboard for what would be a lifelong calling to serve others. She used her platform as first lady and her syndicated newspaper column to highlight civil rights issues.

Eleanor recognized the threat to Japanese-Americans early on, even meeting with the editor for Japanese-American newspaper Rafu Shimpo. In an October 1941 press conference, she said “the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States) may be aliens technically, but in reality they are Americans and America has a place for all loyal persons regardless of race or citizenship.”[v] Less than two weeks before her husband signed the Executive Order, she gave another address, vowing “no law-abiding citizens of any nationality would be discriminated against by the government.”[vi] The executive order rendered both promises moot.

Others also recognized the threat Order 9066 posed to American democracy, especially as the press shifted from reporting the news to outright fearmongering. Archibald McLeish, FDR speechwriter and (ironically) the Director of the Office of Facts and Figures, tried to convince news editors to provide more balanced media coverage instead of giving in to sensationalism. McLeish also spoke with Eleanor Roosevelt on the situation, believing she was could counsel her husband. FDR refused to speak with his wife on the subject. In all fairness, though, he refused to speak to anyone about the issue. With the domestic “threat” contained, he focused on the war in Europe.

In March 1943, Congressman John Tolan briefed Eleanor Roosevelt on the status of the internment camps and updated her on the investigations, telling her the government never found evidence of sabotage or espionage committed by Japanese-Americans. DeWitt’s “fifth column” had never materialized. The American government had taken away the civil rights of thousands of legal citizens with no real justification. Eleanor went to her husband immediately with this news, requesting permission to visit one of the internment camps herself. She also asked if they could invite an interned Japanese-American family to live in the White House as an expression of goodwill to the Japanese-American community. Her second request was denied.


“But if you love him you’ll forgive him, Even though he’s hard to understand”

In a draft speech summarizing her visit to the Gila River internment camp, Roosevelt did not criticize her husband’s policy or the camps it created. Instead she perpetuated the more comfortable and conscience-soothing argument that the camps were as much for the Japanese-American community’s safety as for other Americans’ safety from the Japanese-American community and praised the internees’ “ingenuity” in living in such difficult circumstances. She navigated a more precarious political tight rope than McLeish: she had to perpetuate the lie that internment was justified while also arguing for its end. “To undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally but we seldom have the foresight,” she said.[vii]

She found her true balance by striking at the heart of racism, and American racism in particular. The fears exacerbated by the attack on Pearl Harbor were “aggravated by the old economic fear on the West Coast and the unreasoning racial feeling which certain people, through ignorance, have always had wherever they came in contact with people who are different than themselves.”[viii] Calling out the Americans who profited from Japanese-American misfortune, she also implied any non-white, non-natural born ethnic group could share the same fate. “We have no common race in this country, she said, “but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion…We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”[ix] Roosevelt also skillfully reminded Americans of the thousands of immigrants serving in the American armed forces. The military had depended on immigrants to fill its ranks in WWI, and the trend continued in WWII. They needed soldiers and did not care what color they were or language they spoke.

Internment ended in 1945 through the Supreme Court’s ruling on Endo v. United States. Though the court reached a decision in December 1944, it graciously allowed FDR the ability to save face by delaying its verdict announcement until he could announce he was closing the camps. The president died the following April, and Harry S. Truman took over the nation and war he left behind. Truman ensured Eleanor maintained a public role after her husband’s death, appointing her as delegate to the United Nations. She was later elected president of the committee tasked with writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1946. Referencing her tireless work to protect human dignity and rights, Truman referred to her as the “first lady of the world.”[x]


“Stand by your man, and show the world you love him”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s most lasting post-war role, however, was keeping and shaping her husband’s legacy. Whatever their differences during life, Roosevelt focused on her presidential husband’s strengths and accomplishments in her writings and in interviews given after his death. She never mentioned his role in internment, and especially not her objections to that policy. She “stood by her man,” and so did the American people. Americans tried hard to forget the internment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, leading many historians to fear it could—and will—happen again. America’s tendency to consolidate national unity through common hate, our “propensity to react against ‘foreigners’…during times of external crisis, especially when those ‘foreigners’ have dark skins is a recurring pattern in times of crisis.”[xi] The pattern persists, the only change is the ethnic group, race, or religious tradition targeted. Though the “military necessity” of internment was never proven and the Supreme Court ruled it was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” the legal precedent stands.[xii]

Internment recently made the news as some politicians floated the idea of revisiting the policy for use in containing what they perceived to be the domestic “threat” posed by Muslim-Americans. If we refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past, perhaps we can learn from historical figures. Though most likely not as forceful as she would have liked to be, Eleanor Roosevelt was a voice of dissent in a difficult time. She tried to lend her voice to those silenced by racism and prejudice. Who will decide to be the voices of dissent in ours?


What do you think of Eleanor Roosevelt? Let us know below.


[i] Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man (1968),” lyrics available on Song Facts, http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?lyrics=6668.

[ii] “Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself: FDR’s First Inaugural Address,” History Matters, accessed December 6, 2016, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057/.

[iii] John DeWitt quoted in Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015), 41.

[iv] Earl Warren quoted in Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues) (New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004), 37.

[v] Togo Tanaka, ‘Mrs. Roosevelt Talks to Local Representatives,” Rafu Shimpo, November 1, 1941, 1.

[vi] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 71.

[vii] Eleanor Roosevelt, “To Undo a Mistake is Always Harder Than Not To Create One Originally,” in Jeffery F Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese-American Relocation Sites. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 24.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Voices for Human Rights: Champion of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962),” Human Rights.com, accessed May 24, 2018, http://www.humanrights.com/voices-for-human-rights/eleanor-roosevelt.html.

[xi] Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues) (New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004), 113.

[xii] Deju Oluwu, “Civil liberties versus military necessity: lessons from the jurisprudence emanating from the classification and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa 43, no. 2 (July 2010): 190-212, accessed December 5, 2016, www.jstor.org/stable/23253161, 207.