Asian Americans and the New Deal – and the Second World War

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President Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship to the Asian American community will be forever defined by the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. It was FDR’s greatest mistake and moral failing. But the relationship of FDR to Asian Americans cannot be reduced to that grievous political act during wartime. Before then, the Roosevelt administration had offered many opportunities and benefits to citizens of Asian descent during the New Deal (an era which was largely over by the time of the internment order in 1942).

American attitudes toward people of Asian origin were marked by the extreme racism and xenophobia of the past. Especially notorious policies were the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, barring further immigration from China, and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 (part of the overall clampdown of the Immigration Act of 1924). Anti-Asian prejudice was particularly virulent on the West Coast, as exemplified by the leading role of California in the exclusion acts and passage of the state’s Alien Land Laws in 1913 and 1920 [1].

The closure of borders led to some relaxation of anti-immigrant feeling by the 1930s, when the New Deal got underway in 1933. New Deal opportunities and benefits to Asian Americans included food assistance, cash relief, and work-relief jobs. Opportunities for the latter were -limited, however: “Because U.S. citizenship was required, many Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos could not apply, which explains their low percentages on the WPA employment rolls as compared to blacks” [2]. Still, for many, jobs with relief agencies such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and Works Progress Administration (WPA), helped significantly.

Chinese Americans probably benefitted the most from New Deal programs, given the greater percentage of those with citizenship. The largest such community in the country was in San Francisco, where single Chinese men gained “increased income and purchasing power” [3] and Chinese Americans “were hired as social workers, recreation aides, teachers, and clerks at prevailing professional rates to dispense financial aid to the needy, extend services to individuals and families” and were “instrumental in procuring a public health clinic, nursery schools, improved housing and street lighting, and English and job training classes in the Chinatown community” [4].

Many Asian American artists were employed or commissioned in the New Deal art programs of the Department of the Treasury (Post Offices and other federal buildings) and the WPA’s Federal Art Project. These include David Chun, Kenjiro Nomura, Sakari Suzuki, Chuzo Tamotzu, Violet Nakashima, Chee Chin S. Cheung Lee, Susumu Hirota, Dong Kingman, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Kikuta Nakagawa, Fugi Nakamizo, Shizu Utsunomiya, Bumpei Usui, Kamekichi Tokita, Yoshida Sekido, Riyo Sato, Mine Okubo, Isamu Noguchi, and Tyrus Wong [5]. In a 2016 film, Wong stated, “Good thing we had the WPA, because otherwise a lot of artists would’ve starved to death” [6]. As with European American artists employed by the New Deal, many of these figures went on to distinguished careers in the arts of the 20th century.

On the international front, President Roosevelt strongly supported Philippine independence, after decades of colonial occupation by the United States. He declared in 1934 that: “In keeping with the principles of justice and in keeping with our traditions and aims, our Government for many years has been committed by law to ultimate independence for the people of the Philippines… We believe that the time for such independence is at hand” [7]. In 1944, when American troops landed in the Philippines to drive out the Japanese, FDR noted: “When war came and our work [on independence] was wrecked, we pledged to the people of the Philippines that their freedom would be redeemed and that their independence would be established and protected. We are fulfilling that pledge now” [8]. Philippine independence was realized on July 4, 1946. FDR’s support for Philippine independence mirrored his support for a greater level of self-government for other groups, such as American Indians, Puerto Ricans, and the people of Southeast Asia [9].

Tensions between Japan and the United States had been building in the Pacific for years before the outbreak of World War II. Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – which President Roosevelt famously declared “a date which will live in infamy.” Fear of further Japanese attacks was rife, as was hostility to Japan and all things Japanese after the bombings. Not long afterward, on February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced removal of all Japanese-American citizens and Japanese nationals from the West Coast [10]. Nearly 120,000 people were quickly rounded up and sent to camps scattered around the western part of the country [11].

Roosevelt’s ill-fated decision was based on the advice of the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, and the chief of west coast defense, Lieutenant General John DeWitt. DeWitt’s rationale was openly racist: “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted” [12]. Not everyone in the government was in agreement, by any means. It later came out that both the Navy and the FBI had advised the Secretary of War that there was no reason to suspect Japanese Americans of nefarious activities on behalf of the enemy [13].

Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, labeled the relocation policy “both stupid and cruel” [14]. In a letter to the president, he wrote: “The result [of the camps] has been the gradual turning of thousands of well-meaning and loyal Japanese into angry prisoners” [15]. Perhaps in recognition of the problem, Roosevelt turned the War Relocation Authority (WRA) over to Ickes in February 1943. Ickes immediately made clear that he was not going to let racist groups on the west coast turn the WRA into an official “lynching party,” telling the nation that the WRA would not “be stampeded into undemocratic, bestial, inhuman action… or racial warfare” [16]. From that point on, Ickes and New Deal lawyer Abe Fortas (Ickes’s deputy secretary) began plotting for the end of the internment camps [17]. Eleanor Roosevelt had tried unsuccessfully to prevent Executive Order 9066; however, she was able to help in the release of about a third of the detainees via work permits [18].

Executive Order 9066 was rescinded by FDR in December 1944. No acts of sabotage had been committed by the Japanese community. In Hawaii, where virtually no Japanese-Americans had been interned, there had been no adverse consequences [19]. Indeed, many Japanese-Americans ended up serving bravely for the United States during the war. The Japanese-American 442nd combat unit, for example, “became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. In less than two years of combat, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 21 Medals of Honor” [20].

Several Japanese citizens brought lawsuits against the internment – most famously the case of Fred Korematsu, who lost a constitutional argument in the Supreme Court in 1944, but was finally successful in having his conviction overturned (for evading internment) in 1983 in a federal district court [21]. In 1982, the presidential Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the foundation of Executive Order 9066 consisted of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” [22] and in 1988 over 100,000 Japanese Americans were paid redress, with a formal apology, by the U.S. Congress [23].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., the articles, “Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts” and “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act),” U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian (accessed June 18, 2018).  (2) Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995, p. 185.  (3) Judy Yung, Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999, p. 340.  (4) See note 2, p. 185.  (5) For examples of their work, click on the following hyperlinks: David ChunKenjiro NomuraSakari SuzukiChuzo TamotzuViolet NakashimaChee Chin S. Cheung LeeSusumu HirotaDong KingmanYasuo KuniyoshiKikuta NakagawaFugi NakamizoShizu UtsunomiyaBumpei UsuiKamekichi TokitaYoshida SekidoRiyo SatoMine Okubo,Isamu Noguchi,Tyrus Wong.  (6) “New Documentary on WPA Artist, Tyrus Wong,” Living New Deal, April 19, 2016.  (7) “Message to Congress Regarding Independence for the Philippine Islands,” March 2, 1934, American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed February 18, 2018).  (8) “Statement on the Landing of American Troops in the Philippines,” October 20, 1944, American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed February 18, 2018).  (9) See, e.g., “Message to Congress on Self-Government for Puerto Rico,” American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed February 18, 2018); “Indian Reorganization Act (1934),” Living New Deal (accessed February 18, 2018); and Gary R. Hess, “Franklin Roosevelt and Indochina,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Sept. 1972), pp. 353-368.  (10) “Executive Order 9066—Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas,” The American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara (accessed February 17, 2018).  (11) See, e.g., “Japanese Relocation During World War II,” National Archives and Records Administration (accessed June 18, 2018).  (12) “Personal Justice Denied,” Summary, Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, December 1982, p. 6.  (13) See generally, Charles Wollenberg, Rebel Lawyer: Wayne Collins and the Defense of Japanese American Rights, Berkeley, CA: HeyDay Press, 2018.  (14) T.H. Watkins, Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952, New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 792. (15) Ibid., p. 793.  (16) Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, Harvard University Press, 2001, p. 207.  (17) Ibid., pp. 207-208.  (18) “Curriculum Guide – Japanese American Internment,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (accessed June 18, 2018).  (19) See note 12, pp. 3 and 16.  (20) “Unlikely World War II Soldiers Awarded Nation’s Highest Honor,” History Channel, November 3, 2011.  (21) See, “Korematsu vs. United States” (1944), Oyez; and “Facts and Case Summary — Korematsu v. U.S.” (1983), Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (both accessed Jun 18, 2018).  (22) See note 12, p. 18.  (23) “From Wrong To Right: A U.S. Apology For Japanese Internment,” NPR, August 9, 2013.

Living New Deal. Still Working for America.

And the Winners are . . .

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.

The 2023 New Deal Book Award

The winning titles and authors have been announced. The 2023 Award, with a prize of $1,000, will be presented at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library June 22, 2024.