I visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial when I was in Washington, DC a couple of weeks ago. The memorial is long and spread out with insets containing the statues and exhibits of the memorial.
The first “cubby-hole” of the memorial contained a statue of FDR sitting in his wheelchair – his physical disabilities attributed to what was believed to be polio. As I looked at the statue, I couldn’t help but think of how far we have come from the days when a diagnosis of polio was seen with fear and despair and often considered a death sentence. Polio was once one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century, crippling thousands of people, mostly young children, each year.
Polio is an acute viral infectious disease spread from person-to-person, primarily via the fecal-oral route. While roughly 90% of polio infections are without symptoms, affected individuals can exhibit a range of more severe symptoms if the virus enters the blood stream. In less than 1% of polio cases the virus enters the central nervous system (CNS), infecting and destroying motor neurons. The destruction of motor neurons causes muscle weakness and paralysis.
In the early 20th century much of the world experienced a dramatic increase in the number of polio cases, leading to a series of epidemics. At the height of the polio epidemic in 1952, nearly 60,000 cases with more than 3,000 deaths were reported in the United States alone. The epidemics provided the trigger to search for vaccines to eradicate the disease. Eventually those vaccines were developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Today, polio is considered eradicated in the United States but not in other parts of the world.
As I continued through the memorial, I thought also how hard it must have been to maintain the pace of a presidency while suffering from what was surely unending pain each day. Several waterfalls were interspersed among the statues – almost as if placing something calming amongst the tumultuous periods of Roosevelt’s presidency.
In 1932, Roosevelt inherited a country struggling to recover from the Great Depression. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Roosevelt created the New Deal to provide relief for the unemployed, recovery of the economy, and reform of the economic and banking systems.
Although recovery of the economy was incomplete until almost 1940, many programs initiated in the Roosevelt administration continue to have instrumental roles in our nation’s commerce, such as the FDIC, TVA, and the SEC. One of his most important legacies was and still is the Social Security system.
After 1938, Roosevelt championed re-armament and led the nation away from isolationism as the world headed into World War II. He provided extensive support to Winston Churchill and the British war effort before the attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into the fighting.
During the war, Roosevelt made the United States the principal arms supplier and financier of the Allies who later, along side the United States, defeated Germany, Italy and Japan. Roosevelt led the United States as it became the Arsenal of Democracy and put 16 million American men into uniform.
FDR is, to me, one of the greatest of our presidents. But he made one overriding decision with which I do not agree. He issued Executive Order #9066, which authorized U.S. armed forces commanders to declare areas of the United States as military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” It was eventually applied to one-third of the land area of the U.S. – mostly in the West- and was used against those with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” – aimed at Japanese-Americans, in particular.
The order led to the Japanese American internment in which some 110,000 ethnic Japanese people were held in internment camps for the duration of the war. Of the Japanese interned, 62 percent were Nisei (American-born, second-generation Japanese American) or Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) and the rest were Issei (Japanese immigrants and resident aliens, first-generation Japanese American).
Although not discussed as thoroughly as the internment of Japanese-Americans, the Order led to the internment of those of the ancestry of the other two Axis powers – Germany and Italy. Approximately 11,000 persons of German ancestry – including many American-born children – as well as some 10,000 people of Italian-American ancestry were interned.
But Roosevelt wasn’t the only one complicit in the internment of Japanese-Americans. The Supreme Court heard two cases – one in 1943 and one in 1944 – either one of which could have been the vehicle to correct the travesty of both internment and the restrictions placed on movements of Japanese-Americans. Both cases involved American-born U.S. citizens – unfortunately for both, they were of Japanese descent.
In Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943), Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, an America-born citizen who was in his senior year of college, was convicted of violating a curfew order and a relocation order. The conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court relying on the exigencies of war.
In Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) , Toyosaburo Koramatsu was also convicted of violating an exclusion order which required that all persons of Japanese ancestry should be excluded from the designated military area after May 9, 1942.
Again, relying on the exigencies of war, the Supreme Court upheld the convictions. But, unlike the Hirabayashi decision which was unanimous, this time three justices found the courage to dissent. Justice Murphy stated in his dissent:
“I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must accordingly be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”
The internments were a travesty generated by fear and racial discrimination. Internment served little purpose other than to highlight fears of those who happened to be of Italian, German, or Japanese descent.
Ironically, in 1933, as Roosevelt stood before his first inaugural crowd, trying to bolster the spirit and the courage of the American people held prisoner to economic uncertainty and despair, he said the following:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The very quote so eloquently stated in 1933 was later so blatantly disregarded as fear overtook Roosevelt, the government, and the American people. Roosevelt’s assurance that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” truly became lost in the early days of our entry into World War II.