FDR, THE FEAR OF POLIO, AND THOUGHTS OF HISTORY


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.Gordon Hirabayashi

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.

Koramatsu and HirabayashiIn 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.

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About Charlotte A. Weybright

I own a home in the historical West Central Neighborhood of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I have four grown sons and nine grandchildren - four grandsons and five granddaughters. I love to work on my home, and I enjoy crafts of all types. But, most of all, I enjoy being involved in political and community issues.
This entry was posted in Democrats, Economics, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Monuments, Rights and Liberties, Statues and Monuments, U.S. Constitution, War. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to FDR, THE FEAR OF POLIO, AND THOUGHTS OF HISTORY

  1. John Good says:

    Great post, Charlotte! Men do what they must based upon the circumstances of their time. It’s amazing how things change over time. . .or do they?

  2. Wes says:

    Looks like you’ve followed modern re-interpretations of history rather than look into what really happened. Here’s a good place to start for a healthy study of primary source material on the topic:

    http://home.comcast.net/~eo9066/Intro.html

  3. neath says:

    Excellent post! I was taken with with the interment camps during WW2. In Canada, we did the same, rounding up Japanese males on the west coast. It’s a part of our history people have been very uncomfortable with and it was easy for years to just pretend it didn’t happen. Conditions were even worse here than in the US camps.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Canadian_internment

  4. Dave says:

    America recovered from the Depression and won WWII IN SPITE of Roosevelt, not through any particular leadership ability on his part. The worst period of the Depression was 1937, well into his tenure. He blatantly bought votes with jobs, to hell with the overall economy. Then, when it seemed impossible to get any worse, he managed to ignore a year’s worth of warning signs in order to ensure a total surprise at Pearl Harbor (where were the Truthers back then?).

    Regarding the internment camps, it has always struck me as ironic that Republicans are supposed to be the ignorant, redneck racists, but throughout our glorious history it is those with the capital D that seem to exhibit the blatant racism that makes so many “ashamed” of our past. From slavery, Southern Democrat domination during Jim Crow, all the way to the pandering affirmative action and set-asides of today, Democrats seem to find themselves on the wrong side of history (and humanity) consistently. That’s all well and good until they try to use their domination of popular media to repaint the past and portray themselves as the party of good will towards all. Ha.

  5. Dave:

    The Democrats are composed of more than one wing just as are the Republicans. The northern Democrats opposed slavery; the southern Democrats supported it. A certain faction of the party supporting a despicable policy does make the entire party bad. Using your logic, I can find that Lincoln was not the great president that he is historically considered to be.

    Lincoln, a Republican president,was conflicted over the issue of slavery. Here are some of his statements and they are telling in his position in reference to slavery:

    1858: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races, which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

    1860 inaugural address:

    “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

    1862 (in a letter to Horace Greeley): “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”

    Lincoln’s goal was not to end or continue slavery; it was to preserve the Union. Slavery just happened to be the catalyst that brought about the conflict. While you seem to view FDR as not worthy of the praise given to him for his actions during difficult times, I see Lincoln in the same way. While I don’t doubt that Lincoln was a great president in the one sense of saving the Union, his reasons for doing so had nothing to do with ending slavery.

    You only give two examples that you claim span the our entire history: the pro-slavery southern Democrats and the affirmative action and set-asides. I have addressed the pro-slavery faction of the party. The affirmative action programs were and are a necessary remedy to ensure that groups who have historically been excluded are able to have the same opportunities that the dominant white group has enjoyed.

    On July 26, 1948, Democrat President Harry Truman, by Executive Order 9981, established a committee on the equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services. The purpose of the committee was to ensure equality of treatment of all those in the armed forces regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. Truman’s efforts to provide civil rights were followed by those of Kennedy and Johnson.

    Eisenhower, a Republican president, according to history, was a reluctant participant in the area of civil rights and even tried to persuade the Supreme Court not to antagonize southern whites by imposing desegregation. He obviously failed to do so, and, in 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education calling for desegregation in educational institutions.

    Kennedy and Johnson were both supporters of civil rights with major civil rights acts being passed during Johnson’s first term.

    I would say that the negatives you have stated are far outweighed by the positives of the Democratic party and its participants. Rather than being on the wrong side of history as you see it, I see the actions of Democrats as being on the right side of history. Both parties will have their crosses to bear, but, all in all, historically, it is the Democrats who are seen as advancing civil rights.

  6. Dave says:

    I believe if you read Lincoln’s statements as contemporaneous political acts, they might make more sense. Lincoln was from beginning to end a staunch abolitionist. His views cited by you in reference to equality between the races, while surely unacceptable today, were at the time quite widely held and were verbalized in order to calm the segregationist passions of the South.

    The real point of disagreement was regarding slavery, which he ALWAYS believed an abomination. Whether or not he aimed to get rid of it with a Civil War is not the point. He supposedly issued the EP as a military strategy. He still did it. This was done at a time when the Southern founders of the modern Democratic party didn’t see this institution as such a bad thing. Ergo, he, as an abolitionist, was taking a stand that would lose him and his party any hope of Southern votes for a century to come. For those stuck in modern political bs, – that is what is known as political bravery. Handing out government checks to prospective voters ala Roosevelt takes absolutely no courage. Your comparison of these two men demonstrates a lack of perspective. Show me one thing that Roosevelt did that took political courage. Just one.

    FACT: Republicans in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the defining Civil Rights legislation of the 20th century, in greater percentages than the Democrat members.

    FACT: Martin Luther King did not say “I have a dream, that one day black kids will be judged on the basis of their skin color and be apportioned a 20% bonus in admissions scoring”. The Republicans have his dream correct, Democrats must’ve been at the Malcolm X rally that day.

    FACT: Eisenhower sent nationalized National Guard troops to enforce a Supreme Court decision against a Democrat governor. Say what you will about his “hesitation” but when push came to shove a Republican sent the troops to enforce the order against a Democrat.

    FACT: Freeing men and women from cradle-to-grave bondage is not equal to the entire combination of Civil Rights actions you cited. I dare say that “whites only” water fountains would not have registered high on the annoyance list of slaves.

    FACT: The one group that block votes more than any other is blacks. The Democratic party’s commitment to “fairness” (ha) seems to come to pass when it is politically expedient. It is odd (not really) we don’t here anything about the “urban strategy” (reverse racism) of the Democrats. You and I know there is a strategy to ensure that Democrats maintain the black vote, yet we hear none of it discussed in terms accorded to the big bad Republican strategy (an “American Strategy more than anything else), when it is clearly pandering and racist. Hmmmmmm.

    FACT: Affirmative action and set-asides are not “…a necessary remedy to ensure that groups who have historically been excluded are able to have the same opportunities that the dominant white group has enjoyed.” They judge people on skin color. Period. They take Bill Cosby’s children and make them a favored group over poor white children from West Virginia.

    This is America – everyone has the same opportunities. It seems that equality of OUTCOMES is what you and your ilk seek. Sorry, that ain’t happening. Republicans in this sense are not only color-blind in not wanting to judge people on the basis of their skin to reward them; on the flip side they don’t see minorities from the start as defenseless, bumbling, incompetents unable to make it in a racist, mean, and hard world. How demeaning and pandering is that notion? No wonder young blacks are so angry – your party has taught them that the entire world is out to get them, and that you are here to save them. You break them down with talk of an evil America that doesn’t exist so that you can be seen as their savior, so your party members can gain a few extra votes. The good of the country be damned. Truly disgusting.

    But Republicans are the racists, right.

  7. Norma says:

    The polio epidemics, which I remember well (my sister had bulbar and a cousin died in 1949) were actually the result of improved sanitation. When my Weybright grandparents were children in the late 1800s, it was a fairly mild disease. Sometimes we have too many “bugs” and sometimes not enough.

  8. linda beaman says:

    my dear friend, Carlene had polio as a child. In later years she has had post polio issues that I have been made aware of. I seem to remember she was a patient in St Joe in the polio ward…altho her family was Lutheran. I seem to remember all patients went to St Joe. She was told she would never walk again…well, that’s all she needed to hear,……soon she was walking. And running and continued to improve and prove everyone wrong. She grew to be a mighty woman. One I have the utmost respect for as she exceeded in every business venture she touched. Just recently, God seemed to be telling her he had a better use for her and she is slipping into his arm.
    she’s back in the family of St Joesph, and their arms are open. Carlene. may you go in peace to a better place.

    it is good and right that she should be back at St Joe…it seems very right for her to be there….where she learned to fly.

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