FDR, Racist President
A 2021 C-SPAN survey of over 100 presidential historians ranked Franklin Roosevelt as our third greatest president, behind only Washington and Lincoln (but watch out, FDR is number three with a bullet).
Would FDR rank so high, however, if his racism was considered?
Of course, branding someone today as racist is one the most powerful cudgels that can be wielded. But the racism epithet has been appropriated almost exclusively by the left and, not surprisingly, left-of-center racism is rarely considered.
So, if FDR was a racist, why does he rank so high?
It starts with the myth that he ended the Great Depression with his big government, big spending policies. If these are the main reasons for his high rank, the facts show he failed miserably. Unemployment averaged about 17 percent throughout the Depression, despite massive federal spending and the creation of enormous public works programs. Moreover, Americans suffered needlessly from FDR’s big government, anti-business New Deal policies. UCLA economists, Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian, concluded that without the National Industrial Recovery Act policies the Great Depression would have ended in 1936, which means that FDR’s policies added seven years of misery before the Depression finally ended in 1943.
How was this racist? Well, Black Americans were seated at the back of the New Deal bus. National Recovery Administration labor codes, shaped by unions, excluded Blacks from above-market wages. As a result, large numbers of unskilled Black workers were pushed out of the job market. In addition, Black Americans were paid less for the same New Deal work as their white counterparts. And the initial Social Security program didn’t cover agricultural and domestic workers, the employment categories for almost 90 percent of Black workers.
Moreover, FDR was not going to endanger his electoral majority for the sake of Black Americans. As described in The Nation, “The political reality of the Democratic Party is that it catered to the racist wing of the party based in Dixie. Roosevelt felt it imperative to retain the support of politicians like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, an open white supremacist who proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938, that would deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment.”
FDR also ignored the historic and persistent victimization of Black Americans. For example, in 1933 24 Black Americans were lynched. These atrocities spurred the drafting of the Costigan-Wagner bill in 1934, which would have made it a federal crime if law enforcement failed to respond professionally to a lynching. But in the face of Southern Democrat opposition, FDR killed the Costigan-Wagner bill with his silence.
FDR’s neglect of Black Americans continued during World War II when he opted not to desegregate the military. During most of the war, Blacks were assigned to menial positions, such as mess halls and latrine duty. Full desegregation of the military didn’t occur until 1948 under the Truman administration.
As poorly as Blacks were treated, FDR’s racism reached an unimaginable low when he issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, becoming the only U.S. president to inter American citizens in concentration camps. FDR issued the order out of the belief that Japanese Americans presented a unique threat to national security. Notably, Americans of German and Italian descent weren't considered similar threats. As a result, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated in concentration camps. They had no choice but to sell their homes and businesses at discount prices. They lost their professions, livelihoods, and savings. They spent the war in primitive conditions in remote locations, in uninsulated cabins without plumbing, and were fed surplus government food. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when paranoia was greatest, it would have taken a strong and principled leader to protect the guaranteed rights of Japanese Americans. That leader, however, wasn’t FDR.
Although Executive order 9066 violated the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans, it’s interesting that it was upheld by FDR’s Supreme Court in the infamous Korematsu v. United States decision.
Although FDR had a constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of Black and Japanese Americans, he had no such constitutional responsibility to help European Jews. That said, at a time when moral leadership may have made a profound difference for millions of innocent people, FDR was found lacking.
Just as with the Japanese, FDR’s attitude toward European Jews was informed by his bigotry. According to historian Rafael Medoff, “Roosevelt used almost identical language in recommending that the Jews and the Japanese be forcibly ‘spread thin’ around the country. I was struck by the similarity between the language FDR used regarding the Japanese, and that which he used in private concerning Jews — that they can’t be trusted, they won’t ever become fully loyal Americans, they’ll try to dominate wherever they go.”
FDR’s indifference to the fate of European Jews was probably best symbolized by his handling of the fate of the ill-fated ship, the St. Louis. Although he could have offered a safe haven to the forsaken Jews aboard the St. Louis, FDR not only refused them entry into the U.S. but ordered a Coast Guard cutter to shadow the ship as it forlornly journeyed up the East Coast to prevent any desperate Jew from slipping into the U.S.
Furthermore, during World War II FDR made it clear that the U.S. wasn’t interested in aiding European Jews. He repeatedly rejected efforts to liberalize the refugee status of the Jews, he didn’t warn the Nazis that there would be consequences for their genocidal behavior, and he cajoled Jewish leaders into maintaining their silence in the face of his monstrous anti-Jewish policies. Even late in the war, when the allies enjoyed air superiority and were regularly operating in the vicinity of Auschwitz, the military stubbornly refused to bomb either the Auschwitz death camp or the Auschwitz railways. All FDR offered the Jews was a feckless promise that the only way he could help them was by winning the war.
Did it matter that FDR was a racist? It did if you were a Black American and your quest for racial justice was put aside because FDR didn’t want to upset the Dixiecrats. It did if you were a Japanese American whose life was upended when FDR illegally incarcerated you because he didn’t trust you. And it did if you were a Jew in a death camp whose desperate hopes were crushed because FDR was indifferent to your plight. Moreover, unlike the fake racism, the left regularly inveighs against its opponents, FDR’s racism was toxic and had real-world consequences.
FDR’s Liberty Valance legend has persisted for nine decades; it’s long past time the legend is replaced by the facts.
Eddie Willers is the pen name of a technical writer living in Northern New Jersey.
Image: Elias Goldensky, Library of Congress, via Picryl // no known restrictions