Skip to content Skip to footer

Disrupting the Myth of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Age of Trump, Sanders and Clinton

The presidency of FDR reveals some policy positions that capture those of more recent candidates.

The 2016 presidential election cycle and its three prominent candidates are being held up as representing polarizing interests that are emblematic of the political, economic and cultural tensions of our time. Yet, a look back at the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt reveals some familiar tones and policy positions that capture those of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

As president, Roosevelt is widely celebrated by American “progressives” for fathering the New Deal, which encompassed financial regulations, union rights and a number of social programs. While FDR’s extramarital affairs are well known, what is less known is his racist and anti-Semitic worldview and white supremacist loyalties, which contributed to the suffering and death of millions of the most vulnerable people.

Many understand the New Deal as a program to save US capitalism based on Keynesian interventions meant to soften its blow via social programs and collective bargaining rights, while simultaneously regulating the most volatile aspects of the banking system. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed to serve this purpose. According to the National Labor Relations Board:

Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) in 1935 to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the US economy.

The NLRA offered accommodations via basic legal protections to an increasingly radicalized labor movement during a time of intensive labor strife when communist and socialist affiliations or sympathies in the US were on the rise. Championed by a working-class German immigrant (Senator Robert Wagner) and signed by a hesitant President Roosevelt, the NLRA went on to be an increasingly effective instrument in regulating organized labor as a means to conform to, and partner with, the interests of capitalists. As Roosevelt described the act when signing it:

A better relationship between labor and management is the high purpose of this Act. By assuring the employees the right of collective bargaining it fosters the development of the employment contract on a sound and equitable basis. By providing an orderly procedure for determining who is entitled to represent the employees, it aims to remove one of the chief causes of wasteful economic strife.

As an act of recognition rights, the NLRA legally protected union activity and collective bargaining rights for most private sector workers, while at the same time making unions wards of a federal government that was constitutionally constructed to prioritize the interests of individualism and property rights.

As a presidential candidate and during his four terms in office, Roosevelt had a close relationship with Southern Jim Crow Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) and often went out of his way to not disrupt the “southern way of life” of Jim Crow. Thus, he remained silent on segregation and in 1935 refused to support the federal anti-lynching legislation of the Costigan-Wagner bill. In 1937 FDR appointed Hugo Black, a U.S Senator from Alabama and known member of the Ku Klux Klan, to the US Supreme Court. Black went on to validate FDR’s decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans by writing the court’s majority opinion in the case of Korematsu v. United States. In 1941, FDR appointed James F. Byrnes, a former US Senator from South Carolina and staunch segregationist to the US Supreme Court. Byrnes left the court a year later to serve as FDR’s Director of Office of Economic Stabilization, and between 1943-1945 served as the Director of FDR’s Office of War Mobilization. Byrnes was on FDR’s short list for Vice President in 1944.

Catering to the demands of Dixiecrats, FDR excluded Black workers from key provisions of the New Deal, as Juan Perea of the Loyola University School of Law describes it, “to preserve the quasi-plantation style of agriculture that pervaded the still-segregated Jim Crow South.” To do so, the New Deal was crafted to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the Social Security Act (old-age benefits), the National Labor Relations Act (union rights) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (pay and hours standards). At the time, sixty-five percent of the Black workforce were agricultural and domestic workers. Filipino, Native, Japanese and other subordinated groups also made up a significant portion of the farm and domestic labor force. Writing in the Ohio State Law Journal, Juan Perea goes on to explain:

During the New Deal Era, the statutory exclusion of agricultural and domestic employees was well-understood as a race-neutral proxy for excluding blacks from statutory benefits and protections made available to most whites. Remarkably, despite these racist origins, an agricultural and domestic worker exclusion remains on the books today, entirely unaltered after seventy-five years. Section 152(3) of the National Labor Relations Act still excludes agricultural and domestic workers from the protections available under the Act.

Immediately following the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany, FDR only invited white US Olympians to the White House, excluding eighteen Black athletes, including the four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens. Owens would go on to comment, “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”

When elected president in 1933, FDR inherited the racist and unconstitutional program known as the “Mexican Repatriation Program.” In the midst of the Great Depression when unemployment was high, white scapegoating of Black, Brown and Indigenous people only intensified. Within this context, the Mexican Repatriation Program, coordinated between federal, state, local governments and industry deported to Mexico more than one million people of Mexican ancestry living in the United States. Approximately sixty percent of those were Mexican American citizens. In the Pace Law Review, Kevin Johnson writes:

It is clear today that the conduct of federal, state, and local officials in the campaign violated the legal rights of the persons repatriated, as well as persons of Mexican ancestry stopped, interrogated, and detained but not removed from the country. The repatriation campaign also terrorized and traumatized the greater Mexican-American community.

Roosevelt actively supported the program during his first term in office and thereafter passively allowed the program to continue into the 1940s. When World War II led to a shortage of farm workers, FDR negotiated the 1942 Bracero Program with Mexico, which was a “guest worker” program that allowed Mexican farm laborers to enter the US on a temporary basis. Writing in the Cleveland State Law Review, Ronald Mize points out, “[t]hough the specific link has not been directly demonstrated, it is certainly more than coincidence that only six months previously, thousands of Japanese farmers and farm laborers (mostly residing in California) were detained as suspected ‘dangerous enemy aliens.'”

As documented by historian Greg Robinson, long before he became president, FDR believed that Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians “should be excluded, on racial grounds, from equal citizenship and property rights with whites.” In a 1923 essay in Asia magazine, FDR wrote, “that the mingling of white with oriental blood on an extensive scale is harmful to our future citizenship.”

As tensions mounted between the US and Japan leading up to World War II, Japanese American citizens and residents (already legally prevented from owning property and interracial marriage) were further subjected to discrimination and violence, rationalized by unfounded suspicions of disloyalty. Although German and Italian Americans were not feared to be agents of Hitler and Mussolini, Japanese Americans were cast as a sinister race and inherent agents of Imperial Japan.

In early 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) took steps to more deeply examine these fears by appointing a number of investigators, most notably a wealthy businessman (and alleged intelligence agent) named Curtis B. Munson to investigate Japanese Americans on the Pacific Coast to determine if they were indeed a national security risk. Munson spent months traveling throughout the region interviewing military officers, military commanders, municipal leaders, FBI agents, Japanese Americans and those associated with them. When Munson’s investigation was complete, he turned in an intelligence report on November, 7, 1941 titled Report on Japanese on the West (better known as the Munson Report), which concluded:

There is no Japanese ‘problem’… [t]here will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There is far more danger from Communists and people of the Bridges type [homeless people]… than there is from Japanese. For the most part the local Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war.

Additional intelligence reports communicated to FDR during this time included a letter from John Steinbeck, which was solicited by an intelligence agent who knew that Steinbeck was closely associated with the Japanese community in Salinas, California. Steinbeck summarized his thoughts by writing, “there is no reason so far to suspect the loyalty of Japanese-American.” In October 1941 Munson confided in a letter (not in his report), “the Japs here are in more danger from us than we are from them.”

The US declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Two months later, ignoring his own administration’s intelligence findings and defying his Attorney General’s council against it, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This presidential action ordered the evacuation and indefinite incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese decent, of all ages, most of whom were US citizens, with many more being legal permanent resident “aliens.” The evacuation involved those who lived in “military areas” that included all of California and much of Oregon, Washington and Arizona.

In February 1942, as World War II intensified and Japanese American incarceration was being enacted, Curtis B. Munson warned, “we are drifting into a treatment of the Japanese corresponding to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.” In the same month US Army General Ralph Van Deman, known as the “The Father of American Military Intelligence,” expressed that the removal of Japanese communities from the West Coast is “about the craziest proposition that I have heard of yet.”

Roosevelt came from a wealthy aristocratic family who, like many patrician families of the time, were openly anti-Semitic. While serving as an Overseer of Harvard University in the 1920s, FDR initiated quotas on Jewish admission to the University.

FDR’s long-standing anti-Semitism had grave consequences during the Jewish Holocaust. As Nazi Germany proceeded to persecute then exterminate European Jews in the 1930s and into the early 1940s (pre-war), FDR went out of his way to maintain diplomatic ties with Hitler. While Roosevelt was well aware of the Jewish Holocaust as it was intensifying, he was mostly silent about it publicly and consistently blocked Congressional and Jewish American efforts to save the lives of European Jews by allowing them to immigrate to the United States. This position was reflected in 1939 when nine-hundred and thirty Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi’s aboard the German ship St. Louis implored the FDR administration through telegrams at sea to allow them entry into United States. Telegrams sent directly to FDR were not responded to, while a State Department response to passengers stated they must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” Also in 1939, the Wagner-Rogers bill was introduced in Congress that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish children into the US above and beyond the existing quotas. FDR refused to support Wagner-Rogers. Accordingly, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of The David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, reports “there is evidence” that FDR once dismissed pleas from Jewish refugees as “Jewish wailing” and “sob stuff.”

The book titled The Diary of Anne Frank details the 15-year-old Anne Frank’s personal saga of when she and her family were hiding in an attic apartment for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In the years leading up to the Frank family going into hiding, their eventual capture and Anne, her sister and mother’s death; Otto Frank (Anne’s father) desperately applied for US visas for his family on numerous occasions. In a futile attempt to use personal connections within the US to secure visas, Frank wrote to his influential American friend Nathan Straus Jr. in 1941 pleading, “I would not ask if conditions here would not force me to do all I can in time to be able to avoid worse… perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.” As Professor of History at American University Richard Kreitman frames it, “Frank’s case was unusual only in that he tried hard very late — and enjoyed particularly good or fortunate American connections. Still, he failed. The fact that Anne Frank was one of those who did not make it is a poignant reminder of what was lost.”

Roosevelt friend and donor, Breckinridge Long, was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of State that oversaw immigration in 1940. In his diary, Long reported that when he described his visa procedures to FDR, “I found that he was 100% in accord with my ideas.” Thus, at the behest of FDR, Long made already strict immigration laws even stricter. This resulted in ninety percent of the stringent quota slots available to immigrants from countries ruled over by the Nazi’s never being filled. If Long had not done this, it is estimated that up to 190,000 Jews would have escaped the Holocaust under the restrictive polices alone. According to Arthur Klein, the author of the book An Unplanned Roundtrip, Long “obstructed rescue attempts, drastically restricted immigration, and falsified figures of refugees admitted.” In a 1940 intra-department memo, Long wrote:

We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.

In response, one refugee aid worker declared, “We cannot continue to let these tragic people [German Jews] go on hoping that if they comply with every requirement, if they get all the special documents required…if they nerve themselves for the final interview at the Consulate, they may just possibly be the lucky ones to get visas when we know that practically no one is granted visas in Germany today.” The simple fact remains, if the US would have relaxed its immigration polices and proactively intervened to rescue European Jews instead of mollifying Hitler, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lives would have been saved.

In 1942, FDR appointed Johns Hopkins University president Isaiah Bowman (a known racist and anti-Semite) to lead the Office of Post-War Planning, tasked with examining population resettlement after the war with a focus on “problems arising out of racial admixtures and…the scientific principles involved in the process of miscegenation [interbreeding].” One such concern of FDR’s that was posed to Bowman was if the darker “South Italian stock” was “as good as the North Italian stock” and how their biological characteristics compared with other national groups. FDR also expressed concern about Jewish influence in postwar North Africa, fearing they would “overcrowd the professions.” FDR had expressed similar concerns about Jews in the US and elsewhere. FDR claimed that Jewish quotas,

…would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc, in Germany, were Jews.

FDR is also on record claiming that antisemitism in Poland resulted from Jews dominating the economy.

As documented by Henry Wallace (FDR’s Vice President) when approving a post-war plan recommended by Bowman, Roosevelt expressed his desire to “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” According to Wallace’s diary, FDR claimed to have done this during his time as a prominent resident of Merriwether County, Georgia “and at Hyde Park [New York] on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.” With the knowledge of the president, Bowman’s Office of Post-War Planning distributed reports throughout the Roosevelt administration that “advised against mixing races and warned that the admission of significant numbers of foreigners would endanger America’s racial well-being.” Bowman implored, “Our civilization will decline unless we improve our human breed… [t]o support the genetically unfit and also allow them to breed is to degrade our society.”

In sum, it is important to understand FDR’s worldview as being reflective of the inequitable cultural political economy the United States was founded upon. It is also important to recognize the best and worst of FDR’s “progressive” policies as being pragmatic actions to save and preserve the nation’s original social order. Yet, in the era of global financialization, true power has no national loyalties, possesses no conscience, its domain knows no borders, its institutions have no center and its wealth has no real material value. While Trump and Sanders represent a return to variations of the nation’s “good ole days,” both of which the FDR administration encompassed; it is Clinton whose popularity depends on certain myths while more thoroughly representing the pragmatic interests of this era’s inequitable power structures.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.