Image Source: U.S. government national archives
Lately, I’ve been learning in depth about political history of the United States between, and especially during, the Presidencies of the United States of Theodore Roosevelt, and his cousin and nephew, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), by watching the series of historical documentaries by seasoned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. In addition to looking at American history through the lens of the lives and times of the Roosevelt Presidents, it focuses on the life and perspective of Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was one of if not the most significant First Lady of the United States in American history, who, at least from the documentary series’ perspective, is notable above and beyond her role as First Lady for her achievements as a human rights activist.
The first half of the documentary series focuses on the public impact of the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and the role of the extended Roosevelt family in public life between the two Roosevelt Presidencies. Yet a theme in the second half of the series, punctuated by FDR’s Presidency, is the enduring and tense if respectful legacy of disagreements over public policy between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. In particular, Eleanor was more actively progressive on domestic issues of social justice and civil rights, such as for black/African- and Japanese-Americans, than was Franklin, who was more focused on unifying the country in the name of the war effort.
Yet the series dedicated some time to documenting the perspective of progressive factions critical of both Roosevelts, such as the personal critics of Eleanor Roosevelt for her failing to consistently stand up for the rights of Japanese-Americans as she had for African-Americans, in spite of her personal conviction such was regrettable if necessary in such a time of war against Japan. This has provoked me to broach the question of how people alive today should think of FDR’s Presidency. Writing from the year 2019, I am aware that for the last few generations, wartime political leaders of the Allied forces during WWII have been held in so high a regard in all Allied countries since they have often been above the basic reproach of many if not most people. I say this as Canadian of the 20th century, who even from my own experience is sympathetic to the hesitance of Westerners of my time to criticize the leadership of figures of such as FDR and Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom during WWII.
I would go as far as saying I am more cognizant than most people alive today of just how monumental and unique in the history of the Western world, if not world history, was the period of WWII, and correspondingly, the political leadership of the time of figures like FDR. So, I understand as well as anyone an impulse to think it indictable to issue towards FDR’s legacy anything short of a hagiography. Nonetheless, I think it is right and responsible to criticize the Presidential administration of FDR for its wrongdoings.
FDR expanded what it meant for the federal government of a nation to take care of the well-being of its people not only in the United States, but for the Western world. So, esteem for FDR has for the last few generations for many people caught up in a meaningful sense of patriotism. Additionally, the survival of any democratic world order as we know it necessarily depends in part upon American efforts under the leadership of FDR. So, with the reluctance to criticize FDR for something like the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII in light of what’s perceived as so good in what he did, without precedent, comes for many an urge to raise the point of the necessity of all his policy actions in spite of the apparent moral necessity of all of them.
However, my experience is that everything that is good in greater government that FDR represented persists in its popularity down the generations to today. FDR acted in the name of the collective interest of the United States. Yet to me the violation of the rights of so many American citizens in spite of all that goes beyond undermining the rights of so many individuals, and to scapegoating a minority of a collective in the name of the rest of it. So, outcomes like the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII represent a tyranny of the majority as much as anything in history. With how unnecessary to the practical goals of the war effort the internment of Japanese-Americans at the time regardless, there is no defence left for this policy. While anything laudable in the expansion of state power of any government that took place under the expansion of government in the United States under FDR remains popular in democracies around the world today, the gullible willingness of people to abide by expansions of state power into tyranny for the sake of security appears to be now as high as anytime in living memory.
Whether explicitly or not, today’s politicians in seeking popular approval appeal to a sense of good will in the memory of democracies for our historical leaders, like FDR, who are looked back upon through a rose-coloured lens. In trying to channel a fake sense of a public spirit that would inoculate themselves from criticism, the politically powerful exploit a supposed historical legacy of greatness of leaders past. In seeing historical political figures for who they were in their entirety, warts and all, and criticizing them for their mistakes, we duly undermine by another mote the ability of power to exploit its station in history. So, in the service of democratic ideals FDR himself may have held but didn’t in life live up to, we must be willing to criticize his misdeeds without excusing them by way of whatever the quality of his other political achievements. Suffice to say, I think this point stands not only for the question of criticizing FDR’s legacy with regards to the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, but any of his failings to live up to the political ideals he set for the United States in the post-War era, and that he came to embody in the eyes of all manner of people, rightly or wrongly, around the world.