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The New Deal’s Dark Underbelly

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

When I arrived at the University of Alabama almost a decade ago to begin graduate school and met the historian David Beito (who would become the co-advisor on my dissertation), he was just beginning a project on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s disregard for Americans’ civil liberties. Most critics of FDR point to Executive Order 9066 which forced 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps—around two-thirds of which were in fact American citizens—as an anomaly of his otherwise solid record on civil liberties. In The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights, however, Beito goes beyond internment and challenges these notions. Through detailed archival research, he has penned one of the most damning scholarly histories of Roosevelt to date.

The Roosevelt consensus among historians, to the extent that it ever existed, has been unraveling for some time. Free market critics such as Robert HiggsBurt FolsomJim PowellThomas Fleming, and Amity Shlaes have rightly condemned Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression and his inclination to use the coercive power of the state to impose his policy prescriptions—often with undesirable results and unintended consequences. But there is also an emerging group of historians on the left—Richard RothsteinIra KatznelsonLinda Gordon, and Richard Reeves, among others—who criticize FDR for reinforcing the white male breadwinner home, for creating organizations such as the Federal Housing Administration that helped segregate America through redlining, for not supporting anti-lynching legislation, for not ensuring that the New Deal programs benefited minorities on a more equal basis, and for the internment of Japanese Americans. Even David Kennedy’s comprehensive history of the period is critical of Roosevelt on some margins.

Although some historians have criticized FDR, most of the historiography of Roosevelt gives him a pass on the abuse of civil liberties during his administrations and hails him as a champion of democracy often citing his soaring rhetoric and the Four Freedoms. In reality, as Beito demonstrates, Roosevelt’s liberalism did not lead him to care about Americans’ civil liberties and he violated the Bill of Rights time and time again while in office. Further, historians generally treat the internment of people of Japanese ancestry as an exception to Roosevelt’s solid record on civil rights and they generally excuse the president’s actions and cast blame on those who carried out the relocation and internment—such as General John L. Dewitt. Beito set out to prove that Roosevelt’s decision to intern Japanese Americans was consistent with his general disregard for the Bill of Rights.

Beito begins by chronicling the ways that FDR empowered his allies in the Senate to harass, undermine, and delegitimize political enemies and critics of the New Deal through formal investigations. According to Beito, the Black Committee—chaired by Hugo L. Black (D-AL) who was an ardent New Dealer—was used “as an instrument of political surveillance.” The committee was created to look into opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935 at a time when many of the New Deal initiatives had suffered significant setbacks from the Supreme Court. The Roosevelt administration empowered and supported the committee’s activities. The IRS issued “a ‘general blanket order’ for access to the tax returns of potential witnesses.” Roosevelt’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also granted “authorization to require the telegraph companies [to] comply” with Black’s requests that his committee be granted complete access to witness telegrams. Ultimately, the Black Committee succeeded in its goal to “spread the view that the main anti-New Deal organizations represented a small cabal of big business interests” and it successfully discredited opponents of the New Deal and discouraged financial contributions to FDR’s political opponents.

After Roosevelt secured reelection in 1936, the emboldened president made mistakes. The most well-remembered was his attempt to add six additional justices to the Supreme Court. Opponents of FDR’s heavy handedness, including the National Committee to Uphold Constitutional Governance (NCUCG), played a key role in defeating the Court Packing Scheme. The NCUCG was also pivotal in organizing the opposition to Roosevelt’s restructuring of the federal government bill in the fall of 1937. In response to these setbacks, FDR empowered Senator Sherman Minton (D-IN) to form a committee to investigate who was funding opposition to the Second New Deal. The Minton Committee raided offices, utilized some of the techniques of the Black Committee, and tried to force the organizations to disclose their donors. Walter Lippman wrote that the Minton Committee was an attempt by the New Dealers “to embarrass, worry, terrorize and destroy.” He continued, “If this is not to be described as arbitrary government and capricious tyranny, what is the accurate way to describe it.” Like the Black Committee, the Minton Committee’s major success was in freezing donations and silencing criticism. The message these committees sent was clear: if you oppose the president and his program, you might find yourself a target.

Beito details FDR’s weaponization of the federal government against his political opponents and also against the press—particularly radio. The Roosevelt administration used the regulatory apparatus of radio, which was established during President Herbert Hoover’s administration, to discourage negative coverage of the president and his program. Beito argues that “Roosevelt had few, if any, scruples about hatching schemes to covertly sideline, or even quash, dissenting radio voices.” For instance, in 1936, Roosevelt encouraged the FCC chairman through an indirect message to deny the applications of radio stations that were hostile to the New Deal. According to Beito, the potential of “FCC sanctions … led broadcasters to not only tread lightly but err on the side of favoring the administration when in doubt. Republicans complained in vain about this cozy relationship.” It turns out that FDR was the master of radio in more ways than one.

Beito details FDR’s willingness to allow Democratic party bosses to violate freedom of speech and assembly and even the civil and voting rights of their constituents.

FDR’s most egregious violation of the Bill of Rights was the internment of over a hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry, mostly American citizens. Unlike other historians, who generally avoid blaming Roosevelt for the policy despite his issuance of the executive orders necessary to carry out removal and internment, Beito argues that FDR deserves the blame for Japanese internment.

Roosevelt was not a passive and reactive participant in these events and his racist views of Japanese people influenced his later policies. In 1925, FDR wrote that “anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.” In 1935, he insisted to a delegation that aggression “was in the blood” of Japan’s leaders. In 1936, when visiting Hawaii and thinking about the interactions between Japanese sailors and Japanese Americans on the islands, the president insisted that “every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp.”

After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt ignored information that did not confirm his negative view of Japanese Americans and instead “sought out, and then amplified beyond all proportion, statements or anecdotes that conveyed, at least in his own mind, a more negative impression.” For instance, Roosevelt received one report from his secret intelligence unit that insisted that Japanese Americans were no “more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war.” In another report, FDR ignored its conclusion that at least ninety percent of Japanese Americans “were completely loyal to the United States.”

As negative sentiment began to emerge against Japanese Americans, FDR was urged by some of his advisors to use his bully pulpit to assure the American people that their Japanese neighbors were loyal citizens. Instead, Beito argues, “Roosevelt did nothing, illustrating once again a failure of presidential leadership at a crucial turning point.” The reality is that FDR held contempt for people of Japanese ancestry. He told a journalist in early 1942 “that the Japanese were ‘treacherous people’ and ‘hissed through his teeth,’ imitating stereotypical speech patterns.” Beito deftly demonstrates that far from being forced by circumstances to sign Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt’s decision to remove and intern Japanese people was a product of his racist attitudes toward the Japanese and his disregard for the Bill of Rights. As such, FDR shouldn’t be given a pass for the atrocities and injustices committed during the implementation of his policy.

Beito also details FDR’s willingness to allow Democratic party bosses to violate freedom of speech and assembly and even the civil and voting rights of their constituents. The book contains a chapter on Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague and another on Edward H. Crump’s machine in Memphis. In both cases, FDR did little to protect Americans’ civil liberties because he feared the political consequences of breaking with important Democratic politicians. In the latter case, he looked the other way as Black Americans were harassed and denied their most basic rights. Crump used the Memphis police to harass his Black political opposition and eventually pushed them completely out of the city. Anyone who dared speak out against his tactics was silenced—including the Black press. The Justice Department could have pressed charges against Crump for his “brazen violation of free speech, assembly, and Fourth Amendment Rights, but Roosevelt refused to act.”

Finally, Beito also challenges the notion that World War II was a good war for civil liberties. He details the ways that the Roosevelt administration cracked down on dissent—including FBI visits to the Black press as they were promoting the Double V campaign (victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home). Throughout the final chapters, Beito demonstrates that had it been up to FDR, there would have been a much more coordinated attack on the press and others who didn’t support the war effort with as much enthusiasm as Roosevelt desired.

As a historian, Beito’s attention to detail is very welcome, but I do fear that general readers might get lost in the milieu of names and events that are not very familiar to the average American. This isn’t a criticism so much as a concern that Beito’s investigative history won’t reach Americans and, as such, may not enlighten as many as it should. Perhaps Beito will consider another medium for reaching those who aren’t as enthralled as I am with all the details of the 1930s.

Ultimately, The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights is the most thorough history of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his record on civil liberties. After over a decade of hard work, Beito has produced a book that should force historians to reconsider and reevaluate the thirty-second president of the United States.

*****

This article was published in Law & Liberty and is reproduced with permission.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Butte Camp Monument, Gila Indian Reservation, Arizona

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