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The Bad Deal That Was the New Deal: FDR’s Assault on Individual Rights

The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights: The Untold Story of FDR’s Concentration Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance
by David T. Beito
Independent Institute, 2023; x + 379 pp.

Few if any readers of this column admire Franklin Roosevelt, but as the historian David Beito reminds us in this outstanding book, most of his professional colleagues rank Roosevelt among our greatest presidents, second only to Abraham Lincoln. Those who accord him this rank usually stress his commitment to freedom and the “common man,” but they cannot escape one difficulty in so viewing him. Roosevelt authorized the imprisonment of 112,000 people of Japanese descent in concentration camps during World War II. Concerning these camps, Beito writes:

While conditions for Japanese-Americans were a world apart from those in Nazi death camps, the label “concentration camp” still applies. The overwhelming majority of those incarcerated cooperated fully, but the WRA [War Relocation Authority] and the military did not hesitate to use force for those who did not. The rules were extensive, including one that all inmates had to stay at least ten feet from the fence. In all, soldiers shot and killed seven unarmed inmates, mostly for failure, either real or perceived, to obey often trivial instructions, such as walking on a paved sidewalk.

The historians who support Roosevelt endeavor to excuse him, seeing him as “an otherwise great president regrettably carried away, like so many other Americans, by the hysteria of the moment.” Beito disagrees, saying that “too often missing is a depiction of Roosevelt as a determinative historical actor who shaped or created events that might not otherwise have occurred.” One might add to this that the historians who do this are often keen to portray Roosevelt as a farsighted leader, decidedly not a passive reactor to developments others have instigated.

Beito shows with impressively thorough research that Roosevelt’s internment of people of Japanese descent stemmed from deep-seated anti-Japanese prejudice, going back to the days of his youth. And Roosevelt’s treatment of the Japanese Americans was no aberration. Though he often spoke of freedom, he had scant regard for the rights of those who got in the way of his designs. In what follows, I’d like to discuss one the most serious of Roosevelt’s assaults on liberty, his efforts to suppress those who did not want America to enter World War II and those who, once we did enter the war, sought to end it short of the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers.

To Roosevelt, opponents of war were Nazi sympathizers. With Roosevelt’s evident approval, Vice President Henry Wallace smeared Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate for president in 1940. Wallace “memorably proclaimed that the ‘native totalitarian organizations are herding their members to vote for the man Hitler wants . . . ’ . . .Wallace taunted Willkie further that, of course, the GOP candidate wanted ‘his Nazi support’ to ‘be hushed up until he is elected and the bells are ringing in Berlin.’” The condemnation is ironic in view of the fact that Willkie’s support for the Allies hardly fell short of Roosevelt’s own.

The America First Committee (AFC) stood in Roosevelt’s way, and he responded characteristically by harassing its leading members, including General Robert Wood and Colonel Charles Lindbergh. The whole organization, in his opinion, was a criminal conspiracy that ought to be extirpated: “In 1940, Roosevelt ordered J. Edgar Hoover to monitor both the AFC itself and such key members and backers as Senator Gerald Nye . . . and Burton K. Wheeler . . . Hoover complied by passing on to the president regular reports about these individuals.”

Wheeler was one of the most effective critics of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, memorably attacking the Lend-Lease Bill as “the New Deal’s AAA foreign policy to plow every fourth American boy under European or African soil.” Roosevelt angrily answered that this was the rottenest thing said in public life in our generation. Beito surprisingly does not cite this exchange.

By far the leading noninterventionist newspaper in the country was Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s Chicago Daily Tribune, and it will come as no surprise that after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt wanted to do away with the paper altogether, along with the allied papers of McCormick’s cousins, the New York Daily News, published by Joseph Patterson, and the Washington Times-Herald, published by his sister “Cissy” Patterson. Joseph Patterson had been a close friend of Roosevelt’s but broke with him over the Lend-Lease Bill and other measures of support for the Allies before Pearl Harbor. “By 1941, the Patterson’s and McCormick embodied to Roosevelt a quasi-treasonous ‘Patterson-McCormick Axis,’ which had to be defeated at all costs.” His view of this “Axis” continued throughout the war.

Revenge and vindictiveness continued to be major drivers for the president, especially in relation to Hearst, the Pattersons, and McCormick, In October 1942, he derailed [Morris] Ernst’s plan to send out peace feelers to Joe Patterson. . . . Instead, Roosevelt proposed that Ernst throw down the gauntlet and challenge Patterson with the question of “whether freedom of the press is not essentially freedom to print correct news and freedom to criticize the news on the basis of factual truth.”

Beito’s book contains many gems that he has uncovered during his assiduous research. As an example, one item lends aid and comfort to World War I revisionists. He reveals that William Griffin, the publisher of the New York Enquirer, who was a defendant in the ill-fated Sedition Trial, though later dropped from the case, claimed in an article in 1936 in his newspaper that Winston Churchill had said, “‘America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World war. If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the Spring of 1917,’ thus preventing the rise of Communism and fascism. Churchill, when asked about it, slammed the quotation as a ‘vicious lie’, though he later remembered meeting Griffin for the interview after first denying it.” Beito rightly draws attention to the notorious book Undercover, written under the alias John Roy Carlson, which purported to show that American noninterventionists were in league with the Nazis, but he does not mention John T. Flynn’s 1947 pamphlet The Smear Terror, which attacked “Carlson’s” book although Flynn was a key figure in the AFC and Beito rightly devotes substantial attention to him.

I have had to leave out a great deal of very valuable material in the book. Suffice it to say that your esteem for Theodor Geisel of Dr. Seuss fame may never recover from Beito’s revelations about him.

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