Facing Up to FDR’s Racism

by Rafael Medoff

The only immigrants who should be admitted to the United States are those who have “blood of the right sort.” Immigration should be severely restricted for “a good many years to come,” until the United States is able to “digest” those who have already been admitted.

One need look no further than today’s headlines to find an American political leader expressing such sentiments. But they can also be found in statements made by Franklin D. Roosevelt, five years after he ran as the Democratic nominee for vice-president, and less than eight before he was elected president.

Will recent controversies at long last cause FDR’s most ardent admirers to acknowledge that Roosevelt not only harbored such views, but that they influenced his policies as president?

A topic as sensitive as the private racial attitudes of a president must be approached with all due caution. Obviously one should not make too much of Franklin Roosevelt’s casual use of the “n-word” in his teenage correspondence, or his characterization of African-Americans as “semi-beasts” in a college essay. Adolescent foolishness usually gives way to more enlightened attitudes in adulthood.

In FDR’s case, however, one finds such language much later in life—for example, in a reminder note he wrote to himself in the margin of a speech he gave as a New York State Senator; and, even worse, in a private conversation with a close political ally in 1939, during Roosevelt’s second term as president.

Some of Roosevelt’s most sympathetic biographers, who doubtless would never forgive such attitudes among other political leaders, have been bent over backwards to rationalize FDR’s. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for example, wrote that if Roosevelt can be considered to have had a closed mind regarding blacks, he “had no more a closed mind on this than on another subjects.”

Schlesinger also characterized Roosevelt as “a man fairly conventional in his racial attitudes.” In other words, lots of other people felt the same way. Which is true, as far as it goes. But there also many other Americans—including the First Lady—who felt and acted very differently. Racism, even in the pre-World War II era, was not an inevitable result of growing up in the United States.

Other Roosevelt historians have tried to separate from FDR from the post-World War One debates that concluded in severe limitations on immigration. Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman, in their book FDR and the Jews, assert: “FDR took no part in debates over immigration restriction.”

The record shows otherwise. As a vice presidential candidate in 1920, he visited a town in Washington that had been scene of violence between American Legionnaires and union members, including the lynching of a union activist; Roosevelt spoke there of the importance of “ridding this land of the alien anarchist, the criminal syndicalist and all similar anti-Americans.” In an interview that summer with the Brooklyn Eagle, FDR complained about “the foreign elements” who were overcrowding “our large cities” and “do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home.” The “remedy,” he declared, was “the distribution of aliens in various parts of the country.”

He also weighed in on the hot button topic of Asian immigration. In a series of articles from 1923 to 1925, FDR railed against “non-assimilable” immigrants from the Far East. “Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population,” Roosevelt claimed. “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.”

As president, Roosevelt enlisted government resources to advance his ideas on racial engineering. In 1942, he commissioned three prominent anthropologists to study “problems arising out of racial admixtures.” A senior White House aide instructed them: “The President wishes to  be advised what will happen when various kinds of Europeans–Scandinavian, Germanic, French-Belgian, North Italian, etc.–are mixed with the South American base stock.”  Roosevelt also wanted to know “Is the South Italian stock–say, Sicilian—as good as the North Italian stock–say, Milanese–if given equal social and economic opportunity?…[If] 10,000 Italians were to be offered settlement facilities, what proportion of the 10,000 should be Northern Italians and what Southern Italians?”

FDR’s private comments about Jews were far from genial. He boasted of not having “Jewish blood” in his veins, and was proud to have helped institute a quota on the admission of Jews to Harvard. He claimed Jews in Poland were to blame for provoking antisemitism by dominating the local economy. He complained—at a cabinet meeting—that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon. He wanted quotas imposed on Jews in Allied-liberated North Africa, lest they “overcrowd the professions,” a phenomenon he said led to “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany.” The solution to the danger of Jewish prominence, Roosevelt said in 1943, was “to spread the Jews thin all over the world,” permitting just small handfuls of Jews to settle in various locales such as rural Georgia.

The question of Franklin Roosevelt’s private views of blacks, Asians, and Jews is more than a matter of historical curiosity. It is significant because of the likelihood that his personal opinions on racial issues influenced some of his policies. There were, of course, political reasons for his refusal to support anti-lynching legislation or to desegregate the military (or even blood donations for soldiers). But his gut disdain for African-Americans could only have hardened those political calculations.

His conviction that the Japanese were biologically different, undesirable, and untrustworthy made Roosevelt especially receptive when his military advisers incarcerating Japanese Americans en masse lest their “undiluted racial strains” inspire them to secretly assist the Japanese war effort.

Likewise, FDR’s belief that Jews were inherently domineering and ultimately untrustworthy helped shape his opposition to admitting more than a handful of Jews fleeing the Nazis. His bigoted views help explain his otherwise inexplicable policy of suppressing refugee immigration far below the legal limits. Nearly 200,000 immigration quota slots were left unused, in part because Roosevelt’s vision of America was overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, with no room for any substantial number of Jews.

Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership during the Great Depression and World War II has rightly earned him the nation’s undying admiration. But presidents have their flaws, too, and FDR’s accomplishments need not prevent us from recognizing the tragedies that can ensue when a president’s actions are influence by racial prejudice.

(January 2018)