FDR Hawaii Memo

The "FDR Memo," a secret 1936 memorandum sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to his chief of naval operations in regard to Japanese Americans in Hawai'i, marks the first concrete signal of Roosevelt's fears of potential subversion by Japanese Americans in case of war, and his readiness to envisage radical steps to combat it.

Fears of Subversion

During the mid-1930s, as the international rivalry between the United States and Japan became heightened and diplomatic relations grew strained, American military officials felt obliged to devise plans in case of a potential war between the two countries. On May 25, 1936, the military's Joint Planning Committee submitted a report to the chief of naval operations on the defense of the American territory of Hawai'i in the case of a large-scale Japanese invasion. Among other topics, the report addressed the potential threat to security posed by continued contacts between Japanese communities on O'ahu and visitors from Japan. According to the report, Japanese naval personnel traveling on commercial ships from Japan routinely stopped in Hawai'i, where they delivered mail to the locals from relatives and otherwise fraternized with local Japanese in restaurants, temples and teahouses to spread pro-Tokyo propaganda and encourage subversion. "In fact, every effort of Japanese naval personnel ashore here appears to be deliberately calculated to advance Japanese nationalism and to cement bonds of loyalty."

At some point the report was passed on to the President. On August 10, 1936, he responded with a memo asking the Joint Planning Committee to make contingency plans to cover "the Japanese population" of all the islands. In regard to the problem of contacts between Japanese sailors and the local population, Roosevelt commented, "One obvious thought occurs to me—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 in the event of trouble." Roosevelt likewise passed the report on to Harry Woodring (soon to become his secretary of war) and Navy Secretary Claude Swanson. They informed the President that military intelligence units had already compiled a list of Japanese American "suspects" to be interned in time of danger. No doubt as a result, Roosevelt did not further pursue his request for a special list. Military authorities nonetheless stepped up their actions against Japanese Americans. In the same letter that they revealed the existence of their list of suspects, the secretaries of war and navy announced that they were instituting a policy of racial discrimination in civilian employment on military installations in Hawai'i, and would direct that civil service jobs be given to "selected citizens of unquestionable loyalty rather than by citizens generally of alien extraction whose loyalty may be questionable"—a transparent reference to Japanese Americans. Meanwhile, on the mainland the Office of Naval Intelligence employed agent Hafis Salich to infiltrate and report on West Coast Japanese communities.

Legacy of the Memo

Several historians, including Ronald Takaki and Peter Irons, have referred to the FDR memo as a precursor of Executive Order 9066—Takaki even alleged that the existence of the memo proves that Roosevelt had a set plan to place Japanese Americans in concentration camps in time of war. They point to the President's failure to make any distinction between "enemy aliens" and American citizens of Japanese ancestry in recommending action to be taken. Meanwhile, chroniclers of the wartime events have pointed to Roosevelt's reference to "concentration camps" as justification for their use of the term to describe the War Relocation Authority camps.

However, there are also significant differences between the President's 1936 memo and the Roosevelt administration's eventual wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, both in the legality and scope of the intended action as well as the reasoning behind it. First, FDR's 1936 memo was limited to Hawai'i, a territory belonging to the U.S., and not a sovereign state. Second, the memo proposed action to be taken only "in case of trouble," meaning in the event that Hawai'i came under direct attack. This presumably meant that the territory would be placed under martial law, and that the writ of habeas corpus suspended (an action that did occur following the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941). Furthermore, while the memo approved the summary arrest and internment of suspicious Japanese Americans regardless of citizenship, it was limited only to those against whom there was at least some prima facie evidence of disloyalty. Roosevelt did not recommend the arrest or confinement of the entire ethnic population of the region, as occurred under Executive Order 9066. Indeed, the fact that there never was any such mass action taken against "local Japanese" in Hawai'i during World War II, even under martial law, tends to demonstrate that there was no simple or linear connection between the 1936 memo and the wartime events.

Nevertheless, even without overstating its connection to future events, the memo is significant. It is the first sign of the President's personal interest and involvement in the question of "control" of Japanese Americans by the military, and of his growing acceptance of the idea, disseminated by the military, that the Japanese American community in Hawai'i posed a potential threat to national security. The memo also demonstrates the President's willingness to tolerate arbitrary action against Japanese Americans, irrespective of citizenship, in the name of preserving security, as well as his lack of concern for the fundamental rights of those affected.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.