|October 11 1884
|November 7 1962
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated activist First Lady, spoke out publicly on behalf of loyal Japanese Americans, citizens and aliens alike, both before and after Pearl Harbor . She attempted to dissuade the President from ordering mass removal, which she regarded as a violation of human rights and American ideals, and invited Japanese Americans to the White House.
Activist First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City, the eldest of three children of Elliott and Anna Hall Roosevelt. She had a painful childhood. Both parents and one brother died by the time Eleanor was ten. She and her brother Hall were then taken to live with their stern maternal grandmother. At age 15, Eleanor was sent to Allenswood, an elite women's school in England, where she spent three years. There she was inspired by the progressive headmistress, Mlle. Marie Souvestre, to take an interest in social reform and public affairs. Following her return to New York, she worked in settlement houses. During this time, she began dating Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant cousin. The two were married in 1905, despite the opposition of Franklin's mother Sara (At the wedding, Eleanor was given away by her uncle Theodore Roosevelt, then President of the United States).
In the years after her marriage, Eleanor devoted herself largely to caring for family and supporting her husband's burgeoning political career. She had six children, one of whom died in infancy. In 1918, she discovered that her husband had been conducting a love affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offered him a divorce. The two ultimately agreed to stay together for the sake of their children and Franklin Roosevelt's political career, but remained emotionally distant.
After Franklin Roosevelt was stricken by polio in 1921, Eleanor agreed to act as his public surrogate, and took up a career of political activism, journalism and speechmaking. In 1928, FDR returned to public life and was elected governor of New York State. Eleanor served as part-time hostess at the governor's mansion in Albany, but continued her separate activities. Four years later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. While Eleanor initially feared having her life restricted by the role of First Lady and White House hostess, she soon established an independent role as writer, lecturer and unofficial White House ombudsman. She became known for her many tours throughout the country and for her daily newspaper column, "My Day."
In Defense of Japanese Americans
Until World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt had virtually no contact with Japanese Americans. While she was a notable supporter of equal rights for black Americans, she seldom addressed the problem of anti-Asian discrimination during her first eight years in the White House. However, in October 1941, editor Togo Tanaka of the Rafu Shimpo and Gongoro Nakamura of the Central Japanese Association came to Washington to inquire after the fate of Japanese Americans in case of war. Eleanor agreed to meet them and promised her assistance. At a press conference following the meeting, she praised the patriotism of the Nisei , who had joined the army in large numbers, and added, "The Issei may be aliens technically, but in reality they are Americans and America has a place for all loyal persons regardless of race or citizenship." 
After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Eleanor immediately flew to the West Coast to assess the situation and coordinate civil defense efforts. When she discovered that Treasury Department orders freezing "enemy alien" bank accounts were causing unnecessary hardship to Issei farmers, she quickly contacted Treasury Department officials, and had the orders relaxed sufficiently to permit Issei to withdraw $100 per month to pay living expenses. While on the West Coast, Eleanor also publicly defended Japanese Americans, posing for pictures with Nisei. In a national radio broadcast on January 11, 1942, she also spoke out on behalf of the Issei, whom she reminded her listeners were longtime residents prevented from becoming citizens.
Eleanor Roosevelt was taken by surprise by Executive Order 9066 . When she protested to her husband, he told her peremptorily that he did not wish to discuss the subject with her.  She tried to get around this block by meeting with FDR's friend Archibald Macleish , Director of the Office of Facts and Figures, and his aides (including Alan Cranston, the future U.S. Senator) to put together arguments to use against mass removal, but without success.
Executive Order 9066 launched Eleanor into a quandary that she was unable to resolve. As the president's wife, she publicly supported his policy. When black civil rights activist Pauli Murray wrote FDR in July 1942 proposing that the government relocate Southern blacks to save them from lynching, just as it had removed West Coast Japanese Americans to protect them from racist attacks, she unleashed Eleanor's deep frustration and defensiveness about the policy. In a rare display of anger (mixed with some very odd ethnic categorization) Eleanor wrote Murray, "How many of our colored people in the South would like to be evacuated and treated as though they were not as rightfully here as other people? I am deeply concerned that we have had to do that to the Japanese who are American citizens, but we are at war with Japan and they have only been citizens for a very short time. We would feel a resentment if we had to do this for citizens who have been here as long as most of the white people." 
At the same time, Eleanor privately lamented that innocent people were being made to pay for the crimes of the guilty, and kept herself informed on Japanese-Americans and their problems to help where she could. She authorized the transfer of money from the special projects fund she maintained with the American Friends Service Committee to pay for emergency programs; she supported the efforts of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council to find colleges willing to accept Nisei students so that they could continue their education; she intervened to aid Japanese Americans threatened with dismissal from government jobs; she asked the War Department for permission to visit an " assembly center ," a request that was denied; and she corresponded with individual Nisei.
In March 1943, Eleanor received a letter from Harriet Gipson, asking about rumors of Issei and Nisei Fifth Columnists . After checking with Rep. John Tolan, she discovered, evidently to her surprise, that there had been no incidents of sabotage and no Japanese Americans convicted of disloyal acts. This discovery seems to have pushed her into action. In the wake of charges by the Chandler and Dies Committees that the War Relocation Authority (WRA) was "coddling" Japanese Americans, FDR agreed to let her visit one of the camps (though he nonetheless refused her plea to bring a Japanese American family to live in the White House as a symbolic gesture). On April 23, 1943, Eleanor visited the Gila River camp. By her presence and her interest, she made clear to the inmates her sympathy for their plight. One inmate later recalled that she apologized for their confinement. In a speech, she told the confined Japanese Americans that their residence in Japanese neighborhoods had delayed their assimilation into the larger society, and recommended that they scatter and assimilate once released. While this advice was genuinely well-meant, one inmate who was present when Eleanor spoke believed she was blaming the victims for their own incarceration.
Once returned from Gila River, Eleanor campaigned to assist confined Japanese Americans. In her syndicated daily newspaper column, she lauded the efforts of the inmates to grow their own food, ameliorate the harsh desert climate and the ugliness of the hastily constructed camps, and police and educate themselves. In an interview published in the Los Angeles Times three days after her visit, she was more frank in her comments. She described the inmates as living in conditions that were not indecent, but "certainly not luxurious," and added, "I wouldn't like to live that way." She strongly recommended that the camps be closed as soon as possible. "[T]he sooner we get the young [native-born] Japanese out of the camps the better. Otherwise if we don't look out we will create another Indian problem."  It was her most open public expression of opposition during the war.
Following her return to Washington, Eleanor persuaded FDR to meet with Dillon Myer —the first and only time the president did so—in an effort to build support for the beleaguered WRA leader, and to push Myer's proposal that the army permit the release of the inmates. She also wrote an article for Collier' s magazine, in which she publicized the plight of the inmates and its historical background. Calling attention to the sacrifices the Japanese Americans had made, including their often-forced disposition of property, she urged her readers to live up to "traditional American ideals of fairness" in dealing with them once they left the camps.  She met with Japanese American Citizens League representatives at the White House, invited Hawai'i-based YMCA worker Hung Wai Ching to Washington to brief FDR on the condition of Nisei soldiers, and visited wounded soldier Jack Mizuha at Walter Reed Hospital. She invited Michio Kunitani to the White House to discuss the problems of resettlers. In June 1944, when debate arose within the administration over lifting exclusion, Eleanor helped bring pressure to bear on FDR for the opening of the camps in the shape of a proposal by NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White for mass demonstrations by blacks on behalf of Japanese Americans, a proposal that the president turned aside.
After the War
Following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt left the White House. Late that year, she was appointed a U.S. delegate to the United Nations Assembly by President Harry S. Truman , and in 1946 was chosen as president of the UN commission charged with drafting a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She considered the ratification of the Declaration on December 10, 1948 her greatest achievement. She remained a delegate until 1952. Both while she served at the United Nations and afterwards, she maintained her newspaper column and public speaking tours and wrote books and magazine articles.
As FDR's widow, Eleanor Roosevelt took on the role of public custodian of her husband's memory during the postwar years. She avoided commenting on her wartime involvement with Japanese Americans, even in her memoirs. In her solitary public discussion of the question, in her introduction to Allan Eaton's art book Beauty Behind Barbed Wire (1952), Eleanor's comments struck an oddly false and defensive note. Upon her death in November 1962, she was mourned for her achievements as (in Harry Truman's phrase) "First Lady of the World."
Although Eleanor Roosevelt carefully concealed many of her activities to avoid giving the impression of interference in government affairs, the surviving evidence indicates her sincere public support of Japanese Americans and her considerable efforts on their behalf.
For More Information
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Masaoka, Mike, with Bill Hosokawa. They Call Me Moses Masaoka . New York : William Morrow, 1987.
Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
- Togo Tanaka, "Mrs. Roosevelt Talks to Local Representatives," Rafu Shimpo , November 1, 1941, 1.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 323.
- Letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Pauli Murray, August 3, 1942. Personal Correspondence, Group 100, Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
- Timothy Turner, "First Lady Here to Visit Hospitals," Los Angeles Times , April 27, 1943, 1.
- Eleanor Roosevelt, "A Challenge to American Sportsmanship," Collier’s October 16, 1943, 21, 71.
Last updated Jan. 23, 2024, 10:30 p.m..