What US actions might have averted World War II?

American Yawp, chapter 24, World War II

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Featured Document:  Executive Order No. 9066 (1942)

“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order. The designation of military areas in any region or locality shall supersede designations of prohibited and restricted areas by the Attorney General under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, and shall supersede the responsibility and authority of the Attorney General under the said Proclamations in respect of such prohibited and restricted areas….

…This order shall not be construed as modifying or limiting in any way the authority heretofore granted under Executive Order No. 8972, dated December 12, 1941, nor shall it be construed as limiting or modifying the duty and responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with respect to the investigation of alleged acts of sabotage or the duty and responsibility of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice under the Proclamations of December 7 and 8, 1941, prescribing regulations for the conduct and control of alien enemies, except as such duty and responsibility is superseded by the designation of military areas hereunder.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, February 19, 1942

Discussion Question

  • Just over one week before issuing this executive order, FDR advised his secretary of war during a recorded phone call that regarding the prospect of internment for Japanese alien residents and Japanese Americans, “Be as reasonable as you can.”  Why would FDR and so many other policy-makers at this time consider such an order to be “reasonable”?


BundThe 1940s witnessed the worst military conflict in world history.  Out of more than 70 million combatants from 70 different countries, the editors at Digital History estimate about 17 million dead, including about 400,000 American military personnel out of more than 15 million in uniform.  All of those figures exclude other types of casualties (such as wounded) and also civilian deaths, which vary widely by source, but which probably exceeded 50 million overall, included nearly 6 million European Jews in Nazi death camps. There had been plenty of warnings of impending conflict, but nothing that could have anticipated this type of carnage.  Americans seemed especially determined to learn lessons from this immense bloodletting. The United States was not really isolationist in the years between 1919 and 1941, but there had been a palpable sense of disconnection with the rising tide of problems in Europe and Asia.  As Russell Baker put it in his memoir, Growing Up, “worlds were burning, but they seemed far away.”  Baker remembers his family mocking the “sausage-stuffers” of the German American Bund (pictured to the right, marching in New York in 1939).   His mother memorably claimed in 1939, while they lived in Baltimore, that “This is England’s war.  Let England fight it.”  Yet once the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, such cautious sentiment shifted dramatically.  Under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, the United States quickly moved to engage in the global conflict on multiple fronts, not only in the Pacific against Imperial Japan, but also in support of the Allied powers in the European fight against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  The war turned much of the politics of the previous generation upside down.  The US was now allied with the Soviet Union.  American men and materials were being rushed overseas.  Women were working and contributing mightily to the war effort on what was called the “homefront.”  There were also periods of terrible panic, such as the decision to relocate Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast to internment camps. Throughout this turbulent period, however, the United States continued to lead what many were already calling the “united nations” against a range of totalitarian threats.  There was still some signs of economic, social and racial troubles at home, but the national focus had generally moved away from the kind of domestic concerns that had dominated during the Great Depression.