Posts Tagged ‘FDR’

The Presidential Juggler: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rhetorical Flexibility, and Autofabrication

«You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.» Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945, US president 1933-1945) made the above comment to one of his cabinet members on May 15, 1942. Especially the first sentence has often been quoted since, almost to the point of becoming one of the best-known FDR epigrams along with “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”, and “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”. Although FDR said this in a private setting, it has by now – 70 years after his death – become an oft-quoted maxim, e.g. in Warren Kimball’s monograph The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman (1991). Indeed, FDR’s self-declared deviousness at juggling the images and impressions he projected has itself become a stock element of his long-standing public image.  That this is largely remembered as a positive attribute is exemplified in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012), in which FDR (Bill Murray) is portrayed as a sly genius, covertly playing the media and everybody else.

“I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does,” reminds of the liar paradox (“This sentence is false.”) because Roosevelt is actually compellingly honest about his own dissimulation. “You know” in the full quotation enhances this effect, because it makes the addressee complicit in the performance of enchanting deception.

The New York Times reports Franklin D. Roosevelt's death (New York Times, 13 April 1945)

One of FDR’s key skills was his ability to exude a sense of authenticity. This authenticity was in the first place a rhetorical performance, but for instance his Fireside Chats continue to be experienced as frank and intimate. In the days after they were broadcast the White House would receive unprecedented deluges of letters from Americans who felt personally compelled to continue the conversation with the President.  However, within the display of rhetorical skill and seeming authenticity and frankness, there is a strong message in the “juggler” quote: Roosevelt is “perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths” about his role in World War II. This is something he could not have said a year earlier, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when the United States were not officially engaged yet, and the public opinion still largely opposed intervention in the war overseas. Because it was well-known that the president, unlike most Americans, was keen to intervene in the European war to help Great Britain resist Nazi-Germany, saying that he would lie about the war would have been political suicide.

Admitting to deviousness would have damaged him, especially as a president who had just, unprecedentedly, been re-elected for a third term, a move that was frowned upon widely, by Americans traditionally wary of the corrupting effects of power. But in 1942, when there was a clear and external opponent to deceive, FDR could make such a statement and come across as transparent on the one hand, and immeasurably powerful on the other (immeasurable, because “I never let my right hand know what my left hand does”). This literal impossibility to measure his power expanded its magnitude to the immeasurably vast. Around the same time Roosevelt made the juggler remark, his administration, under Roosevelt’s responsibility and at his discretion, was incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese Americans, without any indication of potential disloyalty to the US.

This double act is characteristic for FDR – he on the one hand publicly and with great success, even into the future, positioned himself as a fascinating and a sympathetic icon, and at the same time decisively exerted the executive power vested in the president. Indeed, through saying he is a juggler (i.e. happy to beguile), he presented himself as frank and charming. He explicitly covered his actions as commander in chief (which in the case of the Japanese internment would later be qualified as war crimes) by a verbal self-presentation as informal and frank. The similarity with his first name is coincidental, although it is a coincidence he was apt to use to his advantage.

I call this double act – obscuring the less comfortable elements of wielding power through the self-presentation as an attractive public icon – autofabrication. Autofabrication is a coinage to complement Stephen Greenblatt’s celebrated term self-fashioning. In Renaissance Self-fashioning Greenblatt discusses the production of selves of exemplary renaissance authors from More to Shakespeare, arguing that they are both products of a particular culture with particular shaping demands on the individual, and also individuals reflecting on those cultural codes through their writing. Greenblatt argues that during and since the sixteenth century ideas of the self as mobile, and the belief that selves can be fashioned by internal and external factors, have acquired immense momentum in the western world. The success of the term, also for fruitful analysis of individuals who lived long after the 16th century, suggests he is right.

However, to understand larger-than-life political leaders such as Roosevelt it is not enough to regard them as products of a culture who simultaneously contribute to the development of their culture. Especially in a democratic setting, a leader like FDR is also a public icon, presumably representing the majority of the electorate – however impossible it is for one individual to actually represent millions of people. At the same time he was commander in chief, the formal embodiment of executive power. Especially in the context of war, this executive power is a life-and-death matter, a harsh fact that often needs to be obscured, for a democratic leader to survive politically. This conscious production of a positive public image, coupled with the necessary elision of visible power-wielding are the constitutive elements of autofabrication, complementary in the case of political leaders to self-fashioning.

Presenting oneself as an attractive icon for a majority of the electorate is a tour-de-force in itself. One of the key things Roosevelt did to pull this off, was to position himself as an extremely malleable vessel, which could easily be adopted as part of a range of narratives. Many of his best remembered speeches have an attractive emptiness. They are rhetorically strong, and easy to identify with, but at the same time non-committal: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”, and even the privately uttered “I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does”, all have the quality of a soundbite. The latter only became well-known later, but all three are equally easy to incorporate in basic narratives of the political right wing as well as the left. And FDR treated both his political “right hand” and his “left hand” as metaphorical members of his iconic body, as well as like opponents.

And, however controversial FDR was and remains, both sides of the political spectrum continued this habit of adopting and adapting FDR long after his death. Reagan famously claimed to have voted for Roosevelt each time he ran, suggesting he lost touch with the Democratic Party only later (“I didn’t desert my party. It deserted me.” – quoted in William Leuchtenburg, In the Shadow of FDR, 212). Thus, the public image FDR laid the foundations of, at once obscured his most assertive use of executive power and made him, like a real juggler, seem so flexible and transparent that he can still be called upon to perform in almost any context or narrative. That, seventy years beyond the man’s death, the FDR icon remains so nimble, is a testament both to his rhetorical artfulness and the conceptual flexibility of his autofabrication.

Sara Polak (Leiden University, the Netherlands) is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on Franklin D. Roosevelt as a Cultural Icon in American Memory. She is interested in how cultural construction (of history, memory, disability, celebrity, etc.) is shaped by and shapes individual and collective identities and ideologies. She blogs about her PhD project and adjacent topics at http://www.sarapolak.nl.

Read Full Post »

 The American Internment Camp You Never Heard of

by Jan Jarboe Russell

HNN January 20, 2015


The general history of America’s internment of its own citizens during World War II has long been focused on the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese, 62 percent of them American-born, who were forcibly evacuated from the Pacific coast after the bombings during World War II.

But what I learned during my five years of research for the book, The Train To Crystal City, is that that Executive Order 9066, which ordered the internment of Japanese, also allowed the Roosevelt administration to intern German and Italian immigrants and their American-born children.

About 6,000 Japanese, German, and Italians and their children were housed in a secret internment camp in Crystal City, Texas, a small desert town at the southern tip of Texas, about 35 miles from the Mexican border.

The history of the camp in Crystal City exposes a corner of American history that few knew existed. The camp opened in 1942 with the official purpose to reunite immigrant fathers who’d been arrested by the FBI as «enemy aliens» with their wives and children. It became the only interment camp in the U.S. that held entire families and multiple nationalities.

Earl Harrison, Roosevelt’s new commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, visited the small town of Crystal City, Texas on November 6, 1942, arriving by train from his home in Philadelphia. He walked around a 240-acre site that was previously used as a migrant worker camp for Mexican laborers. From Harrison’s point of view, the isolated location of the camp, far from areas considered vital to the war effort, was positive. It was as close to Siberia as we had in America – which made it an unlikely target for sabotage and protected its secrecy.

Week after week, month after month, from 1942 to 1948, trains with window shards pulled shut, carried civilians from all over the world across miles of flat, empty plains to the small desert town at the southern tip of Texas. Roosevelt not only arrested German, Japanese and Italians on American soil, but orchestrated the removal of 4,058 Germans, 2,264 Japanese and 288 Italians from thirteen Latin American countries – and locked many of them up in Crystal City.

A little known fact, documented by the historian Max Paul Friedman in his book, Nazis and Good Neighbors, is that 81 of those taken from Latin America were Jews who had fled persecution in Nazi Germany. One Jewish family – the Jacobis from Columbia – was interned in Crystal City.

But Crystal City had other secrets. It was the center of Roosevelt’s prisoner exchange program. On September 1, 1939, the day before Germany invaded Poland, Roosevelt created a division within the Department of State – the Special War Problems Division – to create a pool of Japanese and German «enemy aliens» – to be used as hostages in exchange when the U.S. inevitably joined the war.

Over the course of the war, thousands of prisoners in Crystal City, including their American-born children, were exchanged for ostensibly more important Americans – diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, physicians, and missionaries – behind enemy lines in Japan and Germany. The first of four exchanges in Crystal City took place in June 1942 and the second on September 2, 1943. During those exchanges, more than 2,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were traded for Americans caught in Japan. In February 1944, 634 German immigrants and their children, were sent from Crystal City into Germany. On January 2, 1945, 428 more in Crystal City were traded into war.

Daily life in Crystal City was highly regimented. Every morning the American flag was raised in ceremony. As the camp awakened, sleepy night guards relinquished their posts to daytime guards. Censors, who were fluent in German and Japanese, read the incoming mail of internees and cut out portions that related in any way to the war effort. Internees were allowed to write only two letters and one postcard per week. These, too, were censored. Comic books were confiscated for fear that they contained coded messages. Officials kept a dossier on each internee. A small police force patrolled the camp. At the front gate, vehicles of visitors were searched, both upon entry and exit.

The roll calls seemed endless. Three times a day, a whistle blew in the camp, and everyone had to run back to their cottages and huts, form lines, show their faces and stand still for the count. In the presence of armed guards, absences were noted. Prisoners met visitors – friends or relatives – in a hut under the watchful eyes of surveillance officers. As for escape, everyone knew the penalty was death. In fact, for the duration of the camp’s history no one dared risk it.

Despite the harsh conditions, the children in the camp, most of them born in America, were humanely treated. The camp had three schools: the American school, where the teachers were certified by the Texas board of education, the Japanese school, taught by Japanese fathers and mothers, and the German school, taught by Germans. American-born teenagers were often in conflict with their foreign-born parents over issues of loyalty.

One anecdote tells the story. Shortly after the camp was opened, Earl Harrison – the head of the INS – visited the camp. During a tour given by Joseph O’Rourke, the officer in charge, Harrison and O’Rourke encountered a group of children. O’Rourke asked what they were doing. «Playing war,» a young boy said.

«Okay,» said O’Rourke. «But I hope nobody gets killed.» He and Harrison continued their tour.

On the way back, the two men stopped at the same spot and found the children seated on the ground, looking glum.

«What happened to the war?» O’Rourke asked.

«It ended,» they explained. «Nobody wanted to be the enemy. We all wanted to be the Americans.»

The fundamental questions of citizenship – the status of aliens, indeed the definition of who is and who is not an American – are perennial. The travesty in Crystal City was that given the high stakes during World War II and the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, the cost to civil liberties was high.

© 2015 Jan Jarboe Russell, author of The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World Wa

Jan Jarboe Russell, the author of “The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II,” is a former Nieman Fellow, a contributing editor for Texas Monthly, and has written for the San Antonio Express-News, the New York Times, Slate, and other magazines. She is the author of “Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson” and has also compiled and edited “They Lived to Tell the Tale.” She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, Dr. Lewis F. Russell, Jr. For more information please visit her website, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter.

Read Full Post »

Rare Footage of FDR at NIH

Rebecca C. Warlow

Circulating Now  September 10, 2014

On October 31, 1940, just days before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected to an unprecedented third term as President of the United States, he traveled to Bethesda to dedicate the National Cancer Institute and the new campus of what was then the National Institute of Health (NIH), before it would eventually become known in plural form—National Institutes of Health—as multiple units were established over subsequent years.

President Roosevelt stands at a podium surrounded by american flags at the top of the steps of a colonial brick building.

That late October afternoon, Roosevelt stood on the steps of the new main NIH building, ready to address a crowd of 3,000 people. Still relevant today, in a variety of contexts, are the subjects he discussed: the need for preparedness in light of war and for research into deadly diseases, recent improvements in public health and health care, and hope that the research conducted at NIH would lead to new cures for and even the prevention of disease.

Today, the National Library of Medicine is making the film of Roosevelt’s speech publicly available for the first time, nearly 74 years after the President made his speech. Sound recordings, transcripts, andphotographs of this event have been available publicly for many years. Our research suggests, however, that this rare film footage has not been seen publicly since its recording and may no longer exist anywhere else.

The live footage of the speech was given to NLM many years ago by the National Archives and Records Administration. The recording does not appear to have been professionally produced, although news organizations such as CBS were present on that day. The camera is unsteady in places, a hand sweeps across the lens, and the filming starts and stops, though it isn’t known whether this is a result of the original filming or of later editing.

While we have long been able to hear Roosevelt’s support for public health and medical research, now we can see him state some of his powerful words from this important speech, and truly appreciate the experience of being in the audience on that historic day. The President’s concluding words capture the weight of the moment: “Today the need for the conservation of health and physical fitness is greater than at any time in the nation’s history. In dedicating this Institute, I dedicate it to the underlying philosophy of public health, to the conservation of life, to the wise use of the vital resources of our nation. I voice for America, and for the stricken world, our hopes, our prayers, our faith, in the power of man’s humanity to man.”

Five years before Roosevelt’s dedication, in 1935, Luke and Helen Wilson had donated land in Bethesda, Maryland, to the government to be used as the new home of the National Institute of Health. At the dedication, President Roosevelt thanked Mrs. Wilson for the gift she and her husband had made to and for the benefit of the nation, “For the spacious grounds on which these buildings stand we are indebted to Mr. and Mrs. Luke I. Wilson, who wrote me in 1935, asking if part of their estate at Bethesda, Maryland, could be used to the benefit of the people of this nation. I would tell her now as she sits beside me that in their compassion for suffering, their hope for human action to alleviate it, she and her husband symbolized the aspirations of millions of Americans for a cause such as this. And we are very grateful.”

The Wilsons’ donated their land shortly before the President signed the Social Security Act in 1935. The Act contained provisions meant to assist in “establishing and maintaining adequate public health services” throughout the country. Roosevelt made certain in his speech to pointedly address those who opposed some of his proposed health care initiatives, stating that “neither the American people nor their government intend to socialize medical practice any more than they plan to socialize industry.”

The possibility of the United States entering the war in Europe was also clearly on the President’s mind. In his speech, he tied together the “strategic importance of health” with the need for the nation to be prepared for war, saying, “The total defense that we have heard so much about of late—that total defense which this nation seeks—involves a great deal more than building airplanes and ships and guns and bombs, for we cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation, and so we must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science in the service of national strength.”

Roosavelt, in a pinstripe suit, stands at a podium flanked by columns.

Roosevelt lauded the past work of the National Institute of Health and emphasized the need to be vigilant against illnesses from abroad. “These buildings, which we dedicate, represent new and improved housing for an institution which has a long and distinguished background of accomplishment in this task of research… Now that we are less than a day by plane from the jungle-type yellow fever of South America, less than two days from the sleeping sickness of equatorial Africa, less than three days from cholera and bubonic plague, the ramparts we watch must be civilian in addition to military.”

In his remarks, the President singled out the new National Cancer Institute (NCI) that he was dedicating. He praised the Institute, stating “It is promoting and stimulating cancer research throughout the nation; it is bringing to the people of the nation a message of hope because many forms of the disease are not only curable but even preventable. Beyond this, it is doing research here and in many universities to unravel the mysteries of cancer. We can have faith in the ultimate results of these efforts.”

It is our honor and privilege to make this film footage available now as excitement is building for the upcoming PBS broadcast of the new Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, a landmark project that was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with whom NLM is working on initiatives of common interest.

For their assistance in determining what research suggests to be the uniqueness of this footage, we thank our colleagues in the NLM’s Audiovisual Program and Development Branch of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications, the NIH Office of History, and the National Archives and Records Administration. We also thank our colleagues Dr. David Cantor for the extensive historical research he completed on the subject of FDR and the NIH before we initiated our effort to make this film public available, and especially Anatoliy Milihkiker, a contract archives technician in the History of Medicine Division, who recognized the unique content of this film as he undertook a recent survey of the our extensive historical audio-visual collections.

Portrait of Rebecca Warlow.Rebecca C. Warlow is Head of Images and Archives in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

Read Full Post »

A %d blogueros les gusta esto: