Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (left); and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (right) in 1943
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Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump (left); and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (right) in 1943

CREDIT: Brendan McDermid/Reuters (Trump); Universal History Archive/Getty Images (Roosevelt)

Donald Trump & FDR

When the Republican presidential candidate suggested barring all foreign Muslims from the U.S., he cited Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Are there parallels?

It was an audacious statement for a presidential candidate to make, even in response to a grisly terrorist attack.

A few days after two Islamic radicals living in the U.S. (one of them a U.S. citizen) shot and killed 14 people at an office holiday party in San Bernardino, California, Republican candidate Donald Trump proposed barring all foreign Muslims from entering the country until the nation’s leaders can “figure out what is going on.”

Americans have expressed strong opinions about Trump’s proposal. In a December poll, 6 in 10 Republican voters agreed with it. “You can’t look at a Muslim and tell if they’re a terrorist or friendly,” Susan Kemmerlin of Charleston, South Carolina, said at a Trump rally that month.

But other Republican candidates and many Americans of both parties were shocked by the idea, saying it violated the nation’s ideals. “This country was founded on freedom of religion,” says Nancy Morawetz, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in immigration, “so to try to put into law a religious test that if you’re of this religion you can’t come in, that’s unprecedented.”

Pearl Harbor & WWII

Still, as Trump himself pointed out, his idea does recall actions taken in the past by American leaders in the name of national security. “Take a look at what F.D.R. did many years ago, and he’s one of the most highly respected presidents,” said Trump, arguing that the U.S. is now “at war with radical Islam.”

During World War II (1939-45), Japanese-Americans—and to a lesser extent, people of German and Italian descent—were suspected of secretly sympathizing with America’s enemies. They were rounded up and forced into detention camps, or faced relocations, travel restrictions, curfews, property confiscations, and other indignities.

The internments began in February 1942—two months after Japanese warplanes bombed the American naval base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, prompting America to declare war against Japan and its Axis allies, Germany and Italy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forced nearly 120,000 people—all Japanese immigrants and their American-born children—to leave designated areas along the West Coast, including all of California, and surrender their homes and possessions. (Believing the West Coast was the most likely target for a second Japanese attack, military leaders feared that Japanese-Americans would aid the enemy.) They were limited to one suitcase per person, and eventually transported to 10 Army-run outposts scattered on Indian reservations and federal lands in bleak terrains of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming (see map, below).

Surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, they lived in flimsy barracks, slept on cots, queued up for meals of canned wieners and boiled potatoes, and shared communal latrines.

The actor George Takei, who later played Sulu on the original Star Trek TV series, was 5 when two soldiers with bayonets marched up to the front door of his Los Angeles home and dispatched his family to a temporary shelter at the Santa Anita racetrack. They were later moved to a camp in Arkansas.

“We were housed in the horse stables,” he recalled in a recent New York Times article about the Broadway musical Allegiance, inspired by his family’s wartime experience. “Can you imagine, for my parents to be taken from a two-bedroom home in Los Angeles, with their three children, and to sleep in this smelly horse stall?”

Military leaders and advisers had expressed fears—most of them unsubstantiated, as it turned out—that some Japanese-Americans might spy or commit sabotage to aid Japan. Roosevelt had also been egged on by long-simmering animosity toward the Japanese. Newspaper headlines and neighborhood conversations were filled with slurs about “yellow dogs” and “nips.”* Much of the hostility stemmed from selfish motives. Growers of fruits and vegetables, for example, had been chafing for years over competition from Japanese-owned farms. Though those farms made up 1 percent of California’s cultivated land, they produced 40 percent of the crops.

Is Barring Muslims Constitutional?

Yet for all the parallels between Japanese internment during World War II and Trump’s proposal, the comparison is hardly exact. The U.S. had declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy. The U.S. hasn’t declared war against the Islamic religion, though it is trying to figure out how to defeat terrorist groups like ISIS, which is intent on establishing a strict Islamic state in the Middle East and destroying its perceived enemies in the U.S. and the rest of the West. 

The Trump plan is aimed at Muslims hoping to enter the U.S., while the Japanese internments targeted people who had already set down roots in America, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens. Another difference, according to Spiro, is that excluding immigrants by ethnicity or religion may in fact be constitutional: Courts have ruled that as shapers of foreign policy, Congress and the president have broad powers over immigration and naturalization.

 Despite its potential legality, Spiro says, the Trump plan would be hard to enforce, requiring officials to figure out a foreigner’s religious beliefs—a murky area.

“It’s not something that’s stamped on someone’s forehead,” Spiro says. “It would involve all kinds of intrusive inquiries and fuzzy lines.”

The numbers officials would have to examine are staggering: Each year the U.S. grants permanent residency to 100,000 immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, according to the Pew Research Center.

When people feel embattled and fearful, they sometimes seek out solutions to feel protected. Trump’s proposal no doubt has that appeal for some Americans. But it’s also gotten Americans debating how to best handle the growing threat of terrorist groups abroad and lone actors at home carrying out terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino.

Tom Herold, a Trump supporter from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, disagrees with the Republican candidate about barring all foreign Muslims from entering the U.S. But he does think the U.S. should adopt more-stringent policies about who’s allowed in—and apply that extra scrutiny to everyone, not just Muslims.

 “If you’re going to do it to one person, do it to all,” he says. “I think everyone should have the same treatment.”

Joseph Berger is a former reporter for The New York Times; additional reporting by Jonathan Martin of The Times.

Scenes From Internment

Japanese-Americans at a relocation center and waving flags

About 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II.

Japanese-American evacuees at a relocation center in San Bruno, California, 1942; Japanese-American citizens show their loyalty on their way to an internment camp in 1943 (inset).

CREDIT: Corbis

World War II Internment

Japanese-Americans, and German and Italian immigrants, were detained around the U.S.

map showing major interment and relocation centers
SOURCES: National Japanese American Historical Society, German American Internee Coalition; Arthur D. Jacobs. CREDIT: Jim McMahon (map)


    • 117,000

      NUMBER of Japanese-Americans put into internment camps during WWII.

      SOURCE: The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
    • 33,000

      TOTAL NUMBER of Japanese-American men who served in the U.S. military during or just after WWII.

      SOURCE: National Park Service
    • 60%

      PERCENTAGE of Republican voters in a December 2015 poll who supported Trump’s proposal to bar foreign Muslims from entering the U.S.

      SOURCE: Politico
    • 100,000

      NUMBER of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries who become permanent U.S. residents each year.

      SOURCE: Pew Research Center

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