In the end, it’s the omissions—the things not done—that bother you. For Francis Biddle, it was that moment early in World War II when, as attorney general of the United States, he went along with higher-ups’ decision to intern 120,000 Japanese, many of them U.S. citizens.
In previous meetings with officials, Biddle had steadfastly opposed the idea as “ill-advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel.” But when Franklin Roosevelt, a man with distinctly 19th-century views about race, signed the executive order, Biddle stopped talking.
“The decision had been made by the president,” Biddle wrote in his 1962 autobiography. “It was, he said, a matter of military judgment. I did not think I should oppose it any further.”
He came to regret that. Perhaps to compensate, Biddle later worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and as chairman of the progressive Americans for Democratic Action.
Born in Paris, Biddle was conceived and delivered during a lengthy European trip, where the central mission was his father’s health. Algernon Sydney Biddle, a prominent lawyer and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had been growing deaf for years and hoped surgery in Germany might help. Whether or not it did, Biddle didn’t say. But his father died when he was not yet 5.
Most accounts of Biddle describe him as a “Main Line Philadelphian.” The family owned a house in Ardmore and one on Pine Street in Philadelphia, and they moved casually between the two. Biddle’s memories of growing up in Ardmore were mostly about the antics of his three brothers and several male cousins—what he called “the gang.”
“[Our tutor] taught us to play tennis on a lumpy, sloping grass court in front of the house, and how to swim in a dirty, leech-infested pond under broad willow trees less than a mile from the Ardmore station,” wrote Biddle.
The tutor’s method was simple: He ordered them to jump right into the nasty liquid. “You kicked hard to keep your head out,” Biddle recalled. “Before long, [you] found yourself swimming.”
The Biddles had long been a wealthy and prominent local family, beginning with Quakers William and Sarah Biddle, who arrived in Burlington, N.J., in 1681 with rights to 43,000 acres. The clan spread from there, becoming “vast and ubiquitous,” as Biddle described it in his autobiography.
Noteworthy Biddles include Edward, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and Nicholas, president of the Second Bank of the United States (until Andrew Jackson killed it), whose Andalusia estate in Bensalem is now a national landmark. There were also lots of admirals and colonels.
By Francis Biddle’s time, however, the family’s glory was mostly behind it. He remembered, as a young man, being cornered by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a prominent physician and distant relative, who pointed out that no Biddles were contributing “anything of leadership or service to the community.”
There were plenty of idle-rich Biddles—sportsmen and partygoers—but none who were striving to accomplish anything. Biddle took it as a challenge: “What … was I going to do about it?”
Biddle could’ve gone to the University of Pennsylvania. It was what upper-crust Philadelphians did. Instead, he went to Harvard, graduating in 1911 with a degree in law. Biddle was a straight-A student, so a professor recommended him for a one-year clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In his year with Holmes, Biddle’s duties included a bit of legal paperwork and balancing the justice’s checkbook. When Holmes noticed that his clerk didn’t have enough to do, he gave Biddle an “affectionately inscribed” copy of his 1881 text, The Common Law, which the youth read “earnestly.”
“Now and then, he put me to work on some portion of a record where the evidence conflicted,” Biddle recalled. “He seldom asked me to look up an authority. He did his own work, even checking the citations.”
During this time in Washington, D.C., Biddle began to drift from Republican orthodoxy. He fell in with young progressives who turned him on to Teddy Roosevelt and the Bull Moose insurgency.
After attending the 1912 GOP convention, Biddle came away convinced that the party’s old guard had stolen the nomination for William Howard Taft. From that point, it was probably inevitable that Biddle would become a Democrat.
“I don’t care so much about the Italians,” Roosevelt told Biddle. “They are a lot of opera singers. But the Germans are different. They may be dangerous.”
When Francis Biddle returned to Philadelphia, he joined the law firm his father had founded—which he later termed a “waste.” He was given no challenging work and received no constructive criticism. In retrospect, Biddle considered his own work “sloppy, careless and impatient.” After three years, he left for another firm.
Among the Philadelphia elite—including his own family—Biddle’s new politics were not “respectable.” His brother called Roosevelt a “demagogue.”
But Biddle’s devotion to Progressivism endured. He was a delegate to the Bull Moose convention in 1916, and he wept when Woodrow Wilson was elected.
In 1922, connections made through Biddle’s political activities led to his appointment as assistant U.S. attorney. Experience with official corruption in that position led Biddle to a growing interest in workers’ rights and the protection of civil liberties. In particular, he fought to improve working conditions for Pennsylvania coal miners. In 1934, those efforts prompted Franklin Roosevelt to appoint Biddle chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.
Biddle subsequently served as legal counsel in a congressional investigation of alleged corruption in the Tennessee Valley Authority, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and as U.S. solicitor general. In 1941, he was named FDR’s fourth attorney general. “Three months after I was sworn in,” wrote Biddle in 1962, “the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”
The Roosevelt administration immediately turned its attention to enemy aliens. On the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Biddle presented FDR with a proclamation ordering the internment of Japanese citizens. Later, there were similar proclamations regarding citizens of Germany and Italy. “I don’t care so much about the Italians,” Roosevelt told Biddle. “They are a lot of opera singers. But the Germans are different. They may be dangerous.”
There were 600,000 German citizens in the country, and FDR’s immediate thought was to arrest them all. Biddle viewed his responsibility as talking the president down from what he viewed as an extreme position. “I was determined to avoid mass internment,” he said.
Ultimately, U.S. policy was to require that enemy aliens obtain permission to travel and to change residences. It forbade them to enter sensitive areas and banned them from owning weapons or devices that could be used to communicate abroad, such as two-way radios. Parole boards were established to review cases in cities with large enemy-alien populations.
Biddle recalled little hysteria—until some military and political officials fanned the flames of racial prejudice. When a few patriotic employers fired German and Japanese workers, Biddle condemned such actions. It was better, he said, to profit from their labor.
The Justice Department’s program targeted only enemy aliens. For five or six weeks after Pearl Harbor, there was no serious suggestion that U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry, the Nisei, be moved away from the West Coast. Then, “one excited patriot threw a rock at the window of a store operated by an American-born Japanese,” wrote Biddle. “And, in Washington, an energetic idiot chopped down some Japanese cherry trees.”
Biddle was soon resisting calls by the California congressional delegation for mass internment. On the West Coast, the military brass, always conservative about such things as security, felt public opinion keenly. In January 1942, Gen. John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, condemned proposals for mass internment of Nisei as “damned nonsense.” Two weeks later, though, DeWitt reversed course, pressing for War Department control of such a program.
In February, Biddle met with War Department officials and proposed a joint declaration that the removal of U.S. citizens—including Nisei—from the West Coast was unnecessary. The War Department subsequently submitted an executive order authorizing the opposite. Roosevelt signed, but Biddle’s Department of Justice remained opposed.
“I do not think [Roosevelt] was much concerned with the gravity or implications of this step,” Biddle said later. “The Constitution has never greatly bothered any wartime president.”
Biddle regretted not doing more. “This mass evacuation illustrates the influence that a minority, uncurbed and substantially unopposed, can exercise,” he said. “Through lack of independent courage and faith in American reality, a superb opportunity was lost by the government in failing to assert the human decencies for which we were fighting.”