How FDR Created The Surveillance State

tags: FDR, The Surveillance State

Justus D. Doenecke is emeritus professor of history at New College of Florida. Among his books are works on the America First Committee and the anti-interventionist movement of 1939-41.

In June 2013 the Department of Justice indicted Edward Snowden, a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, for releasing countless classified documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Accused of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, he was subject to 30 years in prison. Though the United States government revoked his passport, the Russian government granted him asylum. Because the documents revealed that the NSA was retaining millions of emails of American private citizens, not to mention those of foreign leaders, the incident caused considerable controversy. Snowden's opponents accused him of endangering U.S. security while his defenders claimed he had a duty to expose a government apparatus that had run amok.

Accusations of intimidation have long been levied against the federal government. During the Red Scare of 1919, the Justice Department’s Radical Bureau and the Labor Department's Immigration Bureau coerced confessions from suspected radicals, thereby subjecting many to deportation. During the Cold War, the Federal Bureau of Investigation fed information concerning alleged subversives to Senator Joseph McCarthy and other enemies of the Truman administration. Revelations made during the ’70s showed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had cast an extremely wide net, illegally wiretapping such figures as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and infiltrating such organizations as the Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the Congress of Racial Equality. According to a commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency had assembled files on 300,000 Americans.

Even the much-touted administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt possessed less than a sterling record. Indeed, some on the right use FDR’s administration to justify Snowden’s indictment. Hence the FDR presidency is important to examine, for in reality it showed the extremes to which even a liberal leadership can go.

Americans have long been familiar with the internment of all Japanese Americans, whether citizens or not, who in 1942 were taken from their homes on the West Coast to concentration camps in the interior for the sole offense of carrying “enemy chromosomes.” Though most would admit that the internment was the greatest violation of citizenship in the nation’s entire history, other negative aspects of the Roosevelt leadership remain hidden.

Although memories of World War II are rapidly fading, with many survivors now in their 90s, the conflict is generally perceived as a most positive experience, in which a noble and enlightened leadership successfully defeated evil and alien forces while violating few, if any, rights of fellow-citizens. ...

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