Century's Ebb

A blog on the life and work of John Dos Passos (1896-1970)

Tag Archives: Constitution

On (Presidential) Power over the Lives of Men

Dos Passos could still, in the late 1940s when he wrote The Grand Design, offer up satire of the most bitter kind to express his anger at the abuses which rulers indulge in in times of war. Here he protests, amongst other things, the way FDR’s Executive Order 9066 was used for the purposes of internment of Japanese-American civilians in 1942. This is his most succinct statement of how America had still not learned “how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man and to make him use it wisely.”

“At home we organized bloodbanks and civilian defense and imitated the rest of the world by setting up concentration camps (only we called them relocation centers) and stuffing into them American citizens of Japanese ancestry (Pearl Harbor the date that will live in infamy) without benefit of habeas corpus. . . .

The President of the United States talked the sincere democrat and so did the members of Congress. In the Administration there were devout believers in civil liberty. “Now we’re busy fighting a war; we’ll deploy all four freedoms later on,” they said. . . .

War is a time of Caesars. The President of the United States was a man of great personal courage and supreme confidence in his powers of persuasion. He never spared himself a moment, flew to Brazil and Casablanca, Cairo to negotiate at the level of the leaders; at Teheran the triumvirate without asking anybody’s leave got to meddling with history; without consulting their constituents, revamped geography, divided up the bloody globe and left the freedoms out.

And the American People were supposed to say thank you for the century of the Common Man turned over for relocation behind barbed wire so help him God.

We learned. There were things we learned to do but we have not learned, in spite of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the great debates at Richmond and Philadelphia, how to put power over the lives of men into the hands of one man and to make him use it wisely.

~John Dos Passos, The Grand Design (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 416–18.