Executive Orders Then and Now

On February 18, JANM will open Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066. Presented in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the World War II incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, Instructions to All Persons is an educational and interactive exhibition designed to engage visitors in critical discussions of the Japanese American incarceration experience.

Original documents, contemporary artworks, and documentary videos will form the substance of the exhibition. Through May 21 only, the exhibition will include two pages of the original Executive Order 9066 and the original Presidential Proclamation 2537, a key precursor to EO 9066 that required aliens from the enemy countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan to register with the US Department of Justice. Both documents are on loan from the National Archives.

Page one of Executive Order 9066. National Archives, Washington, DC.

Awareness of the impact of executive actions—including executive orders, presidential memoranda, and presidential proclamations—is particularly high right now. During his first two weeks in office, President Trump issued 22 executive actions, ranging from an order to build a wall along the US-Mexico border to a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Some of these actions caused widespread consternation, with the travel ban most notably causing significant disruption in the daily lives of many Americans.

Executive actions are handed down from the executive branch of government without input from the legislative branch. While they can only be given to federal or state agencies, citizens are often affected by the results. Executive orders are the most prestigious of the three types of actions; they are assigned numbers and published in the federal register, similar to laws passed by Congress. Presidential memoranda basically outline the administration’s position on a policy issue, while presidential proclamations are often ceremonial in nature (with the Emancipation Proclamation being a notable exception, along with the aforementioned Presidential Proclamation 2537).

A look at the history of executive actions reveals that they are a way for presidents and governors to flex their power, ostensibly for the good of the nation, and sometimes in the face of great criticism. Trump’s rapid series of actions is generally seen as an effort by an “outsider” president to quickly establish power and begin following through on campaign promises. In comparison, President Obama famously resorted to more executive orders during his second term when he was unable to pass legislation through a particularly intransigent Congress.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of EO 9066, issued more than 3,700 executive actions—by far the highest number in American history. With a prolonged presidential term that spanned both the Great Depression and World War II, Roosevelt’s aggressive use of executive actions could be seen as an ongoing form of crisis management. For example, his very first executive order on Inauguration Day ordered the closure of all banks for four days to begin restructuring the financial system under the New Deal. Later, he issued an order to seize factories, mines and other privately owned industrial facilities for wartime production.

How justified were Roosevelt’s sweeping orders? While some are credited with establishing policies that were beneficial to the stability of the American people, others, like EO 9066, have been discredited. When do presidents overstep their boundaries? Which of Roosevelt’s orders would you support today, and which would you be inclined to question or even protest? How will Trump’s and Obama’s orders be seen 75 years from today?

Instructions to All Persons aims to provide a space for questions like these. Come see the exhibition to examine the social impact of language and consider the lessons of the past and how they continue to be relevant today.

3 thoughts on “Executive Orders Then and Now

    1. Sorry for not replying sooner to your question! Unfortunately, we are not planning on traveling this exhibition. It includes a lot of very fragile documents, making it difficult to travel.

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