Constitutional scholar Kermit Roosevelt launches wartime policies into the spotlight with his latest book Allegiance
When Kermit Roosevelt, professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School considered topics for a new book to follow his award-winning novel In the Shadow of the Law, he knew just two things: he would write about the Supreme Court, having deep knowledge of its inner workings from his clerkship with Justice David Souter, and he would recapture a time in American history that most reflects our nation today. What Roosevelt didn’t expect to find were the uncanny and troubling parallels to wartime Washington after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The threat of terrorism spread across the country; those of a certain ethnicity were seen as suspicious; the government extended federal power in the name of national security. We know from recent events at Guantanamo Bay and cases of racial prejudice where this can lead, yet we seem to have forgotten just how far we can go.
But Roosevelt remembers. He remembers because in the course of researching his book, he found himself at the center of an incredible mystery with government corruption and personal greed at every turn. He remembers because he immersed himself in the stories of innocent people, persecuted unjustly, cast off as outsiders by their own neighbors and friends. He remembers because he was inspired by the heroism of those who gave up their freedom for others — outraged by those who took it away.
He remembers because it changed America. And it changed him, too.
In the 1940s, what began as an effort to protect Americans would end in one of the worst civil rights violations in U.S. history and a presidential apology 40 years later. Over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, most of whom were innocent, were forced to abandon their businesses and homes, board trains reminiscent of Nazi Germany, and live in detention centers scattered around the country. Since the Justice Department couldn’t determine who was loyal to America and who was loyal to Japan, they simply rounded everyone up from the West Coast and stripped them of their individual freedoms. The administration said it was a necessary measure to keep everyone safe.
But it wasn’t. And the government knew. For Kermit Roosevelt, the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, the grandson of a CIA director, and a constitutional scholar whose identity is so closely intertwined with government, the story of such inequities struck a chord too deeply to ignore. So be it that his own family member, Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized the internment in what became a dark spot on his presidency. It speaks to the author’s point that “good people can do bad things” and we should look more closely at what’s being done in out name. After all, if the revered FDR could give such an order, is it so far off to think another president wouldn’t do the same?
True to form of the greatest creative works, Roosevelt has taken a substantive issue and transformed it into a commercially appealing story of adversity, heroism, and hope. After eight years studying diaries, court documents, and wartime history—he’s released Allegiance, a riveting legal thriller that begins as a love story, unfolds as a murder mystery, and provides a rare view inside Washington, DC political intrigue and Supreme Court corruption that’s astonishing even today. The maze of criminal acts and cover-ups in the highest echelons of government is chilling to those who believe in liberty and justice for all. Roosevelt recaptures actual events and brings iconic figures J. Edgar Hoover and Hugo Black to life. Through the protagonist, Caswell “Cash” Harrison, he tells the story of his own emotional journey into wounded patriotism after 9/11 when he learned first-hand how history has repeated itself. He exposes his inner life and the moral questions he had to confront, holding a mirror to the truth of how we respond as individuals and as a nation when we’re afraid. As personal as it is political, he exposes his inner life while calling out those who were responsible for grave injustices that would have lasting effects on generations of American families.
“I was creating a mystery plot, but at the same time I was solving a mystery.” Kermit Roosevelt
Like Roosevelt, the protagonist, Caswell “Cash” Harrison, begins as a young, idealistic lawyer from a prominent family who believes the government can do no wrong. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he is rejected for military service but finds another way to serve his country: he becomes a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. He never imagines the murder and conspiracy he’ll find in the corridors of power, a place where no one can be trusted and moral standards are secondary to personal gain. As Cash pursues a covert investigation to uncover the truth, he finds himself alone on a perilous path that leads him to Japanese American internment camps and one of the most disturbing, significant constitutional issues ever to face the Supreme Court. Government justifications are widely accepted by a nation in fear; yet when Cash discovers the cover-ups and lies surrounding internment—he finds the fate of tens of thousands of Americans in his hands. How far will he go to see justice? Will he stand by his principles and his belief in a country “of the people, by the people, for the people” or stand by those of his inner circle? A true American hero, Cash Harrison is one of the great literary characters of our time.
“The profound questions that it raises– about the power of the president in times of war, the tensions between liberty and security, and the role of the courts in resolving those tensions– remain as important today as they were some three quarters of a century ago.” Wall Street Journal
Suspenseful, lyrically written, and ingeniously crafted, Allegiance is historical fiction at its best. The author follows the Roosevelt tradition of illuminating issues, giving voice to those who go unheard, and imparting a message of tolerance, fairness, and virtue that speaks to our nation’s values. As the Wall Street Journal writes, “The Roosevelts deepened a passion for social justice,” and the legacy continues to this day. On his speaking tour, he examines current policies, the challenges facing government and citizens with the increasing threat of terrorism, and he provides historical context. He also explores the deeper meaning of American ideals and offers guiding principles to how we can protect them.
By coincidence, the book release coincided with George Takei’s Broadway show (Allegiance), a musical based on his childhood years in internment camps. They tell two sides of the same story in what are poignant, cautionary, and inspiring tales about a subject that’s time has finally come.
Watch his recent TED talk, Myth America: The Declaration, The Constitution, and Us.