President Obama’s Claims about Prisoner Swaps by Washington, Lincoln and FDR– Truth! & Fiction!

President Obama’s Claims about Prisoner Swaps by Washington, Lincoln and FDR– Truth! & Fiction!

Summary of eRumor:  

President Obama falsely claimed that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt engaged in post-war prisoner swaps similar to the one that freed Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

The Truth:


President Obama was right in saying that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt all negotiated prisoner swaps during combat situations while they were in office. 

But the president was wrong in saying that all three former presidents negotiated prisoner swaps “at the end of wars” because Washington, Lincoln and FDR all negotiated prisoner swaps during wars. 

Obama made the statement during a June 4, 2014, joint press conference in Poland. According to an official White House transcript, a reporter asked the president about a prisoner swap that led to the release of Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured by the Taliban, and Obama responded, in part:

“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind. And that dates back to the earliest days of our revolution….

“…But this is what happens at the end of wars. That was true for George Washington; that was true for Abraham Lincoln; that was true for FDR; that’s been true of every combat situation — that at some point, you make sure that you try to get your folks back. And that’s the right thing to do.”

A chain email that has made the rounds on the Internet claims that Obama’s remarks about Washington, Lincoln and FDR are historically inaccurate:

“George Washington did not become president until six years after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783.  By 1789 there were no longer any prisoners for him to exchange.                        

“Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in mid April of 1865. The Civil War ended the following month. He was still dead at that time. No deals were made to exchange prisoners after the war. All prisoners were simply freed.                        

“FDR died of a stroke before the end of WWII. Like Lincoln, he stayed dead after the war so he couldn’t do what this jerk says he did.”

Although the email recounts accurate historical facts about Washington, Lincoln and FDR — it gets details of prisoner swaps that they negotiated during wars wrong. 

First, let’s take a look at George Washington. He wasn’t elected president of the United States until 1789, which was six years after the Revolutionary War ended, as the email claims. But toward the end of the war, Washington was forced to negotiate prisoner swaps as the commander in chief of the Continental Army, according to the Mount Vernon Research Collection:

“By July 1779, the Continental Congress ordered that British naval prisoners were to be imprisoned on ships in the same manner as the Americans in New York. No compromise on the fair treatment of prisoners was ever reached.

“With few facilities to accommodate large numbers of prisoners, both the Americans and the British participated in prisoner exchange. Though Washington was actively involved in these matters, he appointed commissaries to handle the day-to-day details. The exchange of prisoners during the American Revolution was a chaotic ordeal, mainly because there was never a consistent policy put in place by the Continental Congress. Subsequently, a cartel (a formal agreement on prisoner exchange) was never put in place between the British and the Americans.”

Holding prisoners in a humane way was bankrupting Congress to the point that Washington “was compelled to personally subsidize the cost of prisoner upkeep” by 1781, according to the Mount Vernon Research Collection. Still, considering the historical differences, Washington’s prisoner swaps had little to do with the prisoner swap involving Bowe Bergdahl.

The email also claims that Abraham Lincoln didn’t participate in prisoner swaps because he was assassinated a month before the Civil War ended and prisoners were freed, which is false. General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, which effectively ended the Civil War. Lincoln was assassinated days later on April 14, 1865. But the timing of Lincoln’s assassination is irrelevant because prisoners were often released within days of their capture during the Civil War, according to the Historical Dictionary of the Civil War:

“When the Civil War began, neither side anticipated the large number of prisoners that would be captured. As a result, no special steps were taken to construc
t prisons for long periods of internment, and opposing commanders were forced to exchange and parole prisoners informally. However, as the number of prisoners began to overwhelm both armies, a more formal agreement had to be made. 

“In July 1862, John A. Dix and Daniel H. Hill, generals in the Union and Confederate armies, respectively, worked out the Dix-Hill Cartel, a formal agreement on how to handle prisoners. They were to be paroled within 10 days of capture (although in reality it sometimes took longer) and exchanged according to a strict formula. Equal ranks would be exchanged on a one-for-one basis, two privates for one sergeant, 60 privates for one general, and so on.”

That agreement temporarily fell apart when Lincoln learned that black Union soldiers were being treated differently than white ones. That led to the rise of Civil War prison camps like Andersonville, but an agreement was reached to resume prisoner swaps in January of 1865 — four months before Lincoln’s death. Like Washington, Lincoln was forced to negotiate prisoner swaps because there weren’t enough prisons to hold them, and the cost would have drained the Union’s war effort.

The email also claims that FDR didn’t engage in prisoner swaps because he died before the end of World War II. It’s true that FDR died before the end of the war, but, like Washington and Lincoln, FDR engaged in prisoner exchanges during war.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed, FDR signed Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527 to authorize the detention of aliens who had emigrated to the U.S. from enemy countries. Some of them were forced to repatriate to their home countries, according to the National Archives.

A lesser-known side of FDR’s policy was that some of those aliens were sent to their home countries in exchange for American soldiers that were captured by Japan and Germany. One internment camp in Texas called Crystal City was reportedly a hub for prisoner swaps, the Chicago Tribune reports:

“One little-reported aspect of U.S. war policy that (author Jan Jarboe Russell) describes in emotional detail is that Crystal City was a hub for prisoner exchanges. Families would be ‘repatriated’ — and not of their choosing — to Japan or Germany in exchange for Americans that the Japanese and Germans were holding. Many children at Crystal City, who were born in the United States and were American citizens in every imaginable sense, were parceled off to war-ravaged Japan and Germany in these exchanges.”

Even though Obama’s claims about prisoner swaps negotiated by Washington, Lincoln and FDR are technically accurate, there aren’t many parallels between those prisoner swaps and the one that freed Bowe Bergdahl.