Sunday, February 19, 2017

This Day in WWII History (FDR Signs Japanese-American Internment Order)

February 19, 1942—Disregarding even some of his closest advisers, Franklin D. Roosevelt committed one of the worst violations of civil liberties in American history by signing Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. military to forcibly remove Japanese-Americans from their homes on the West Coast as a matter of wartime necessity.

At one stroke, more than 120,000 people—none of whom were ever found to have committed treason or similar acts against the United States—were interned in 10 concentration camps, losing their jobs, then prevented by barbed wire, sentry towers and gun-toting guards from leaving—all without trial or even charges levied against them that they could contest. When the executive order was lifted and the camps closed three years later, this massive population—both “Issei” (resident immigrants)—and “Nisei” (native-born Americans with Japanese parents) —emerged to find, in many cases, that they couldn’t reclaim their property.

In times of war, Presidents have, more often than not, curtailed the rights of some Americans. (Historian Garry Wills has noted that James Madison, during the War of 1812, was the one conspicuous exception.) But it is hard to think of a more egregious infringement of wartime civil liberties than Roosevelt’s—not only in terms of the number of people affected, but also because of the blatant zenophobia involved.

That zenophobia was not solely—or even mostly—a product of the shock and anger over the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor three months earlier. It was an unfortunate byproduct of the circumstances in which Japanese first came to the United States in the late 19th century.

Among other things, Japanese immigration was blamed for undercutting demand for American workers and even for threatening American womanhood. So much agitation grew for legislation to exclude the race that in 1908, the Japanese and American governments came up with a "Gentlemen's Agreement," by which Japan restricted emigration to the U.S., while the U.S. admitted wives, children, and other relatives of immigrants already resident.

The racism lingered and, in one sense, blinded the American military to the nature of the dangers presented at Pearl Harbor. The commanders there believed that sabotage or espionage by Japanese agents posed a greater threat than external air attack. (In fact, some carriers were bunched together to prevent the chance of sabotage, leaving them more vulnerable to Admiral Yamamoto's daring dawn attack from the air.) 

Remarkably, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox  still claimed, in the hours after Pearl Harbor, that the attack resulted through the work of Japanese-American fifth columnists.

Naked prejudice became the order of the day, starting with influential columnist Walter Lippmann, who provided the kind of hysterical wartime justification for curtailing liberty that thoughtful people often regret later: “Nobody’s constitutional rights include the right to reside and do business on a battlefield.”

But the reigning sentiment was given its bluntest form by Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command. “The Japanese race is an enemy race,” he wrote. “And while many second- and third-generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.”

Yet the movement toward incarceration was hardly universal. It might be expected that James Rowe, an aide in the Justice Department, and his boss, Attorney-General Francis Biddle, might object to the measure. 

More surprising was the opposition of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, hardly a champion of civil liberties. Not only did he immediately refute Knox’s claim of a fifth column, but he opposed mass internment. "The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data," he wrote Biddle in early February.

The decision, then, came down to one man: Roosevelt. For a long time, his defenders claimed that he acceded to unstoppable public opinion. But Greg Robinson’s By Order of the President (2001) put this matter in a different light by examining the President’s long-held belief that the Japanese-Americans were biologically "incapable of being true Americans," making him more prone to accepting the worst assumptions about their possible conduct.

It would be three and a half decades before Congress established a commission whose final report, concluding that the internment resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” recommended reparations of $20,000 to each surviving internee, and several years more before both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush issued formal apologies for the policy.

Incredibly, the internment of Japanese-Americans is not being viewed universally these days as an object lesson in the dangers of wartime hysteria, but as a possible precedent for tough if “necessary” steps that might be taken today. As far back as December 2015, Donald Trump gave an interview to Time reporter Michael Scherer that should have alarmed voters. He might not “make America great again” (who said it ever stopped being great?), but he sure is making history unexpectedly relevant.

Asked at that time if he would have supported the internment in WWII, Trump responded: “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer. I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”

The then-candidate followed with one of his redundant, ridiculous non-sequitur rants that still reveal much—admittedly nauseating—about his mind: “It’s a tough thing. It’s tough. But you know war is tough. And winning is tough. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We’re not a strong country anymore. We’re just so off.”

As it happens, there are more similarities between the Japanese-Americans of 1942 and immigrants from Muslim countries than might meet initially the eye. Those similarities do not redound to Trump’s favor.

First, in both instances, the bans were targeted at very specific groups, though the language in the executive orders (or the statements of the Presidents) might indicate otherwise. FDR’s order never specifically used the word “Japanese,” but he allowed army personnel in “military areas” to remove “any or all persons” from this area of the West Coast. Similarly, government lawyers claimed in court that Trump’s Muslim ban was not directed at the religion, but public statements by Rudy Guiliani, describing his part in framing the legislation, indicated otherwise

Second, the scope of the restrictions was, in one sense, oddly limited. The most logical source for relocated Japanese-Americans should have been on Hawaii, as this was where the original attack occurred. But Japanese-Americans on the island were deemed too important to be deal with in this way. Moreover, Americans of German and Italian ancestry did not fall under the purview of this order, even though those countries were also at war with the U.S. Trump’s executive order was similarly blinkered. The 9/11 plotters, for instance, came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but neither of those countries are covered by the plan. By an amazing coincidence, neither is any Muslim country where The Trump Organization does business.

Third, the restrictions tarred entire groups indiscriminately. More than a hundred thousand Japanese who had never done anything wrong were regarded with suspicion. Government lawyers were similarly hard-pressed to cite how Muslims from the seven countries constituted a unique threat.

“Take a look at what FDR did many years ago and he’s one of the most highly respected presidents,” Trump has said. But FDR is esteemed for other aspects of his Presidency, not this exclusionary policy. Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson have seen their stock fall in recent years for failing to protect the rights of minorities. What makes Trump think that the same thing might not happen to FDR—not to mention himself?

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