A History Lesson (Part One) The Internment of Japanese Americans


Katie Aguilera

When I see an article like this  (and now this 1/28/2017 article) and begin seeing renewed calls to stop the refugees our wars in the middle east have caused, I start to think it might be time for a history lesson.  Because, as Edmund Burke clearly stated, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  And I fear we are forgetting a past mistake, and toying with repeating it (admittedly, not for the first time exactly).

In February of 1942, the US Army General in charge of Western Defense Command (which commanded the defense of the entire west coast of the USA), John L. DeWitt, made a request for expanded authority within this area of command.  Initially this was to impose curfews and restrictions on Japanese-Americans living on the west coast.  His request was granted with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s issuance of Executive Order 9906. Ultimately, this led to the order in May of 1942 that anyone of Japanese descent who resided within 100 miles of the west coast would be required to either relocate from this region or report to detention centers.

The US government defended this action by saying it was necessary for national security.  DeWitt argued it would be impossible to determine a Japanese-American’s loyalty to the United States.  The media fueled the fire by promoting the idea that the Japanese-American citizens couldn’t be trusted, stirring up fears all along the west coast.  The result was that over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were moved to various internment camps around the west, where they remained during the war, and even for some time after the war was over.  They were forced to leave behind property, businesses, farms, much of which was sold at great loss.  They were never accused of any crime, they hadn’t committed any.  They were simply detained in camps on the slim chance that any one of them would commit some traitorous action, or attack, against America.

Whether this action was Constitutional was challenged twice in Supreme Court cases, Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States.  The Supreme Court held in both cases that it was.  This meant that they protected the legal authority of the military to decide what was necessary for national security during war, not the elected representatives of the people, or the people themselves.  Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote:

…the validity of action under the war power must be judged wholly in the context of war.  That action is not to be stigmatized as lawless because like action in times of peace would be lawless.  To talk about a military order that expresses an allowable judgment of war needs by those entrusted with the duty of conducting war as an ‘unconstitutional order’ is to suffuse a part of the Constitution with an atmosphere of unconstitutionality.

I have been to Tule Lake, where one of the internment camps was located, many times.  I have seen homes made from camp barracks.  I find it to be a depressing place, flat and brown.  I can’t imagine being forced to spend years there, behind guarded wires.  I certainly can’t imagine being forced from my home, from my community, to be incarcerated as an act of national security.  The effects were heartbreaking.

Of course there was the devastating loss of property and personal belongings.  That included items that were placed in government storage that were stolen or destroyed.  But more important  were the effects on the people detained.  Some died due to inadequate medical care, seven were even shot and killed by guards.  Dillon S. Myer, the director of the War Relocation Authority that ran many camps, observed that the detainees were becoming “increasingly depressed” and were “overcome with feelings of helplessness and personal insecurity.” Satsuki Ina writes,  in her May 27th, 2015 article entitled, “I Know An American ‘Internment’ Camp When I See One:”

In my work with Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated as children, many reported struggles with anxiety and depression as adults.  Particularly key was the environment in which they were held and the torment and suffering that they witnessed their parents experiencing.

(I highly recommend reading her powerful article about South and Central American women and children being held in Texas facilities, found here.  Another heart breaking detention crisis.)

It took far too many years to admit that it had been wrong to relocate and detain Japanese-Americans during World War II, and even longer to redress the mistake.  In 1983, Korematsu’s conviction that the Supreme Court had upheld was overturned because material evidence had been withheld.  That evidence included the Ringle Report, a report submitted by an Office of Naval Intelligence officer, Kenneth Ringle, in January of 1942.  In this report, he stated that the majority of Japanese-Americans were loyal to the United States and did not present any danger.  Any that might present a danger could be “individually identified and imprisoned.”  He argued against mass relocation and internment.  It wasn’t until 2011 that the justice department formally concluded that the case no longer stood as legal precedence.

In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided financial reparations to those affected by the internment.  $1.6 billion was paid out in $20,000.00 increments to 82,210 Japanese-Americans according to this report.  Internment was expensive.  The reparation costs are on top of what it cost to build, staff and operate the internment facilities, and whatever economic loss that may have occurred as a result of the sudden removal of such a large portion of the work force.  So, if you can’t see it as an awful thing to do to people, if you can’t see the cost to humanity, look at the financial cost.

Sadly, it hasn’t taken us very long to forget that it was wrong.  And it hasn’t taken us very long to forget those distressing images of dead children on beaches that had so many people crying out to help Syrian refugees.  The attacks in Paris have once again raised the cries to close borders and round up the refugees who have already come, in the name of national security.

Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney, from South Carolina, said on Tuesday,

Even amongst the most pro-immigration wings of the Republican party, there is a sense that national security absolutely has to come first.  So, we’re trying hard not to over-react.  But, at the same time, if there’s a threat to national security that has to take priority.

See the full article here, in which Speaker Ryan calls for “a pause in Syrian refugees.”

I understand that we are talking about refugees coming from another country, not our own citizens, in this current debate about the refugee crisis in the middle east and Europe.  But how can we make it okay, again, to punish an entire race of people on such a massive scale (it isn’t okay on any scale and I know it happens all the time here) on the small chance that a few of them will cause, or has caused us harm?  Consider what Professor Eugene Rostow, later dean of the Yale law school, wrote in 1945 regarding the internment of Japanese-Americans:

The idea of punishment only for individual criminal behavior is basic to all systems of civilized laws.  A great principle was never lost so casually.

(Same could be said for our wars of aggression!)

And also consider what Justice Black said after Korematsu’s conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court:

I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism.  Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.  It is unattractive at any setting but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States.  All residents of the nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land.  Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States.  They must accordingly be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment and as entitled to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

What happens when that race is your own?  What happens when it is your belief system?  How many US mass shooters have been white, US born and bred?  How many were legal gun owners?  Should we round up all the gun owners?  How many of them were Christian?  Should we round up all the Christians?  Should we round up all the Catholics because some in the church raped children?  All for national security?

Yes, I’m taking that to a ridiculous degree, but if you really consider the implications of collective punishment, how can you not consider how ridiculous, and dangerous, it actually is?  If you continue to let the government undermine and remove the rights of others, eventually it will get around to undermining and removing yours.  I dare say it already has.

Additional links and sources

Internment history, supreme court cases, etc

Wikipedia on the internment

A portion of John DeWitt’s letter regarding the internment

Brief biography of Kenneth Ringle

And, the book in the photo, a cherished signed copy of Silent Siege II, by Bert Webber, published in 1988 by the Webb Research Group.


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