Seventy years ago, a young University of Washington senior refused to report to an Army internment camp. Gordon Hirabayashi, like more than 100,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, had been ordered to be interned based on nothing more than the country where his parents were born. Instead of reporting to the Army, he turned himself in to the FBI, and in so doing, changed history. Hirabayashi died this past week, but he leaves a legacy that still resonates whenever individual citizens force the government to live up to its highest and best ideals.
After the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7, 1941, Army Lt. Gen. John DeWitt deemed the Pacific Coast vulnerable to attack, leading the government to prohibit people of Japanese ancestry (including U.S. citizens, such as Hirabayashi) from being anywhere near the coastline. Hirabayashi refused to evacuate. He was born in Seattle and grew up 20 miles south of the city, in a suburb where his father ran a fruit stand. But instead of fleeing to Canada or moving inland, he openly defied the order. He wanted to challenge the system from within.
After a trial in federal court, Hirabayashi was convicted of violating the evacuation order. When he was told that the government had no funds to send him to the work camp in Arizona where he was to serve his sentence, he offered to get himself there. So he hitchhiked. When he arrived, the U.S. Marshals office could not find his paperwork and told Hirabayashi he was free to go. He once again refused, and served his sentence.
Hirabayashi once described his parents as leading lives that “emphasized the oneness of belief and behavior.” The same must be said about him.
When he refused evacuation in 1942, no end to World War II was in sight; he faced the prospect of indefinite separation from his family members, who were being sent to the internment camp. Hirabayashi’s roommate, who originally planned to defy the evacuation order with him, eventually yielded to family entreaties to go along with it. Hirabayashi did not.
At the time, the attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh in the public consciousness, and the West Coast in particular was in the grip of anti-Japanese sentiment. The Los Angeles Times heartily endorsed internment of the “Japs,” then-California Attorney General Earl Warren came out in support of the plan, and even the ACLU refused to support Hirabayashi’s case until it reached the Supreme Court.
When his case arrived at the high court’s doors, the justices refused to help. His conviction was left intact in 1943 by a unanimous Supreme Court. Part of the blame may rest with the justices, but part must rest with the United States government, and with the way its lawyer, the solicitor general, conducted the case.
The government argued that internment was justified by military necessity. The nation was at war, and it needed to keep Japanese Americans away from the coasts, to prevent espionage and for the safety of the country. In making its successful case, however, the government chose not to share with the court a key report that flatly contradicted this argument.