The saga of Japanese internment, when some 110,000 people of Japanese descent were forced into camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, does offer a valuable lesson from history.
The lesson is that paranoia and ethnic bias can lead the country to commit actions it will later regret. The internment of the Japanese-Americans — two-thirds of whom were U.S.-born — was a "great injustice," in the words of one former president. The events illustrate the mistake of stigmatizing an entire population over suspicions of people who share their ethnicity.
In the months after the Pearl Harbor attacks of Dec. 7, 1941, national opinion started to turn against people of Japanese descent. The anxiety spread quickly. By mid-1942, the military had begun rounding up people of Japanese heritage, uprooting them from their communities and forcing them into hasty tent cities.
It’s well-known now, of course, that the Japanese-Americans posed little security threat. But what might surprise casual readers of history is that even back then, the government knew this was a low-risk population.
Declassified military documents show that the nation’s leaders embarked on this vast incarceration project mostly to quell the fears of the the public. Here’s an excerpt from an internal report for the War Relocation Authority, the federal agency that oversaw the forced relocation efforts:
The time-worn and fallacious credo that "all Japanese are sly and treacherous" was fortified and strengthened in the minds of many by the very nature of the Pearl Harbor attack. The presence of Chinese and Filipinos in large number near the Pacific Coast added to the general confusion and the fear of violence between racial and national groups.
By the latter part of February, it had become abundantly clear that the American Japanese people — quite apart from their individual intentions — were complicating the problems of western defense in numberless ways simply by living in vital areas.
As long as they continued to reside in those areas, the military authorities could never be wholly free to concentrate on the primary job of defending our western frontier.
Mass removal of the American Japanese was admittedly a drastic step, but it was deemed the only effective way to clear up a situation that was becoming more critical and chaotic with every passing week of the war.
In these documents, the government admits that a top reason for forcing Japanese-Americans had little to do with concerns about spying or sabotage. Rather, the situation on the West Coast was becoming toxic, and internment was one way to improve — in the War Relocation Authority's words — “public morale.”
The same report cites other justifications for incarcerating Japanese-Americans, and to modern ears, these statements come across as paranoid.
Although the majority of American Japanese on the Coast were recognized by competent authorities as loyal, their behavior in the event of a bombing raid or an invasion attempt by Japanese forces was unpredictable.
Under such circumstances, would an American Japanese cooperate loyally in the defense? Or would some of them respond to years of Caucasian discrimination suffered in this country and aid the attacking forces?
This episode in American history is now remembered as a stain on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record. Japanese-American families lost homes and businesses as they were uprooted from their communities. And though they tried, maintaining a sense of normalcy was hard to do in settlements that were ringed with barbed wire.
In an interview last year with Democracy Now, actor George Takei recalled the injustice of being delivered to one of these camps at the age of 5.
“I could see the barb wire fence and the sentry towers right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words ‘with liberty and justice for all,’ an innocent child unaware of the irony,” Takei said.
We were and are—my parents have passed now, but we were citizens of this country. We had nothing to do with the war. We simply happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.
But without charges, without trial, without due process—the fundamental pillar of our justice system—we were summarily rounded up, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, where we were primarily resident, and sent off to 10 barb wire internment camps—prison camps, really, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us—in some of the most desolate places in this country: the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, the blistering hot desert of Arizona, of all places, in black tarpaper barracks.
After the war, the people in the camps were simply sent off. “We lost everything,” Takei said. “We were given a one-way ticket to wherever in the United States we wanted to go to, plus $20.”
In recent decades, some reparations have been paid, and many apologies have been issued. “The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated,” President George H.W. Bush said on the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Supreme Court decision that declared the camps constitutional, Korematsu v. United States, ranks high on lists of the Court's biggest mistakes according to constitutional scholars. Renowned law professor Erwin Chemerinsky called it "one of the worst decisions in history."
"It is almost beyond comprehension that our government could imprison 110,000 people solely because of their race," he wrote in an analysis from 2011.
One of the most important things to learn from Korematsu, Chemerinsky continued, "is always to remember the role of race in decisions by government in American history."
He goes on to cite historian William Manchester's book on the era, quoting from a passage that has resonance today. Back then, governors were up in arms because they did not want Japanese internment camps in their own states. Public officials openly referred to Japanese-Americans in offensive terms.
The Nevada Bar Association resolved, “We feel that if Japs are dangerous in Berkeley, California, they are likewise dangerous in the State of Nevada,” and Governor Chase Clark of Idaho told the press that “Japs live like rats, breathe like rats, and act like rats.” Governor Homer M. Adkins from Arkansas followed by announcing, “Our people are not familiar with the customs or peculiarities of the Japanese, and I doubt the wisdom of placing any in Arkansas.”
In Topaz, a camp of 8,000 pitched on Utah scrubland, some residents sought to approximate their former lives by putting together a literary magazine. Their first issue, published a year after the Pearl Harbor bombings, contained a report from journalist Taro Katayama, on the condition of the community, and the early months of its existence. He wrote:
“Asked what the infant city was like, those first residents might have, with some justice, summed it up with one word — dust.”
Today, state and local officials are racing to turn away Syrian refugees, fearing that some could perpetrate terrorism. In mentioning the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, the mayor of Roanoke was offering an example of what the United States had previously done in the name of public security. He may not have realized what a dark chapter this was for this nation.