Twenty years ago, when I began researching and writing about the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II, I thought I was studying a closed chapter in American history. Congress and the president had apologized for it and paid reparations. The courts, while never outright overruling the Supreme Court’s 1944 Korematsu decision that validated the episode, had condemned its reasoning.
Little did I imagine that a time would come when the closed chapter would reopen.
And yet here we are. During Donald Trump’s campaign, he said he didn’t know whether he would have supported or opposed Japanese American removal and detention. While he didn’t like “the concept of it,” he said he “would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer.” A few months later he did say that he would “rule out” the most extreme action, “internment camps for American Muslims,” but he insisted Americans would have to be “very rigid and very vigilant.”
With his presidency now weeks away, we are seeing what this rigidity and vigilance might look like. Reports have circulated that the administration might require all Muslims in the United States to register with the government. Pressed to defend this on national television, a Trump surrogate cited – you guessed it – Japanese American internment.
So this is probably a good moment for us to review how that tragic episode came to pass – to remember that the blame lay not with a few military decision-makers at the top but with ordinary Americans from many walks of life.
The Roosevelt Administration defended the program in the courts as a military necessity, claiming that it would be impossible to sift loyal from disloyal Japanese Americans in the event of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. But scholars debunked this decades ago. The military did not expect and was not preparing for a coastal invasion. And after just a few months of imprisoning Japanese Americans, the government undertook the very loyalty screening that it had said was impossible.
The truth is that large swaths of the American public were responsible for the persecution of Japanese Americans. Many whites along the West Coast had feared and envied the ethnic Japanese for decades, seeing them as a racially and culturally distinct people who were answerable to a different call than true Americans. They also resented Japanese farmers for their productivity and longed to eliminate their competition.
Pearl Harbor sent a wave of fear through the population of the West Coast that only grew in the months following the attack. Rumors of Japanese military activity and Japanese American collaboration – all false – ran wild.
A hysterical press fanned these fears. Nationally syndicated columnists called for action, with one well-known commentator urging that Japanese Americans be "herded up, packed off, and given the inside room in the badlands."
Law enforcement officials believed the problem could be handled with the arrests of a couple of thousand Japanese aliens suspected of pro-Japanese sentiment. Military officials initially believed that the problem could be handled by cordoning off specific locations with national security significance – military installations, factories producing war materiel, key dams and bridges, and the like.
But politicians were only too happy to channel and amplify the fears of their constituencies. Federal, state, and local representatives began pressing the executive for mass action. Over the objection of the Justice Department, the military ultimately suggested the mass uprooting of all people of Japanese ancestry, aliens and citizens alike, along the entire coast, and President Roosevelt acceded in February of 1942, instructing the Secretary of War simply to “be as reasonable as you can.”
At that moment there were no plans for the guarded barbed-wire enclosures in which Japanese Americans would end up. The federal government’s hope was to relocate the evicted population to open-gated agricultural communities in the interior not unlike the camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps. But the people of the mountain states would have none of that. Their governors demanded “concentration camps” for the Japanese as a condition of accepting them within their borders, and they got them.
Dissenting in the 1944 Korematsu case that held the mass removal of Japanese Americans constitutional, Justice Robert Jackson put his finger on the enduring danger of the Supreme Court’s opinion. He predicted that the Court’s approval of the program would “lie about like a loaded weapon, ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
It appears that the American people may have brought to power an authority with a ready hand. But as in the 1940s, we, the American people, are the ones who have the power either to hand that authority the loaded weapon or to lock it away. Certainly there is rampant fear of Muslims in our country, and a press eager to fan it. Conditions are ripe for “a plausible claim of an urgent need.”
It is up to us to oppose any renewed calls to revive and apply this discredited and illegal principle.