FEAR AND LOATHING
Japanese Internment’s Ugly Lessons
The detention of Japanese Americans during WWII was a low moment in U.S. history and a blot on FDR’s record. But we can and should learn from our mistakes.
Recently, there has been much discussion of the World War II detention of Japanese and Japanese-Americans. Whether it’s how to treat Syrian refugees, disloyal Americans, or Muslims generally, political figures from retired General and Democrat Wesley Clark to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump have suggested that we might learn something from—and even emulate—the internment program that drove more than 100,000 innocent people from their homes and confined them in camps.
There is a lot to learn from that episode in our history. But it is not quite the lesson that Clark, Trump, and others seem to be drawing: that racial or religious classifications can be an appropriate response in a time of national insecurity. Those who invoke Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name to justify modern measures seem not to understand that the World War II program was born from fear, incompetence, racism, and economic opportunism. Approving it was not an example of FDR’s decisive action. It was his greatest failure of leadership.
I studied the World War II program in the course of writing a novel about it. I learned how our great country lost its way, and about the psychological and political dynamics that make similar things happen over and over again. Repeatedly, in the past, we have reacted out of fear and perpetrated injustice. We have come to regret those episodes; we promise they will not happen again. But they always do, and they will continue to happen until we learn the right lessons from our history. I called my novel Allegiance, because the real challenge in such times is to keep faith with our Constitution and our heritage. Here are four points that can help us to stay true.
1. People who are different are not necessarily dangerous—not even if they resemble the enemy in some way.
In times of fear, it is a natural human tendency to be suspicious of those who are different. This is most probably a hard-wired psychological reaction, and it might have served our ancestors well thousands of years ago, when strangers frequently were dangerous. It can lead us astray in the modern world, which is integrated and multicultural. And it works especially poorly when it fixes on some way in which innocent people resemble an enemy.
After Pearl Harbor, and while the United States was fighting a war with the Empire of Japan, it was quite natural for white Americans to be fearful and suspicious of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans living among them. This was a population that mainstream America understood poorly, a discrete group with its own culture, language, religion, and ethnicity—all of them shared with America’s enemies.
The reaction of fear and suspicion was natural, but it turned out to be wrong. Race was actually a very bad predictor of danger or disloyalty among Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the United States. The Japanese-Americans were as patriotic as any other Americans, if not more so. Despite being driven from their homes and confined in camps, more than a thousand Japanese-American men volunteered for military service. Still larger numbers volunteered from Hawaii, where there was no mass detention. Their battalion, the 442nd regimental combat group, ended the war as the most-decorated military unit in American history for its size and length of service.
There was never a single documented instance of disloyal conduct by Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. The Army did make false claims about such conduct, which government lawyers then presented to the Supreme Court. Perhaps more astonishingly, government lawyers argued that the absence of any acts of sabotage suggested that the disloyal people were waiting to strike a concerted blow. But the overwhelming modern consensus is that the program of mass removal and detention did not make America any safer.
There is scant reason to suppose that religion will work any better as a predictor of current danger. We are at war with a small number of Muslim extremists. They are an infinitesimally small fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Using religion as a screening device is simply silly.
2. Tough talk comes from fear, incompetence, or opportunism; tough measures are often counterproductive.
One of the things that people have suggested about the incarceration of the Japanese Americans is that it shows that even good people, such as FDR, will employ extreme measures when necessary to protect America, that there comes a time when we have to take off the gloves. I believe that FDR (my second cousin four times removed) was a good person, but what the incarceration shows is that even good people can make mistakes. It did not make us any safer. And it does not take the luxury of hindsight to see this. In the course of writing Allegiance, I discovered that many people at the time argued that mass removal and detention was both wrong and unnecessary.
These were not just wild-eyed liberals. Establishment figures like FDR’s Attorney General, Francis Biddle, were opposed, though Biddle eventually went along. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—no champion of civil liberties—believed that the program was unnecessary. Experts of all sorts—in intelligence agencies like the FBI and the Office of Naval Intelligence, and in sociology and culture—attested that the ethnic Japanese posed no security threat. Lawyers within the Department of Justice hoped that the Supreme Court would rule against the program. In some ways—a story I set out in Allegiance—they were trying to throw the cases.
On the other side, the people championing mass detention look considerably less impressive. John DeWitt, the general in charge of the Western Defense Command, may well have sincerely believed that he was addressing a clear and present danger. But he hysterically overestimated the threat posed by both our real enemies and our loyal citizens. He claimed that Japanese planes were flying over San Francisco and predicted both a Japanese landing on the West Coast and a massive uprising by Japanese-Americans. He relied on reports from incompetent Army radio operators who picked up Radio Tokyo and mistook it for shortwave transmissions from the Oakland hills. DeWitt also seemed predisposed to accept claims about race-based disloyalty. Testifying before a congressional committee about the threat posed by even U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, he stated, “A Jap’s a Jap. A piece of paper doesn’t change that.” Other groups agitating for the program included the frankly racist Native Sons of the Golden West and interest groups such as the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, which wanted to eliminate the economic competition of Japanese farms.
Fear, ignorance, racism, and economic opportunism: those forces prevailed over the voices of reason, but it is hardly surprising that the measures billed as “tough but necessary” turned out to be both unnecessary and counterproductive. The Japanese-American population was a very valuable resource for America’s war effort. In addition to the heroics of the 442nd, Japanese-Americans served in military intelligence, lending their understanding of Japanese language and culture to the translation of captured documents and the interrogation of prisoners of war. Our ability to use our diversity—the inherent advantage of every tolerant society—was sadly diminished by the persecution of Japanese-Americans.
We have seen a similar pattern in recent years. Islamic terrorism is a real threat, but it is relatively well contained. In the 14 years since 9/11, jihadist terrorists have killed 45 people on American soil. That is roughly the number of people killed by lightning strikes every two years, and far fewer than the number who drown in bathtubs in a single year. Our would-be leaders, who should be calming our fears, often magnify them. But fear-mongering makes us less safe. It marginalizes the Muslim Americans who could be most helpful to us, and it makes us easy prey for opportunists who promise safety but are only looking out for themselves.
Some political scientists describe the difference between liberals and conservatives in terms of the character of their favored government. Liberals, they say, prefer a “mommy state” that nurtures citizens and hands out benefits, while conservatives prefer a “daddy state” that enforces discipline and protects them from harm. But the government that would lock up thousands of its own citizens based solely on their race, the government that will take the gloves off and work through the dark side—that government is neither the mommy state nor the daddy state. That government is the scared and ignorant adolescent trying to look tough.
3. Our enemies cannot destroy American values.
In World War II, we faced an existential threat. Fascism stretched its claws across Europe and Asia; democracy fought for its life. But we won that war, and there is now no nation or force on Earth that can destroy the United States in a military confrontation. Fundamentally, America is safe.
That does not necessarily mean that American values are safe. As a nation, we stand for many laudable ideals: liberty, equality, religious toleration, and individual dignity. No one can take those away from us—but we can set them aside ourselves. Whether from fear, anger, or simple lack of empathy, our reaction to national insecurity has too often involved the abandonment of the values that make us great. In our response to 9/11, we repeated many of the errors of the FDR administration. And we did so for the same reasons: We were scared, we lacked information, we listened to con men who magnified our fear and exploited it for their own ends.
It should not happen again. There is no clash of civilizations in the fight against the barbarians of ISIS; there is only one civilization involved. But there is a clash of ideologies, just as there was in World War II. What we see now is a battle between constitutional democracy and religious totalitarianism. There is no doubt that our side will win. But we must remain vigilant that our values make it through the struggle unscathed. We must worry not just about loyalty to our country but also loyalty to our ideals.
4. Americanism is not a matter of race or religion.
Last, the Japanese-American incarceration should teach us something about what it means to be an American. In World War II, we doubted the loyalty—the Americanism—of citizens based on their race, culture, and religion. We forgot that America is a nation of people who differ in almost every imaginable respect, that our very diversity is our greatest strength.
There is really only one way in which Americans must be alike. What makes us all the same—what makes us American—is our allegiance to the Constitution. It was the Constitution, through the 14th Amendment, that gave citizenship to the ethnic Japanese born on our soil. It was an offense against the Constitution to question that grant, to doubt their loyalty on racial grounds, to suppose that the color of their skin made them somehow not true Americans.
And that is the final lesson to take from this sad chapter of our history. Those who would judge others based on their race or religion, who would question their loyalty and their status as members of our polity—it is those people who threaten our Constitution and our values. It is they who are false to America.
Kermit Roosevelt III is the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Allegiance (Regan Arts, 2015), the critically acclaimed legal thriller. Born in Washington, D.C., he attended Harvard University and Yale Law School. Before joining the Penn faculty, he clerked for D.C. Circuit Judge Stephen F. Williams and Supreme Court Justice David Souter and practiced law in Chicago. His experiences clerking and practicing law informed his first novel, the national campus bestseller In the Shadow of the Law (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005), which won the Philadelphia Athenaeum Annual Literary Award, and was selected as the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection and the Christian Science Monitor’s Best Book of the Year.