Fear and vengeance have again gripped our nation. It’s not the first time that Americans have acted in a most un-American manner when we have been attacked or feel threatened. Throughout our history, we have branded entire ethnic groups as vague-but-dangerous threats. American communities have been forcibly unrooted without due process. Immigrants from China to the Middle East have been banned from our shore, in a passion first captured by Cicero when he wrote, “In times of war, the laws fall silent.”
February 19 marks the 75th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 that ordered the removal of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast in 1942, solely because of their ethnicity. There was no due process. No formal charges. Families were given only a few weeks’ notice to sell their businesses, homes, personal belongings, and even family heirlooms. “Japantowns” from San Diego to Seattle were gutted within a few months.
In this century, the 9/11 attack and jihadist-inspired domestic violence have spawned speculative calls for databases of Muslim Americans and mosque closures. Now President Donald Trump has tried to chaotically banish wide swaths of ethnic immigrants, for fear of unknown enemy combatants who may be among them. Out of fear of the invisible few, President Roosevelt authorized the equivalent 75 years ago this month, in what now is considered one of the darkest chapters of American history. President Trump has stopped short of condemning internment camps, despite national apologies by Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Shamefully, Trump is continuing an American tradition of retribution and vengeance against ethnic groups. When Native Americans were viewed as a threat to white settlement and expansion, tens of thousands were forcibly moved onto more than 300 reservations. Indeed, Cicero proved prescient when our Japanese-American neighbors were sent to internment camps about 65 years later in some of the same desolate regions that had been forced upon Native Americans.
It would serve President Trump and his allies well to reflect on Americans’ treatment of their Japanese-American neighbors in World War II. It was euphemistically called “relocation” and “evacuation” at the time. But the reality was far different. It was hysterical payback. Most victims endured nearly two years in a prison-camp environment of barracks where families lived in a single room. They were surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers, weapons turned inward.
Were they truly the American enemies that some feared—just as President Trump views large swaths of Muslims today?
In 1943, President Roosevelt authorized the segregated Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He asked the sons of those incarcerated and others to volunteer for an army commanded by white officers and to possibly die for their country in Europe and the Pacific. Remarkably, 10,000 volunteers from Hawaii stepped forward. Together with about 1,300 volunteers from the internment camps and draftees, army recruiters were overwhelmed by the response.
The 442nd suffered horrendous casualties on near-suicide missions as it compiled a remarkable war record. Ultimately the 442nd became the most-decorated unit of its size in World War II. One of its battalions, the 100th from Hawaii, brutally earned the moniker “Purple Heart Battalion.” The 442nd ultimately earned more than 18,000 awards for valor, more than one for every man. (Yet Japanese-American soldiers were denied Medals of Honor until President Clinton issued 21 in 2000. Only seven were alive to receive them personally.)
They returned home after the war and some suffered continuing hatred from their neighbors. Yet they endured and rebuilt their lives as parents, teachers, merchants, church leaders, and mechanics. Even though their families had been treated as a faceless, homogenous, and undefined internal threat against America, for the most part Japanese Americans suffered silently as they rose above America’s fear and vengeance.
Today their legacy sounds a cautionary note against partisan political talk of Muslim-American databases, muddled policy statements about Muslim Americans abroad, Muslim immigrant banishment, and the dangers of American mosques.
Today’s sweeping characterizations of Muslim Americans and Middle Eastern immigrants are a dangerous echo of America’s World War II treatment of Japanese Americans, as articulated by Oregon Governor Walter Pierce: “Their [Japanese American] ideals, their racial characteristics, social customs, and their way of life are such that they cannot be assimilated into American communities. They will always remain a people apart, a cause of friction and resentment, and a possible peril to our national safety.”
His statement sounds eerily familiar today. It is a sentiment that continues to sully the American spirit. Fear and vengeance must be stifled if thoughtful and constructive decisions are to be made that intelligently protect America’s national security.
Scott McGaugh is the founding marketing director of the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, a New York Times bestselling historian, and author of Honor Before Glory, the true story of the Japanese-Americans’ 442nd Combat Regiment Team’s seven-day battle to successfully rescue a battalion of 275 American soldiers surrounded by Germans in 1944.