The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is much in the news. In explaining why it was wrong, I promised to discuss in detail the other internments and related measures.
Like many progressives, I do not give my parents enough credit. When I was very young, probably five years old more or less, after watching a World War II movie on television, likely the epic “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” I was running through the house shouting about the dirty "Japs." My father, an immigrant from China (invaded by the Japanese Empire during his childhood) via Taiwan (only recently freed from being a Japanese colony when he arrived), scolded me. He was gentle about it, informing me I might not know that I was using a bad word — furthermore, one that was applied to us too.
The internment was not isolated. Asian immigrants, and their American-born progeny, endured recurring, cumulative official acts of expulsion and discrimination. The hope of white nationalists was to drive out others. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 has a perfect name for refuting the doubters who swear that there was nothing ethnic nor exclusive about bigotry, that everyone else experienced the same as some sort of harmless hazing. It was extended — not to Europeans but to other "Asiatics," a term which, not incidentally, included in part what would be regarded as Arab; these others were relegated to a "Barred Zone."
Such sentiments were enacted systematically. In the nineteenth century, for example, Chinese immigrants had to register and carry papers. They would be regulated if they could not be banished. Their status was neither admired nor envied.
Among the arguments against the internment of Japanese Americans is how selective it was. The United States entered a global conflict after Pearl Harbor. The "Axis" partners were Germany, Italy, and Japan, They sought to conquer the world, dividing it among them.
Although Germany was a foe, the German American “Bund” was strong. German U-boats (submarines) menaced our Atlantic Shore. Meanwhile American Nazi rallies attracted thousands. German speaking villages flourished. German language newspapers could be found in major cities.
The internment, however, was by and large limited. It was not German Americans or Italian Americans who lost property, livelihoods, liberty, equality, and dignity on a mass scale. Yet it should be acknowledged that more than trivial numbers of Germans and Italians were detained. Some were sent off to a separate camp, not technically part of the program of internment, in Crystal City, Texas, alongside specific Japanese. There was no due process. The Germans and Italians could complain of that with justification.
A comparison of suffering has no winners. To grasp the distinction between the treatment of Japanese Americans on the one hand and German and Italian Americans on the other hand, the proportions are sufficient. Almost all Japanese Americans were locked up. Almost all German and Italian Americans remained free.
For whites, assimilation has been possible. German Americans were subjected to what we would not hesitate to call "racism" during “the Great War” — the name given to the horrifying advent of the trenches, with machine guns, tanks, and poison gas, when people were sure what they had witnessed would be the last such global conflict. As Germany negotiated with Mexico, disclosed by the “Zimmerman telegram,” American leaders denounced “hyphenated” Americans for “dual loyalty.” A generation later, in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, "Lifeboat," the survivors of a ship sunk by Germans include an "Everyman" character, Gus (played by the familiar William Bendix), who is German-American, distinct from a German sailor whom they rescue from the sea. Gus is not thrown overboard.
The disparate outcomes between those of Asian ancestry and those of European heritage should not be surprising. German stock historically has been the most common among Americans. They were a vital constituency in electoral politics. Italian Americans were specifically referenced in deliberations over how to carry out the internment: the baseball star DiMaggio brothers, it was said, should not lose their parents. White ethnics, unlike Asian immigrants, also were able to naturalize as citizens.
Then again, there are analogies that should be resisted. To suggest them is to replicate the mistake of regarding Asian Americans, even those native born, as "perpetual foreigners." The inapt comparisons are between the internment of Japanese American civilians by their own government and prisoner-of-war camps for enemy soldiers. There were terrible Japanese POW camps, which have nothing to do with Japanese Americans — who, to the contrary, included many who fought for their country, America, in the European theatre. There also were American POW camps, on our own shores, in which German combatants were held, and, it was not unnoticed, received with better hospitality than African American soldiers guarding them.
Yet there was another ethnic community that was imprisoned wholesale during World War II. Native Alaskans, specifically Aleuts, were incarcerated. A similar claim, to that about Japanese Americans, was made that they would be disloyal, with the same history of prior prejudice. Despite the deprivation of freedom, this minority group continues to be neglected in our accounts.
Finally, a teenager named Ralph Lazo deserves praise for his exceptionalism. Of Hispanic heritage, friends with Japanese Americans, he is the only known case of a non-Japanese, non-spouse who went to an internment camp. He wished to show his solidarity. Apparently allowed to stay by officials who were not that discerning, his example is inspiring.
I recently moderated a San Francisco town hall on the election, with an Asian American orientation, and someone slipped me a note saying I should correct one of the speakers, who had said only Japanese Americans had been subjected to the internment. They wanted me to point out that some German Americans and Italian Americans had been rounded up as well. The challenge for us, who want to explain why the internment of Japanese Americans was wrong, is how to acknowledge appropriately that there also were others affected, including especially Native Alaskans. How we respond might depend on whether an interlocutor is attempting to assert that Japanese Americans did not face discrimination or if they are pleading for empathy.
The lines we draw among ourselves are all about the moral equivalence, or lack thereof, in the diverse situations we see in the world around us. We define who belongs in a constant process. “We” owe it to ourselves to be conscious of how “we” can include or exclude. It is “our” choice in a democracy.