The Lessons of the Internment: "A Better American in a Greater America"

The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II happened because many people, likely most of them, believed it was right. Since then, many people, maybe most of them, have concluded it was wrong. For those of us who are convinced it was an act of racism and a betrayal of our great principles, it would be a mistake to assume that the majority of our co-workers, neighbors, and friends agree with us. We have to explain, even if we wish that need had passed.

Following December 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) called it in his appeal for a declaration of war, almost all persons of Japanese ancestry, whether born overseas or here, regardless of language or loyalty, was rounded up and sent to "internment camps." Men, women, children, the elderly, and the disabled alike, two-thirds of them citizens of this nation, were suspected of being secret agents of a foreign empire, who might commit sabotage or treason. There was no due process, findings of guilt; there were not even opportunities to prove innocence. The relationship between these individuals and an enemy power was blood: their lineage, heritage, race, ethnicity.

It was as simple as stereotyping could be. Japanese roots were equated with increased risks.

The internment was widely supported by non-Japanese Americans. During that time period of "separate but equal," racial equality remained downright radical. Legal segregation was the norm in the South. Socially-enforced segregation was the norm elsewhere. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down these vestiges of slavery, would not be decided until just about a decade after V-J Day. The Congress passed the Civil Rights Act another decade after that.

Across the political spectrum, Japanese Americans, like other Asian Americans (a term not yet invented), were despised. Racism was open. White supremacists did not hesitate to call themselves by that name. They were motivated by fear, not that Asian immigrants and their Americanized descendants would be failures, but the opposite. They wondered whether Asian Americans would be too successful, the vanguard of an invasion, the specter of Yellow Peril.

Like the Chinese before them, who were excluded in a series of federal statutes expanded over time to create an "Asiatic Barred Zone," Japanese faced formal restrictions on everything from intermarriage to property ownership to fishing licenses. The efforts to force them out, even or especially when they farmed fields their rivals would have left fallow, preceded the internment.

The attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on Pearl Harbor intensified the feelings. Public officials called for a roundup. They said Japanese Americans could form a "reprisal reserve" to be taken out and shot if any American POWs were harmed. Some asserted that assimilation was another trick. They called the plans "concentration camps" before the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau were revealed. Others suggested Japanese Americans would be motivated to strike back for prior prejudice toward them.

The most aggressive proponent of the internment was Lt. General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense, who summarized his sentiments: "A Jap's a Jap, and that's all there is to it." He denied the possibility, even given time, of sorting the sheep from the goats, because he, like experts, believed Asians were inscrutable. They were, as a people, inherently untrustworthy.

He was not alone. FDR signed Executive Order 9066. It gave Japanese Americans two days to report to assembly centers, with only what they could carry. They lost everything: jobs; savings; liberty; and dignity. Earl Warren, then the immensely popular California politician, was another voice against this community. He would later be Chief Justice, renowned for advancing the protection of minorities. (In his memoirs, he expressed regret for his actions.)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was divided. The national headquarters wanted to back FDR and the war effort. The California chapters had to dissent on their own.

Even other Asian Americans disassociated themselves from Japanese Americans. Chinese Americans wore buttons and put up signs in their shops to explain their own origin. They wanted to be identified with an ally. The handful of Korean Americans advocated successfully to be treated as distinct from Japan. Korea had been taken over by Japan well before the global conflict had begun.

Japanese Americans had internal conflicts. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), founded in 1929, took a course of action that caused considerable controversy, continuing to this day. It urged its members to obey the government and the military. The JACL Creed expressed their philosophy.

It opened as follows:

I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantage of this nation.
I believe in her institutions, ideals, and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future.
She has granted me liberties and opportunities such as no individual enjoys in this world today.

It continued with forbearance and forgiveness:

Although some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of the American people.
I am firm in my belief that American sportsmanship and attitude of fair play will judge citizenship on the basis of action and achievement and not on the basis of physical characteristics.

Then it concluded with patriotism:

Because I believe in America, and I trust she believes in me, and because I have received innumerable benefits from her, I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and in all places, to support her Constitution, to obey her laws, to respect her Flag, to defend her against all enemies foreign or domestic and to actively assume my duties and obligations as a citizen, cheerfully and without any reservation whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a greater America.

History teaches us. Or it should.

This essay is the first in a trilogy on the internment.

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