It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump can win votes, but he has already demonstrated a matchless talent for generating controversy. After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” until “we are able to determine and understand” the hatred that motivated the attacks, and assess “the dangerous threat it poses.” Perhaps he felt that this idea had been insufficiently provocative. Defending it later, Trump cited President Franklin Roosevelt’s treatment of ethnic Japanese after Pearl Harbor as an instructive example of the kind of step real leaders take when America faces grave danger.
Challenged by journalists—was he really endorsing one of the most reviled American actions of the 20th century?—Trump declined to say, “No, of course not.” Instead, “I would have had to be there at the time, to give you a proper answer,” was his response to the question of whether he would have supported or opposed FDR’s policy. Nor did he accept an interviewer’s invitation to condemn it as a violation of American principles.
Those who denounced Trump for these remarks assumed that the measures he refused to execrate were self-evidently monstrous, so that his stance is the moral equivalent of declining to offer an opinion on chattel slavery. Yet the “internment of Japanese Americans” remains a misunderstood episode in American history. Claims that “that’s not who we are” rest on the false premise that all questions about what we would now call homeland security were, during World War II, small, manageable, and completely clear. Sweep all such considerations off the table, and sheer bigotry remains as the only explanation for FDR’s executive order of February 19, 1942, which authorized the War Department to “prescribe military areas … from which any and all persons may be excluded.” As interpreted and applied, “military areas” came to mean California and parts of Arizona, Oregon, and Washington. In this exclusion zone, “any and all persons” were those of Japanese ancestry.
No adequate account, however, can overlook the realities confronting the officials charged with defending the country. While most of the ethnic Japanese eventually relocated were American citizens by birth, most of the adults were immigrants. (Under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, their ancestry kept them from being citizens.) When Japan had invaded neighboring Asian nations, Japanese immigrants already residing in them frequently welcomed and assisted Japan’s troops. Most ethnic Japanese would prove to be loyal Americans … but not all. Remittances from Japanese immigrants flowed back to the fatherland. Some of America’s ethnic Japanese donated to Imperial Japan’s brutal takeover of China and even enlisted in its armies. Thousands, including an aunt and uncle of mine, went to Japan as youth (the Kibei) to become loving sons and daughters of Japan, and then return to the U.S.
Pearl Harbor was celebrated by at least some ethnic Japanese, even while others assisted in the defense efforts and later enlisted in American armed forces. Most ethnic Japanese newspapers cheered on the Japanese before December 7, 1941. Thousands of ethnic Japanese migrated to Japan, and the Japanese military made plans to collaborate with native ethnic Japanese—nearly half the territory’s population—if it conquered Hawaii.
Ethnic Japanese reacted to Pearl Harbor variously. Some Japanese American leaders proposed voluntary relocation and endorsed first voluntary and then mandated relocation. One even proposed that ethnic Japanese affirm their loyalty to the U.S. in the form of suicide brigades against the Imperial Japanese forces. In the relocation centers, on the other hand, militants sometimes assaulted those who were openly pro-American. One of my uncles left before the war, fearing what would happen. Another resisted the draft and accepted prison, at the urging of his mother. A third joined the Army and was decorated with the Purple Heart.
Few Americans today realize that residents of the camps had the option of leaving. Some, like my parents, did so seasonally. Others of my relatives were among those who left permanently for jobs or to attend college outside the West Coast exclusion zone. The government encouraged residents to leave the camps to perform urgently needed agricultural and manufacturing work.
In December 1944, before the war ended and after FDR’s election to a fourth term, the Supreme Court upheld the exclusion order’s constitutionality in Korematsu v. U.S. Justice Stephen Breyer recently told an interviewer that the precedent for mass relocation would likely be overturned today. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, however, defended Korematsu, citing Abraham Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 Civil War plea: “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”
Whether one agrees with Breyer or Rehnquist on the executive order’s constitutionality, the relocation policy was motivated by concerns other than racism. National loyalties abide, often long after ancestral immigration. Significant numbers of German-Americans opposed U.S. involvement in both World Wars, for reasons often wrongly described as “isolationist.” Japanese nationalism was particularly intense, and many who emigrated from Japan retained such sympathies.
Our collective memory of the “Japanese internment” collapses the distinction between internment and relocation. The internment, properly understood, focused on aliens, especially members of militant nationalistic organizations, community leaders, and Shinto and Buddhist priests. (I knew one such priest, who had been a chaplain in the Japanese army in Manchuria and came to the U.S. in 1939). Internment was not challenged in the Supreme Court.
According to the 1982 official U.S. government Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, “By February 16, 1942, the Justice Department had interned 2,192 Japanese, 1,393 Germans and 264 Italians.” Eventually, close to 2000 Hawaiian Japanese were interned. In addition to the ten relocation centers in seven States, which contained some 120,000 ethnic Japanese, there were four Internment Camps in four States, run by the Justice Department. The States ranged from California in the west to North Dakota in the north, Texas in the south, and Arkansas in the east.
Right after Pearl Harbor, the FBI arrested these suspicious aliens, whose pro-Axis activities they had been monitoring. Their families didn’t hear from the internees or know their fates until months later; they simply disappeared and were subjected to rough, wartime justice. (Louis Fisher gives a critical account of the legal treatment of German saboteurs, including American citizens, in Nazi Saboteurs on Trial.) But whatever the controversy over the relocation, and its obvious inapplicability to the current situation, internment should not be dismissed. Opponents of the relocation often mislabel it as internment, evidently in order to confuse the historical record.
Trump often complains that we never win anything anymore. For all that is justly said against FDR, he did what was necessary to win World War II. He may have done more than was necessary, and protected civil liberties less than was possible, to win it. The laziest historical fallacy, however, is for those who know how the story ends to judge those who were writing it as if the conclusion they were authoring was inevitable, and obvious. If Roosevelt erred on the side of national security and military victory, it’s imperative to remember that failing to achieve those goals would have risked civil liberties violations far, far worse than his executive order.
For all that is justly said against him, Trump appears to be the only presidential contender to raise in our current crises the serious questions about the Declaration of Independence’s stated purpose: to give the American people the ability to choose the sort of government that will effect their “Safety and Happiness.” If a succession of attacks like 9/11 and San Bernardino renders our experiment in self-government untenable, the choice between adhering scrupulously to every law and letting the government go to pieces will be as urgent and grave as it was for Lincoln in the Civil War and Roosevelt in World War II.