Lessons from the Internment of Japanese Americans
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

On February 19 1942 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 9066 that led to the incarceration of over 120,000 persons of Japanese origin in concentration camps during World War II. Over the years, the Day of Remembrance has come to represent a special time for the Japanese-American community and others to honor past internees, remember this history of collective guilt victims and educate the public so that this does not happen for any other community.
In the post-9/11 era, the Day of Remembrance has also become a time to express solidarity with the Arab and Muslim communities who have now become victims of guilt by association, similar to what Japanese Americans experienced over 60 years ago.
Throughout World War II, much of the West Coast, particularly California, had a long history of anti-Asian sentiment, culminating in the denial of citizenship to Asians upheld by the US Supreme Court in Ozawa v. US in 1922 and the Immigration Act of 1924 which created a permanent quota system.
Not surprisingly, many Americans reacted with fear and anger when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. False reports of spying and sabotage by Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the West Coast were combined with the already existing racial prejudices to inflame feelings of hatred against all people of Japanese ancestry, i.e. Issei, the first Japanese immigrant generation and Nisei, the second generation.
Within 48 hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1,291 Japanese American men were arrested, most of whom were incarcerated for the entire four-year duration of the war and separated from their families.
General John L. DeWitt was responsible for the defense of the West Coast whose famous quotes included: “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not. I don’t want any of them . . .
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, acting on Gen. Dewitt’s recommendation, signed the Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to exclude persons of Japanese ancestry from designated military areas. By June 1942, more than 110,000 Japanese persons, more than 70 percent of them American citizens, had been forced from their homes into temporary “assembly centers”. From there, the Japanese were moved to ten internment camps scattered in the more inhospitable desert regions of the West where many of them would live until the end of the war.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in a February 1942 memo to Attorney General Francis Biddle, wrote, that the decision to evacuate the Japanese Americans was based primarily on public and political pressures rather than factual data.
The Japanese-Americans were allowed to return to their homes only at the end of the war. However, it was not until 1952 that the McCarran Immigration and Naturalization Act finally allowed Japanese naturalization.
It was not until Feb. 19, 1976, the thirty-fourth anniversary of Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, that President Gerald Ford, through Presidential Proclamation 4417, declared that the Japanese American internment was a national mistake and described the February 19th anniversary a sad day in American history.
About four years later, in June 1980, President Carter signed a bill establishing "the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians," which determined that the major cause of the mass incarceration was racism, opportunism and the failure of political leadership. In its report issued in 1983, the Commission recommended that the former inmates be given an official government apology, given $20,000 compensation to each surviving internee and establish an educational trust fund.
President Ronald Reagan, on August 10, 1988, signed into law the federal Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that included an apology. In this act the Congress recognized that a grave injustice was done to both citizens and permanent residents of Japanese ancestry by the evacuation, relocation, and internment of civilians during World War II. “… For these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry, the Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation."
However, 15 years after President Reagan’s apology some newcons are giving a new twist to the unfortunate episode of internment. In the current Anti-Arab and Anti-Muslim climate prevailing in America, Michelle Malkin, in her book “In Defense of Internment,” is applauding the roundup and imprisonment of the Japanese. She argues that civil liberties are not sacrosanct.
In the words of the University of Colorado law professor, Paul Campos, “Malkin's book is an odious exercise in revisionist history, with a distinctly fascist tinge ... using arguments that are often absurd on their face.”
Another neocon, Daniel Pipes, taking advantage of this hyper climate, is suggesting that the wholesale relocation of American Muslims in internment camps might be a good idea.
To quote Prof. Campos again, this is a dangerous argument. “After all, none of the 9/11 hijackers was American - unlike, for example, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols. It would be far more efficient to engage in what Malkin calls "threat profiling" by setting up internment camps for members of far-right political groups than for American Muslims,” he concluded.
It will not be too much to say that the newcons are now bent on distorting the history of Japanese Americans’ internment in a bid to foment hatred against certain ethnic and religious communities. People of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps without any real evidence. Ironically, the American Arabs and Muslims are being profiled and harassed without any real evidence and for them the Patriot Act and other government measures have converted the whole country into a virtual internment camp.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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