Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday December 13, 2015This Just In 278

“Nothing in modern politics equates with the rhetoric from candidate Trump. “ So wrote Dan Balz this past week in the Washington Post. Balz is the Post’s veteran and scrupulously non-partisan senior political correspondent. He also wrote: “Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States marked a sudden and sizeable escalation – and in this case one that sent shockwaves around the world – in the inflammatory and sometimes demagogic rhetoric of the candidate who continues to lead virtually every national and state poll testing whom Republicans favor for their presidential candidate.” Evidence of Trump’s support can be seen in polls since the Muslim ban idea was proposed, in which a substantial majority evidently agrees with him.

In offering a defense for his latest scheme, Trump cited President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to intern thousands of Japanese Americans shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. News reports this past week have mentioned this comparison – which was probably news to many Americans. When I was teaching a semester at Middlebury College, a senior who was an A student, told me he had never heard of the Japanese internment. That inspired me to give the subject extra attention in class, and to recall that period of history in this newspaper nearly a decade ago. What follows are elements of that column.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2000 people and destroying much of the U.S. Pacific fleet. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order no. 9066.

Over the next eight months, 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were ordered to leave their homes in California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona. Two thirds were American citizens representing almost 90% of all Japanese Americans. No charges were brought against these individuals; there were no judicial hearings.

After being temporarily held in detention camps set up in converted race tracks and fairgrounds, the internees were transported to concentration camps in the deserts and swamplands of the South West. There, they were kept in overcrowded rooms with no furniture other than cots, surrounded by barbed wire and military police. There they remained for three years.

Why did this happen? In a word: fear. But it was a fear that was incited, encouraged and exploited by political players of many stripes. In the weeks that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, California was teeming with rumors of sabotage and espionage. The mayor of Los Angeles, Fletcher Bowron spread the story that Japanese fishermen and farmers had been seen mysteriously waving lights along the state’s shoreline. The top American military commander for the region, General John DeWitt reported as true, rumors that enemy planes had passed over California – and claimed that 20,000 Japanese were about to stage an uprising in San Francisco. All of these stories were false.

The news media also did its share of rumor mongering. The Hearst columnist Damon Runyon erroneously reported that a radio transmitter had been discovered in a rooming house that catered to Japanese residents. Even the respected national columnist Walter Lippmann warned of a likely major act of sabotage by ethnic Japanese

It would not be long before virtually all West Coast newspapers, the American Legion, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, a host of other business and fraternal organizations –not to mention the area’s top political and military leaders- were demanding that all persons of Japanese ancestry be removed from the West Coast. Many of these demands were overtly racist, such as that of the attorney general of Idaho who proclaimed all Japanese should “be put into concentration camps for the remainder of the war…we want to keep this a white man’s country.”

Professor Geoffrey Stone points out in his book Perilous Times: Free Speech In Wartime, “there was not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or treasonable activity committed by an American citizen of Japanese descent or by a Japanese national residing on the West Coast.”

President Roosevelt was not being pushed by his own advisers to sign the order for the internment. Attorney General Francis Biddle opposed it. So did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who described the demands for mass evacuations as “public hysteria.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson thought internment was a “tragedy” and almost certainly unconstitutional.

Professor Stone concludes, ”Although Roosevelt explained the order in terms of military necessity, there is little doubt that domestic politics played a role in his thinking, particularly since 1942 was an election year.” And of course the U.S. had been attacked and was now involved in another world war.

Those civil libertarians who opposed interment and thought that the Supreme Court would ultimately reverse Roosevelt’s order would be disappointed. Two related cases eventually reach the Court, and in both, the convictions were upheld.

Years later some of those directly involved would publicly express regret for their decisions in these cases. The famously liberal Justice William O. Douglas later confessed, “I have always regretted that I bowed to my elders.” The also noted liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren, who as Attorney General of California played a pivotal role in the process, wrote in his memoirs in 1974 that internment “was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.”

On February 19, 1976, as part of the bicentennial of the Constitution, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation noting that the anniversary of Roosevelt’s internment order was “a sad day in American history” because it was “wrong.” Ford concluded by calling upon the American people “to affirm with me this promise: that we have learned from the tragedy of that long ago experience” and “ resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated.”

But fast forward four decades: another war, another election. And many Americans seem perfectly willing to repeat what was resolved never again to be repeated. Once again, fear – dare I say, threatens to trump - this country’s better instincts.


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