The hysteria was real.
The surprise and powerful attack on Pearl Harbor sent a message to everyone living in or near the West Coast that they might be targets, too.
Yet, the enemy was Imperial Japan, not people of Japanese descent who had journeyed across an ocean to call America home. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, wrote, “The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data.”
But that measured evaluation was not what people heard. Therefore in 1942, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans—70,000 of whom were born here in the United States and were citizens—were removed from their homes and forced to live in concentration camps. Most of those were imprisoned until the end of the war.
I co-authored Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II, a detailed look at photographs taken by those hired or authorized by the U. S. government to document the internment.
Since its release last year, I have witnessed a drumbeat in support of incarceration of Muslims grow louder and stronger. I see that same pressure, that same type of hysteria, building now—but directed toward Muslims.
My research on Japanese internment taught me so much about America then and America now.
My co-author Michael Williams and I carefully sorted and studied records and photographs stored at the National Archives and tracked down the subjects and context of each of these photos.
My research taught me that prejudice, like hysteria, tends to cloud our minds and creates a climate that fosters irrational decisions.
I worry that if we don’t pay careful attention to this sorted part of our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Look at what we are seeing now: In November, former Navy SEAL Carl Higbie told Fox News that the World War II internment of 110,000 people was “precedent” for creating a new Muslim registry.
Later, Roanoke (Va.) Mayor David A. Bowers wrote: “I’m reminded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”
And early this month, after terrorist attacks in Great Britain, British politician Nigel Farage told Fox TV audience: “We want genuine action. And if there is not action, then the calls for internment will grow.”
After that came British columnist Katie Hopkins, “We do need internment camps. … We’ve gone beyond the tipping point.”
Once irrationality takes hold, unless people speak up, things can move frighteningly fast.
Letters to the editor in 1942 pointing out the constitutional craziness that underlined the incarceration following Pearl Harbor are rare. Only a few stood up for Japanese Americans.
It was a matter of only weeks after President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the idea of excluding Japanese-Americans from the West Coast that the mechanism of the incarceration was working full steam. Registration was put in place for those who were undocumented and those who were U.S. citizens. Temporary and permanent camps were opened.
In late March 75 years ago, the forced removal of Japanese Americans began when more than 200 people were picked up from Bainbridge Island off the coast of Washington.
Four months later, almost every one of 110,000 Japanese Americans living in the far western part of the United States had been removed and crammed into camps. About nine of every ten residents of Japanese descent living on the United States mainland lost their homes, land, possessions as well as years of their lives.
And the rest of the nation watched.
The language we are hearing now recalls the rhetoric that whipped up anger and fear in February 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor.
The most insidious came from Earl Warren, more than a decade before he took the reins of the Supreme Court.
At the time, he was California’s attorney general. He appeared before a House committee with a map that he created showing the location of homes owned by almost every Japanese American in California. Overlaid with ports, airports, radio towers, defense installations and strategic locations, he declared it was not mere coincidence that “one or more Japanese” lived within the immediate vicinity. They were poised, he said, for sabotage, collaboration, and spying.
So, why, he was asked, was there no verified proof of any on those nefarious activities on the part of Japanese Americans? “I believe that we are just being lulled into a false sense of security,” he testified.
Warren spoke a few days after Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 left the fate of Japanese Americans in the hands of the secretary of war and military commanders.
In the hands of the military, the removal went smoothly. But the military is not compelled to consider civil rights or civil liberties when devising its plans to keep the home front safe. That meant 70,000 citizens were denied any hearings, trials or due process before losing their businesses, homes and being put into camps.
Decades later, a government commission determined that the forced expulsion and incarceration was due to “war hysteria, racial prejudice and the failure of political leadership.”
That is a deadly combination.
Can we remain silent and leave these decisions up to those in power?
We see the signs.
A survey done by the Pew Research Center earlier this year found half of Americans think at least “some” U.S. Muslims are anti-American.
About 60 percent of American Muslims report a level of religious discrimination in the past year, according to a recent survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. In that same study, more than 42 percent of school-age Muslim American children report being bullied—more than four times as likely as the general population. One-quarter of those bullying incidents against children involved a teacher or school official.
The research I did taught also me something else: It is never too early to stand up. If you are against the idea of incarcerating Muslim Americans, now is the time to be heard. We cannot afford to wait. We cannot afford to let the machinery of an incarceration begin because once that happens, it is too late.
Journalist Richard Cahan is a co-author of Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II. He is working on “Then They Came for Me,” an exhibit about the incarceration that runs June 29 to Nov. 19 at the Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted St. in Chicago. To find out more about the book, visit cityfilespress.com.