America's Concentration Camps Are a Warning, Not a Model

But some politicians are trying to revive their legacy

Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has recently taken a well-deserved beating because of his racial policies. He restored segregation in the federal civil service, and the infamous movie Birth of a Nation highlights his support for the Ku Klux Klan. Those policies are dead today, with very few advocates.

However, a more recent president implemented an even worse race-based policy against Americans, and some politicians say we should emulate it today. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order forcibly removed about 120,000 Japanese-Americans, mostly US citizens, from their homes.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, people feared a Japanese attack on the West Coast, and many regarded the Japanese American population in California as disloyal. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to remove people from designated military areas.

As explained in Greg Robinson’s By Order of the President, Roosevelt’s language was broad, but everyone understood “any and all persons” to mean Japanese-Americans and “military areas” to mean the West Coast. The removals included “Issei” — resident immigrants — as well as “Nisei” — native-born Americans with Japanese parents. Immigration from Japan had been banned since 1924, and all Japanese immigrants were ineligible for citizenship, although all had been living in America for at least eighteen years.

They were forcibly removed to ten concentration camps. The government officially called them “relocation centers,” but Roosevelt himself used the words “concentration camp” in a recommendation as early as 1936, as did a military proposal in 1942. The occupants were kept behind barbed wire, and armed guards kept them from leaving.

The mass displacement of Japanese-Americans, but not people of German or Italian extraction, was the result of racial rather than security considerations. Roosevelt showed a lifelong hostility toward the Japanese. Robinson states:

FDR had a long and unvaried history of viewing Japanese-Americans in racialized terms, that is, as essentially Japanese in their identity and emotional allegiance, and of expressing hostility toward them on that basis.

In the years before World War I, Roosevelt considered immigration part of the Japanese threat to the West Coast. During the 1920s, when Roosevelt urged better relations with Japan, he supported immigration restriction and legal discrimination in order to deter Japanese-American settlement.

A report commissioned by Congress concluded that

Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions that followed from it — exclusion, detention, the ending of detention and the ending of exclusion — were not founded upon military considerations. The broad historical causes that shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.

As documented by Thomas Fleming in The New Dealers’ War, Roosevelt proposed removing an even larger number of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. The military objected because so many of them were skilled workers who were necessary to the war effort.

The order banning Japanese-Americans from the West Coast was lifted in January of 1945, and the camps were shut down soon afterward. Many returned to find they couldn’t reclaim their property or return to their homes.

These events should be a shameful chapter in America’s past, but even today people cite them as an example to follow. David Bowers, mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, ordered the city government to stop helping Syrian refugees, citing Roosevelt’s internment order as justification.

Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and co-chair of Donald Trump’s state veterans’ coalition, has defended Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration by citing World War II internment: “What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps.”

Trump has made the connection between his call for banning Muslim immigrants and creating a national registry and FDR's policies explicit:

What I’m doing is no different than FDR’s solution for German, Italian, Japanese, you know... They stripped them of their naturalization proceedings. They went through a whole list of things; they couldn’t go five miles from their homes. They weren’t allowed to use radios, flashlights. I mean, you know, take a look at what FDR did many years ago and he’s one of the most highly respected presidents.

Trump evaded the question of whether he would have supported Japanese internment, saying, “I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.” He wasn’t there, but there are still living Americans who were. One was George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu on Star Trek and was sent off at the age of five. He recalls how it happened:

Without charges, without trial, without due process — the fundamental pillar of our justice system — we were summarily rounded up, all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, where we were primarily resident, and sent off to 10 barb wire internment camps — prison camps, really, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us — in some of the most desolate places in this country.

For the sake of a false sense of security, the US government ruined countless lives, imprisoned tens of thousands without charges, without even accusation, with only the mere fact of their skin color and ancestry. The internment stoked hatred against a minority group, squandered potential assets in the war, and fueled the Axis’s anti-American propaganda.

The lesson that America’s concentration camps should have burned into our national consciousness that we must never do that again — not to a racial, national, or a religious minority, nor anyone else — no matter how afraid we are. They are a warning, not a model. 

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