How Fear Leads to Fascism: The Japanese-American Internment in WWII

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Seventy-four years ago today, on February 19, 1942, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. With five paragraphs, he changed the lives of approximately 120,000 people—men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry living in the United States of America, most of them on the Pacific coast, who were forced to relocate to internment camps for the duration of World War II.

The United States declared war on Japan the day after the Imperial Japanese Army attacked Pearl Harbor. Executive Order 9066 came two months later. The emotions of people in the United States were running high, much as they did after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The Roosevelt administration caved in to pressure from “farmers seeking to eliminate Japanese competition, a public fearing sabotage, politicians hoping to gain by standing against an unpopular group, and military authorities.” The internment of Japanese-Americans was driven by fear rather than evidence, and bad advice and popular opinion were cited as reasons for the internment of Japanese-Americans. Hatred and suspicion and profiling of a particular group of people led to the creation of legal methods for violating the civil liberties of those people. As always, euphemisms play a big part in the story.

For example, Executive Order 9066 did not actually say that Japanese-Americans were going to be forcibly evacuated from their homes, which they were; it said that the Secretary of War was authorized to “prescribe military areas” and that “the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”

For “military areas,” or “relocation centers,” as they were called, think “internment camps,” or even, yes, “concentration camps.” While usually associated with the Nazis, a concentration camp is defined as “a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc.” By that definition, the 10 internment camps set up to confine Japanese-Americans—in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas—were indeed concentration camps. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn declares that, with Executive Order 9066, “the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism.”

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II

Map of forced internment camp locations — used for the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II. Source: Wikipedia

For “whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose,” think of imprisonment. The internees lived in barracks, surrounded by barbed wire fences, watched from guard towers. The majority of them were Nisei, second generation Japanese born in America—United States citizens! They were forcibly separated from their homes; their jobs; their neighborhoods; their businesses, which they sold at great losses; and all aspects of their normal, daily lives. The first generation internees, the Issei, born in Japan and ineligible to become U.S. citizens, lost even more: since the camp rules allowed only Nisei to hold positions of authority, the Issei lost the respect and positions of honor that were their cultural birthright.

Executive Order 9066 claimed itself necessary for “the successful prosecution of the war,” which depended on the United States being able to provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.” Beneath those euphemisms lies the truth, that the United States government imprisoned innocent residents who happened to belong to a certain segment of the population, just in case they might be planning to spy for the Japanese military or destroy a defense plant. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn calls it “an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental elements of the American system.”

To make a long story short, life in the camps, where the internees spent over three years, imprisoned against their will, was difficult. Fred Korematsu was jailed for refusing to go to a camp, and his case went to the Supreme Court, where the “Court’s final decision upheld Korematsu’s conviction by a vote of six to three and downplayed the role of racial discrimination in the exclusion order,” according to Densho Encyclopedia, a free on-line resource about the history of the Japanese American WWII exclusion and incarceration experience.

The Redress Movement, efforts by survivors of the camps to obtain an apology, restitution of their civil rights, and/or monetary compensation, eventually won all three. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided a presidential apology and $20,000 to each of 60,000 living survivors. A 1992 amendment provided financial reparations to over 20,000 people who were previously declared ineligible.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, which are often compared to the Pearl Harbor attack for the fear and hatred they engendered, Japanese American activists stood up and protested racial profiling and unconstitutional incarceration. As Densho Encyclopedia describes it, “Remembering how few Americans protested the decision to remove and incarcerate Japanese Americans in 1942, these individuals and groups wanted to prevent history from repeating itself and victimizing Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans because of wartime racism.”

It is interesting to note that, as US History’s article states, “during the course of World War II, 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan, but not one of them was of Japanese ancestry.”