Tag Archives: Japanese American Internment

February 19, 1942 (a Thursday)

Order posting.

On this date, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the War Department to define military areas in the western states and to exclude from them anyone who might threaten the war effort.  Key U.S. leaders claimed that all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the U.S. posed a risk to national security. This led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in what Roosevelt called “concentration camps,” often located in Native American reservations.

When war had seemed imminent with Japan in the Fall of 1941, Roosevelt had assigned a Chicago businessman, Curtis B. Munson, to be a special representative of the State Department and to go to the West Coast and Hawaii to determine the degree of loyalty to be found among the residents of Japanese descent.  Munson toured Hawaii and the Pacific Coast and interviewed Army and Navy intelligence officers, military commanders, city officials, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The overall result of his twenty-five page report was that:

…there is no Japanese “problem” on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There will undoubtedly be some sabotage financed by Japan and executed largely by imported agents.

…for the most part, the local Japanese are loyal to the U.S. or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war.

Munson’s report was submitted to the White House on November 7, 1941. It was then circulated to several Cabinet officials, including Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. On February 5, 1942, Stimson sent a copy of the so-called Munson Report to President Roosevelt, along with a memo stating that War Department officials had carefully studied the document.

The Munson Report should have conclusively put to rest the existence of Japanese sabotage in the United States. The report also should have resolved any fears about the security of the West Coast as well. The lack of any evidence showing the Japanese-Americans being involved in espionage rings should have prevented the need for internment camps, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States government chose to impound innocent people behind barbed wire. The results of Munson’s fact-finding mission were inexplicably suppressed until 1946.

Race prejudice and wartime hysteria.

Race prejudice and wartime hysteria.

Although two-thirds of the Japanese-American internees were U.S. citizens, they were targeted because of their ancestry and the way they looked. One internee, when told that the Japanese were put in those camps for their own protection, countered “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”

The living conditions in the concentration camps were often unsanitary, with families living in hastily constructed barracks near open sewers. Toilets were shared by everyone in the camp and had little or no privacy. Meals provided to the Japanese were meager and caused a great deal of malnourishment. Despite these poor conditions, programs were eventually put into place that improved the condition of the camps and allowed the prisoners to work for small wages.

On some occasions, riots broke out in the internment camps, resulting in death and injury. In January 1944, a military draft was produced by the government, forcing Japanese Americans in the camps to join the military and fight in World War II. Many of the draftees refused to join the military until they were given civil rights and the government, refusing, placed the resisters in federal prison.

Many prominent Japanese Americans formed lawsuits against the United States government during the internment. Among these were Hirabayashi vs. United States, Yasui vs. United States, and Korematsu vs. United States. These lawsuits placed a lot of pressure on the United States government and made many people question the constitutionality of the internment. On December 17, 1944, the United States declared an end to the internment and the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional on December 18, 1944.

After these events, Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the camps and return to their homes and live normally. By March 20, 1946, all of the internment camps had been closed, although most of the Japanese had become greatly disillusioned with the United States and continued to endure discrimination.

In 1983, a U.S. congressional commission “uncovered” the evidence from the 1940s proving that there had been no military necessity for the unequal, unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during WW II. The commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in ” … race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

During the Reagan-Bush years Congress moved toward the passage of Public Law 100-383 in 1988 which acknowledged the injustice of the internment, apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was interned.

The Ends do not Justify the Means

Scales of Justice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am thoroughly disgusted with conservative (and even some not-so-conservative) pundits in the media who this past week have been trying to absolve those in the U.S. Government who attempted to legalize the torture of suspected terrorists at various detention centers after 9-11. For example, on MSNBC Joe Scarborough regarding torture said “Let’s not be self-righteous” because on 9-12 he believed “we need to do whatever we have to do” and “I’ll be damned if 300 million Americans didn’t say the same thing.”

In view of the fact that nowhere near “300 million Americans” said the same thing (I certainly did not), Joe’s argument goes like this: At that time (post 9-11), torture was necessary to prevent further loss of American lives even though torture is illegal (Title 18 of the U.S. Code makes it a crime for an American to commit torture “outside the United States” and authorizes fines and prison terms of up to 20 years — if deaths result, those convicted may be jailed for life or executed) and a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Conventions, which the U.S. had ratified (the treaties that the United States enters into become part of the law of the United States, and the Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed that status for the Geneva Conventions); therefore, according to Joe, everyone should be excused and no one should be prosecuted for allowing torture to be used on detainees.


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First, leaving aside the issue of whether torture ever yields useful information, the idea that the circumstances at the time justified breaking the law is reprehensible when advocated by officials whose sworn duty was to enforce the law and uphold the Constitution. President Bush himself bears primary responsibility for torture for his February 7, 2002, memo arbitrarily suspending the Geneva Conventions that protect prisoners of war:

I determine that common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al Qaeda or Taliban detainees. … I determine that Taliban detainees … do not qualify as prisoners of war under Article 4 of Geneva … and that al Qaeda detainees also do not qualify as prisoners of war.

A key architect of the “new paradigm” torture policy was White House legal counsel Alberto Gonzales, subsequently Attorney General, who signed a torture memo dated January 25, 2002:

…the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. It is not the traditional clash between nations adhering to the laws of war that formed the backdrop for GPW [the Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War]. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured [suspected] terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians, and the need to try terrorists for war crimes [but if you say they aren’t prisoners of war, how can they be guilty of war crimes?] for wantonly killing civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions…

On December 2, 2002, according to author Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld formally approved coercive treatments such as “hooding,” “stress positions,” “exploitation of phobias,” “deprivation of light and auditory stimuli” and other tactics long forbidden by the U.S. Army Field Manual.

Regardless of the public animosity toward suspected terrorists in custody at that time, they had and still have human rights. Is anyone aware that the reason the United States supported and agreed to the Geneva Conventions after World War II in the first place was to ensure that AMERICAN SOLDIERS would never be tortured by the other side in future conflicts? As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated at the time, America’s participation in the conventions was needed “to enable us to invoke them for the protection of our nationals.”  Similarly, Senator Mike Mansfield stated that “it is to the interest of the United States that the principles of these conventions be accepted universally by all nations.”  He explained that American

standards are already high.  The conventions point the way to other governments.  Without any real cost to us, acceptance of the standards provided for prisoners of war, civilians, and wounded and sick will insure improvement of the condition of our own people as compared with what had been their previous treatment.

Senator Alexander Smith concurred:

I cannot emphasize too strongly that the one nation which stands to benefit the most from these four conventions is our own United States…To the extent that we can obtain a worldwide acceptance of the high standards in the conventions, to that extent we will have assured our own people of greater protection and more civilized treatment.

When North Vietnam insisted that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to American POWs because they were “pirates,” President Nixon demanded — and had the moral authority to demand — that Hanoi apply them. On the 50th anniversary of the Conventions, Senator John McCain stated that he and his fellow POWs would have fared “a lot worse” without the Geneva Conventions’ protections against “the cruel excesses of war.”

The same argument made by Joe Scarborough could have been made about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  In 1949, Joe could have said “Let’s not be self-righteous” because on 12-7 he believed “we need to do whatever we have to do” and “I’ll be damned if 134 million Americans didn’t say the same thing.”

Leaving aside the fact that none of these Japanese-Americans were a threat to the security of the United States, Joe would argue that confining them in concentration camps was necessary to prevent further loss of American lives even though their internment was a violation of the U.S. Constitution (specifically, the rights to due process and habeas corpus); therefore, Joe would say, everyone should be excused and no legal prosecution or remedy should be sought or permitted.

Horse stalls at Tanforan that were transformed into living quarters for Japanese-American internees.

Of course, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was an outrageous violation of human rights the day it happened — it is still unfathomable to me that it ever happened in this country. But wartime hysteria prevailed.  An editorial in the Los Angeles Times from the period fumed: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be Japanese, not an American.”  Journalist Westbrook Pegler wrote, “The Japanese in California should be under armed guard to the last man and woman right now and to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.”  Key government leaders agreed with this view. They decided to imprison people without evidence or trials, denying their constitutional rights because of their ancestry. This policy was carried out on the West Coast of the United States, but not in Hawaii.

The ethical principle here is elementary though incomprehensible to self-righteous conservatives: The ends do NOT justify the means.