By GORDON YAMATE and SETH GERBER
The 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 marks one of the saddest tragedies of our great country: the compulsory expulsion from their homes and false imprisonment of Americans of Japanese ancestry on U.S. soil during World War II.
The signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, is often seen as the first domino to fall in a chain of xenophobic and racist events against Japanese Americans during the war. Lessons were learned, yet even 70 years later, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) and the Anti-Defamation League, two of the largest civil rights educators in the country, continue to witness acts of bigotry, xenophobia, and racism.
In the wake of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, February 1942 brought the forced “evacuation” of tens of thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry from their homes and businesses on the West Coast and in Hawaii. It was followed by an unconstitutional mass incarceration in guarded, barbed-wire-surrounded camps of 120,000 people, two-thirds of whom were U.S.-born citizens. The lengthy detention of Japanese Americans represents a failure of American democracy and a willful denial of the rights bestowed under the U.S. Constitution.
Proof that the government’s action against Japanese Americans was motivated by mass xenophobia is shown by examining the official language it used to disguise the illegality of its actions. The exclusion orders were addressed to “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien.” Who was a “non-alien?” Simply a citizen.
In order to justify the suspension of the civil rights of thousands of Japanese Americans, the government had to negate their status as citizens. Japanese Americans, though born in the U.S., were suddenly not citizens, but non-aliens. Similarly, Japanese Americans were sent to “internment camps” and “relocation centers.”
Losing property and being unjustly stigmatized as national security risks humiliated the American-born children (Nisei) of Japanese immigrants (Issei). The pinnacle of this degradation was having their treasured status as U.S. citizens denied. Born and raised in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, the Nisei learned in school that their U.S. citizenship was their birthright and would protect them from nefarious accusations of disloyalty. None of this proved true.
Sadly, other Americans who knew better sat silently while the United States government purposely violated its own Constitution.
Seventy years later, the world is a different place. Today, we understand how this country can admit its wrongs and apologize. In 1988, Japanese Americans successfully petitioned for redress, and formerly interned Issei and Nisei were sent an official apology and reparations. And the heroic Nisei volunteers of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team — including its 21 Medal of Honor recipients — and other Japanese Americans who so bravely fought during World War II have received broad recognition for their extraordinary valor on behalf of the United States.
Yet the specter of xenophobia, stereotyping, and ethnic profiling remains. Debate by our nation’s leaders over the legitimacy of the 14th Amendment, which established the right to citizenship for those born in the U.S., is now part of the national dialogue. Denying citizenship to children of immigrants would be a distraction that moves the country away from fixing the real problems with our broken immigration system.
This assault on the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship attacks our fundamental understanding of who is an American just as Executive Order 9066 attempted to do. Knowledge of our history remains one of the few preventive medicines to this disease that preys on democracies in times of crisis.
The Anti-Defamation League’s education programs and JANM’s National Center for the Preservation of Democracy use the lessons of this painful chapter in American history to teach about the dangers of xenophobia and stereotypes.
It is particularly relevant today as our country faces the difficult task of balancing national security needs with the protection and preservation of individual rights and liberties. ADL brings this message to educators, students and families through anti-bias and diversity education programs based on the premise that prejudice is learned and can be unlearned.
ADL has developed a lesson plan specifically relating to Japanese American confinement during World War II. This online curriculum teaches students about the dangers of stereotyping, prejudice and racial profiling and how those fears can lead to disastrous consequences.
JANM attracts as many as 20,000 students annually, who learn this story from volunteers who experienced it first-hand. The museum has collaborated with educators across the nation to develop curricula that seeks to present this national cautionary tale as local history, so young people embrace it as part of their own stories.
As we commemorate the tragic consequences of Executive Order 9066, we remind ourselves to stand up and speak out so that a term like “non-alien” is never used again. We must also remember that when we stand up for our own communities, it is expected. But when we stand up for each other’s communities, we really change the world.
Gordon Yamate is chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Japanese American National Museum. Seth Gerber is vice chair of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League and co-chair of ADL’s Asian Jewish Initiative. This article first appeared in the Daily Journal.