COMMENTARY: 70 Years Later — The Lessons of Executive Order 9066

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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.

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  1. Today is the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the imprisonment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, about 3/5 of them US citizens. They were imprisoned without charges, let alone convictions.

    Less well known is the direct connection that one of the heroic resisters of that internment with President Bush’s similar imprisonment of uncharged, unconvicted men at Guantanamo. So this is a good day to honor the memory of Fred Korematsu.

    In 2003 Fred Korematsu filed an amicus habeas corpus brief in the case Shafiq Rasul v. George W. Bush, in which Rasul, a British citizen, was represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights. A District Court and a Court of Appeals had ruled that US courts had no jurisdiction over Guantanamo because it is not on US territory. Korematsu argued that “in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, the Supreme Court should make clear in these cases that the United States respects fundamental constitutional and human rights-even in times of war. These cases present the Supreme Court with a direct test of whether it will meet its deepest constitutional responsibilities to uphold the law in a clear-eyed and courageous manner.” He won, and the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration. Rasul and his fellow prisoner Asif Iqbal were released to the British.

    Here is the whole story: Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu was born in Oakland, California, in 1919, where he attended school. Rejected for the draft because of stomach ulcers, he worked as a welder in a defense plant until the attack on Pearl Harbor when he was fired. Ordered to report to an internment camp, he joined a minority of American citizens of Japanese descent who determined to resist what they considered an unconstitutional order; he later said that he believed he was entitled to a fair trial and a chance to defend his loyalty to the US. He was then jailed in San Francisco. When asked by the ACLU, he agreed to become a “test case,” was tried, convicted of refusing the order, and forcibly taken to a camp. He appealed and was again convicted in 1944 by the US Supreme Court, Justice Hugo Black writing the opinion, Frankfurter concurring. Released after the War, he returned to Oakland.

    The case was reopened 40 years later, when scholar Peter Irons discovered evidence that FDR’s Solicitor General had deliberately suppressed evidence that both the FBI and armed forces intelligence had determined that Japanese Americans offered no disloyalty threat. Korematsu’s conviction was voided in 1983 and in 1988 President Clinton gave him a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    Fred Korematsu exhibited his citizenly courage once again in 2003-04. He actually filed three amicus briefs, in Rasul v Bush, in Khaled A.F. Al Odah v. United States of America, and in Donald Rumsfeld v. Jose Padilla, assisted by several Bar associations and law firms, all with similar arguments: against imprisonment without trial. Korematsu remarked, “If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”

    Korematsu died in 2005 at age 85. “I’ll never forget my government treating me like this. And I really hope that this will never happen to anybody else because of the way they look, if they look like the enemy of our country…. protest, but not with violence, and don’t be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years.”

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