Today is Civil Liberties and the Constitution Day in Hawai‘i, honoring the birthday of Fred Korematsu, the man who challenged Executive Order 9066 in 1942. That order allowed over 120,000 ethnic Japanese to be incarcerated during WWII. Seventy percent of those prisoners were American citizens. This detention is recognized as a clear violation of civil rights, but Americans at the time did not protest, and scholars today ask whether something like that could happen again. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.
Historian, theologian, Beth Hessel is Executive Director of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadephia. Her doctoral dissertation involved the Japanese American experience in WWII, and she wrote about the legacy of Executive Order 9066 on its 75th anniversary in 2017. Find that article here. Hessel says Japanese American incarceration was made possible by indifference, prejudice, and fear.
Beth Hessel: People in the 1940’s were the same as we are today, where we get so caught up in our own everyday lives and what’s going on, not paying attention to the fact that in January of 1942, for example in California, Japanese Americans who worked for the government in civil service jobs were losing their positions, or six months before the Pearl Harbor attack, the government had frozen all the Japanese bank accounts of Issei and Nisei so they lacked access to their money. Or that in early 1942, after General DeWitt made much of the West Coast a military area, they gave a curfew to Japanese Americans and he also limited their travel to five miles from home, which made it very difficult for people who were in school or had jobs, to carry out their lives.
Hessel: I don’t think many people paid attention to what was going on, or they believed this is for national security, it’s for the best. So I think there was a lot of complacency, a desire to trust, there was the prejudice, there was that effect of the term we use, fake news. Yellow journalism was what is was called back then, of spreading lies, rumors, it was very rampant in the newspapers. Lies were being spread about the reality of who Japanese Americans were, which increased people’s likelihood not to trust Japanese Americans and their loyalty.
Hessel: Directly after the bombing in December 1941, there was a fairly calm response among people across the country, but in the West Coast in particular and in Hawai‘i, there was generally support for the rights of Japanese Americans. But a number of politicians and the press, particularly those owned by Randolph Hearst and James McClatchy started pushing stories claiming that Japanese Americans had participated in sabotage at Pearl Harbor.
Hessel points out, there was never, before, during, or after the war, any sabotage attributed to Japanese Americans, except for one event now called "Niihau incident."
Hessel: But as these stories began to be spread, fear and hysteria emerged among the West Coast population and there became greater support for moving Japanese Americans out of the West Coast.
Hessel says support for incarceration came from groups like the Native Sons of the Golden West, part of the American nativist movement.
Hessel: Organizations such as these saw this as the perfect opportunity they had been waiting for to get rid of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. They rallied around this cause. As we see today, the America First movement, there was a nativist movement that believed that America belonged only to white people. On the West Coast we saw that really strongly in treatment of Asian Americans. This was part of that anti-immigrant, anti-non-white, non-protestant view of what America was supposed to be.
It was the nativist movement that lobbied Congress until, in 1921, it passed the first bill mandating numerical quotas on immigration.
Hessel points out that in early-mid-20th century, many if not most Americans believed in biological racism. Beginning in 1942, however, that idea was discredited by anthropologists, Ashley Montague and Ruth Benedict, who were followed by others. In 1944, Swedish Nobel-laureate Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma, an influential treatise that looked at the hypocrisy of American liberal ideals and the arguably systemic oppression of blacks. He identified individualism, civil liberties, and equality of opportunity as seminal to being American, saying that American Creed is the glue that binds a nation of disparate ethnic groups.
Hessel: So you have this beginning idea of challenging the foundations of racism in 1942 but we’re still finding it today in many of the statements and ideas we’re hearing including from the highest levels of government, this almost biological idea of what it means. I think we have to take their words and look at their words and look at their actions and see how they play out. If an individual or organization’s words and actions have racist repercussions, we need to call it for what it is. And I don’t think we can be quiet about it.
Hessel: In 1942 we were dealing with a racism we’re still seeing today, and prejudice against immigrants the idea of a closed society without a willingness to understand the bigger picture of all that immigrants bring to our society, or the diversity of our culture. I think journalists and the average person in the street needs to proclaim loudly who it is that we are.
Who are we?
Hessel: That’s the question everyone seems to be asking right now, who are we as Americans. I would really love to believe we are the Americans that supposedly we fought WWII to become. Not the country that we were at that time, with Jim Crow, placing people just on the basis of their ancestry behind barbed wire, but the country we were called to become. A country of liberty and freedom and justice, of equal and fair opportunity for everybody.
America had a model of plenty at one time; we felt rich, and generous. How did life in America become a zero sum game?
Beth Hessel’s doctoral research for her PhD in History at Texas Christian University focused on the Protestant Church Commission for Japanese Service, an ecumenical group of former or furloughed Protestant Missionaries (to Japan) organized through the Federal Council of Churches that became the official mediator among the Federal government, Japanese Americans, and Protestant churches during WWII. Originally designated to focus solely on supporting the work of the Protestant congregations in the incarceration camps, the Commission soon branched out to address issues of religious freedom, assimilation, civil liberties, resettlement, and public relations.
Executive Order 9066 is an ongoing legal story. The mass incarceration of Japanese Americans has been denounced and apologized for, but it has never been legally repudiated, invalidated, overthrown. Something like it could conceivably, with the solemn invocation of national security, happen again.