Japanese American Internment Wasn’t Just Immoral — It Was a Strategic Error

War Is Boring on 2016-11-18

Japanese-American children during the internment. U.S. National Archives photo

Trump camp cites a black spot from history to justify new bad ideas


“We did it during World War II with Japanese, which you know, call it what you will, may be wrong,” Trump surrogate Carl Higbie told Fox News host Megyn Kelly during a November 2016 interview. He was discussing proposals for a national registry of Muslims that the incoming Donald Trump administration is mulling over.

“You know better than to suggest that,” Kelly responded. “That’s the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl.”

“I’m just saying there is precedent for it,” Higbie added.

“You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps for anything the president-elect is going to do,” Kelly responded incredulously.

Japanese internment, ordered by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt under Executive Order 9066, is widely regarded as one of the most egregious civil liberties violations in American history. But this dark chapter wasn’t just morally reprehensible — it didn’t make America any stronger or safer, either.

After the Paris attacks, then-candidate Trump said he would order all Muslims in America to register themselves so his administration could create a “database.” He added that his administration would make every American Muslim carry a “special ID” so that Americans could more easily identify them.

When reporters asked the candidate how that would be any different than Nazi Germany’s registration of Jews and the infamous yellow patches mandated by that regime, Trump merely responded with “you tell me.

Though Trump has seemingly walked back on campaign promises such as jailing opponent Hillary Clinton and repealing Obamacare, he seems fully committed to his Muslim list.

His surrogates have also referenced the 1942–1946 incarceration of every person of Japanese descent on the West Coast. On more than one occasion the Trump camp has cited the internment of Japanese Americans as a precedent for registering people on the basis of their religion or heritage — specifically Muslims and Arabs.

Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative who co-chaired Trump’s veterans coalition, has enthusiastically cited Japanese-American internment.

“What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps,” Baldasaro told New Hampshire radio station WMUR in December 2015. “From a military-mind standpoint, all Donald Trump is saying is to do what needs to be done until we get a handle on how to do background checks.”

A young girl during the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942. National Archives photo

The situation is in many ways very different from World War II. The United States is not engaged in a declared war with any nation state. It is in fact Muslims who most often die in terror attacks, and troops from predominantly Muslim military organizations such as the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army do the majority of the fighting and dying in the present wars.

As it stands right now, the Trump transition team is exploring the resurrection of a George W. Bush administration program that tracked foreign nationals entering and leaving the United States to and from certain countries. All but one of these countries was predominantly Muslim.

The program ended in 2011 when it was deemed “redundant” as the U.S. government already has massive surveillance capacities and can easily track any legal green card holder — or U.S. citizen for that matter — and determine where they are from and where they’re going. Every foreign national entering the country now must take a biometric reading.

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The transition team has so far been vague on whether the Trump administration intends to expand registry efforts to include American citizens who either adhere to Islam or have ancestry associated with Muslim countries. But several surrogates have continued hearkening back to World War II as a justification.

The problem with citing Order 9066 as precedent is that many historians and legal scholars argue that Japanese internment was not merely unconstitutional and more than slightly racist — but may have actually been counterproductive. Military, intelligence and legal officials felt that way at the time.

During the 1930s, the Japanese Empire began an aggressive expansionist campaign in East Asia that put it at odds with the Western powers, and eventually led to a military alliance between Japan, Italy and Nazi Germany.

The swift military rise led to tension between the United States and Japan in the Pacific, which exacerbated what was already a sometimes uneasy relationship between Japanese Americans and whites on the West Coast.

In early 1941, Roosevelt sent Detroit entrepreneur Curtis Munson on a fact-finding mission regarding Japanese Americans living on the West Coast and in Hawaii. After working with FBI officials and interviewing Japanese Americans and as well as whites close their communities, Munson determined that the “Japanese problem” was nonexistent.

His final report, submitted on Nov. 7, 1941, stated that he’d found “a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group.”

That’s not to say there weren’t any spies working for Japan. There were a handful of active Japanese spies in the Hawaiian Islands, and it’s now believed they may have scoped out Pearl Harbor before the attack.

In the aftermath of the battle, a Japanese pilot crash landed on the Hawaiian island of Niihau, where he enlisted the help of ethnic Japanese residents — resulting in a brief ground skirmish.

America’s post-Pearl Harbor panic led to a mass public backlash against Japanese Americans. Several leaders called for a roundup of any person of Japanese ancestry. Gen. John DeWitt of the U.S. military’s Western Defense Command was one of the most vocal advocates.

He famously proclaimed “a Jap’s a Jap, a piece of paper doesn’t change that” in response to concerns about targeting Americans based on their race.

U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle warned Roosevelt that forcing American citizens from their homes was unquestionably unconstitutional. Even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, not famous for his concern for civil liberties, called internment “utterly unnecessary” and argued that surveillance of plausible suspects would be more effective — and less costly — than a mass roundup.

DeWitt was relentless.

“I don’t want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese,” DeWitt testified before Congress.

“American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty … we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”

However, the military was far from unanimous. Military intelligence officials argued that the government should have instead worked with ethnic Japanese communities and pushed for recruiting Japanese Americans into the war effort. Others objected to the reliance on the military to round up American citizens.

In Hawaii, where there actually had been espionage — there was no mass round up, and Japanese Americans were too numerous and too integral to the economy. Local leaders, including white ones, stressed that incarceration would be disastrous.

In February 1942, Army Gen. Mark Clark argued that internment was not only wrong but counterproductive to the war effort, as it would waste personnel and resources that could be put to better use — like actually fighting the enemy. Clark argued that “we will never have a perfect defense against sabotage except at the expense of other equally important efforts.”

Instead, Clark recommended bolstering security at critical installations and selectively arresting suspects. Nevertheless, Roosevelt went forward with mass internment.

Frank Merrill with two of the ‘Marauder Samurai,’ including Roy Matsumoto at left. U.S. Army photo

Even so, thousands of Japanese Americans volunteered for service. Most went to fight in Europe as members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The unit comprised Hawaii-born Japanese Americans and those recruited from the camps.

Their numbers were surprising given that many of their families lived in squalid camps under armed guard. The 442nd became the most decorated combat unit in American military history, a distinction it still holds.

Japanese Americans also fought in Asia and the Pacific with U.S. military intelligence and special operations units. Notably, a small group was attached to Merrill’s Marauders, a predecessor of today’s 75th Ranger Regiment. Known as the “Marauder Samurai,” these Japanese American troops interrogated prisoners, inspected captured documents and listened in on Japanese radio chatter.

During one engagement, California-born Roy Matsumoto tricked a Japanese unit into charging straight into an American trap by shouting “charge” in Japanese.

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Matsumoto earned the Bronze Star and the Legion of Merit for his actions during the campaign. He remained in the Army for two decades, retiring after a career in military intelligence as a master sergeant in 1963. Matsumoto was inducted into the U.S. Army Rangers Hall of Fame in 1993, the Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in 1997 and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2011.

Japanese Americans proved an asset to the American war effort rather than a threat. America weaponized its diversity. It’s exceedingly likely that the military would have found more willing recruits and better used the assets Japanese Americans offered had the government not locked their families in concentration camps.

Most of the internees lost their homes and possessions. When the war ended, they had to start over and rebuild their lives with minimal help from the government. Most managed to bounce back, but it took decades before there was any formal apology from the government.

Today, America’s diversity has continued to play an important role in national security. Many of America’s most qualified intelligence and terrorism experts are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Thousands of Americans of Middle Eastern descent, many of them practicing Muslims, serve in the armed forces and in law enforcement. That includes elite special operations forces — Sudanese born Green Beret Staff Sgt. Ayman Taha died in an explosion in Iraq in December 2005. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

American Muslims bring cultural knowledge and may be the most qualified people to, as president-elect Trump puts it, “figure out what’s going on.” Their very existence also challenges the Islamic State’s radicalization and recruitment narrative about a war between societies.

After the Orlando massacre, Trump accused Americans Muslims of knowing that Pulse shooter Omar Mateen had radicalized but did nothing about it. In truth, Floridian Mohamad Malik warned the FBI about Mateen in 2014 as a possible threat, but the FBI dropped the investigation.

Indeed, there have been more tips from members of America’s Muslim communities over the past 15 years that have effectively identified extremists and thwarted attacks than from the government’s own surveillance apparatus.

Pew polling has found that most American Muslims share concerns about Islamist extremism, and have no desire to see it take root in their communities. But if the government starts issuing them “special IDs” and putting them in a registry, it will mark a change that’s incredibly hard to walk back.