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The Badlands of Executive Order 9066


Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves (Henry Holt and Company, 2015); 384 pages.

The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell (Scribner, 2015); 2015; 417 pages.

One of the great scandals of American history is that when loyalty to the Bill of Rights is needed most, obedience to the state prevails. This recurring theme has been with Americans since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 up until our present crisis after 9/11. Often these failures to live up to constitutional ideals and obligations come at times where fear gets the better of people and the spectre of national insecurity can be summoned to sanctify and absolve great crimes.

The second great war was one of those times when the Constitution went on holiday for an extended period of time. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan. Three days later, on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Within a week, the American empire was fighting three imperial militaries on the march across Eurasia — the Axis powers.

Instantly, Japanese, German, and Italian Americans and residents, already suspect communities, became enemies of “the people,” as Richard Reeves and Jan Jarboe Russell document in Infamy and The Train to Crystal City, respectively.

Within two days of the Japanese attack, Franklin Roosevelt issued three proclamations allowing for the immediate arrest, detention, and expulsion of Japanese, German, and Italian nationals, who were described as “enemy aliens.” Then on February 19, 1942, he issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the War Department to prescribe geographical areas under military control as a way to forcibly remove those of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. It took only three months after Pearl Harbor for more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent, nearly 11,000 people of German descent, and more than 3,000 people of Italian descent to be denied their liberties and for the apparatus of forced removal and mass incarceration to be erected.

This round-up and flagrant violation of habeas corpus and the Fourth Amendment has been erroneously described in Orwellian terms as “internment.” As Reeves notes, “internment applies only to government regulation of aliens.” While that, for the most part, accurately describes those of German and Italian ancestry detained by the federal government, Reeves reminds us that “more than two-thirds of the American Japanese rounded up in 1942 were citizens of the United States.”

Gen. John DeWitt, one of the most aggressive advocates for the forced removal and relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast and the archvillain of Infamy, carried out E.O. 9066 expeditiously. “Within two weeks,” writes Reeves, “DeWitt designated the western halves of California, Oregon, and Washington as well as southern Arizona as Military Area No. I of the Western Defense Command.” As Reeves notes, DeWitt, commanding general of the Western Defense Command, became the “most powerful man on the West Coast,” embodying James Baldwin’s insight that “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

The ostensible reason for mass “evacuation” and detention was that old malleable watchword “security.” The word had two meanings for the Japanese. Its first meaning was protecting the rest of the American population from the Japanese because of the fear that many of them were loyal to Emperor Hirohito rather than to Uncle Sam. Thus they were potential spies and saboteurs, even though there was no evidence of either. That fact did nothing to change DeWitt’s mind on the loyalty of the Pacific Coast’s Japanese community. “The very fact,” he told Secretary of War Henry Stimson, “that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” That is a logic that should sound eerily familiar in our post–9/11 times.

The second rationale for imprisonment was the most patronizing, and largely disingenuous, of arguments: It was for Japanese Americans’ own safety. This was at least one line of argument adopted by the influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippman, who would later write that he supported evacuation and detention of the Japanese because of the potential for white mob violence. Though that shouldn’t be entirely dismissed, Reeves notes, “The official story was that the government was protecting the Japanese from violence by whites, but of course the first thing Japanese Americans noticed about the centers and, later, the camps was that the machine guns on towers were pointed in, not out.”

The Japanese, undoubtedly, got the worst of “internment” for two reasons. One was overt racism; at least Italians and Germans were considered white by the federal government. As Idaho Attorney General Bert Miller said, “All Japanese must be in concentration camps for the remainder of the war…. We want to keep this a white man’s country.” Or from a federal perspective was Karl Bendetsen, an advisor to DeWitt, who told a Catholic priest who ran an orphanage, “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp.” The priest called him a “little Hitler.” But none was more violent than Gov. Nels Smith, who upon hearing that Washington wanted to build detention centers in Wyoming, exclaimed, “If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree.” Strange fruit, it seems, could come in a color other than black.

“Kidnap camp”

 Another big difference between people of Japanese descent and those of Italian and German descent was their numbers. The ration- ale of putting the Japanese in concentration camps was strategic: There were just too many German and Italian American citizens and immigrants in the United States at the time, note both Reeves and Russell. If Uncle Sam had to violate the ancient writ of habeas corpus for people of German and Italian ancestry too, he would have to build a concentration camp system capable of detaining millions.

Both authors anchor their stories in the disrupted, often ruined, lives of those held at the “relocation centers” and “internment” camps established by the U.S. government’s War Relocation Authority and the Justice Department. And they are devastating to read over and over again as the lives of people loyal to the United States, particularly second-generation children and teenagers of Japanese and German descent, are unnecessarily destroyed because of the hatred and Salem-like mob mentality unleashed during war. These children, American through and through, overwhelmingly remained loyal to the United States, even as the land they loved relegated them to the “badlands,” as Russell notes, of America’s desolate and rugged interior. As Sally Tsuneishi realized, “I am a loyal American, yet I have the face of an enemy.”

Both Reeves and Russell highlight the downright despicable financial motives underlying the desire of many white Americans for the state kidnapping and imprisoning of their neighbors. “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japanese for selfish reasons,” Austin Anson, managing secretary of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of the Salinas Valley, told the Saturday Evening Post. “We might as well be honest. We do.” Along the West Coast, Japanese-owned businesses, farms, and homes were foreclosed and bought up by white competitors and neighbors. In California it was simply plunder. “Many lost their land and the work of a lifetime to plain and open thievery by local officials and residents,” writes Reeves, “because California’s escheat laws allowed the state and banks to take over ‘abandoned properties.’”

In Ohio, the German immigrant Mathias Eiserloh was arrested after his neighbor secretly accused him of being a Nazi spy. They had a long-running property dispute. The FBI would come to justify Mathias’s detention without trial, according to Russell, because “since Eiserloh designed bridges and had access to dynamite, he also had the capability to blow them up.” That was all there was to it: capability was enough for incarceration, and this injustice would happen again and again as people lost their freedom because of what they could do.

Where Reeves concentrates his attention exclusively on Japanese American citizens and residents, Russell fixes her gaze on the Crystal City Internment Camp, the only family concentration camp in the constellation of prison camps constructed by the U.S. government. Many who found themselves under its watchtowers and surrounded by its barbed wires had another, more accurate name for it: a “kidnap camp.” Unlike the relocation centers, which were operated by the War Relocation Authority, Crystal City was one of the Justice Department’s sites for “enemy aliens.”

As Russell vividly describes through the story of Eiserloh, fathers detained as enemy aliens had only one way to be reunited with their families: Accept “voluntary repatriation” to their “home” countries and the whole family would be indefinitely detained together at Crystal City until they could be shipped out of the country. Eiserloh, like others in his situation, agreed because there was no other way to keep his family together, even though his three children were U.S. citizens. What many “dangerous” German and Japanese immigrants who accepted the terms didn’t know was that they and their families were especially valuable to the U.S. government. They were trade bait for prisoner exchanges between the United States and the Third Reich and Imperial Japan. When the repatriates, both German and Japanese, finally arrived home, they were devastated. They had no idea their countries were not only losing the war but were largely razed.

Injustice, then and now

 Reeves’s story, which concentrates entirely on the injustice committed is more concerned with drawing bright lines that separate the villains from the heroes, often rightly so. His book is far angrier and searing than Russell’s, and it’s better for it, especially when he describes the hardship suffered by Japanese American Nisei, or second-generation U.S. citizens. In early 1943, the American government administered a loyalty test to the Nisei they kidnapped and indefinitely detained to determine whether they could enlist in the army. Most pledged their loyalty, with 30,000 boys and men going on to serve in the military after Roosevelt lifted the enlistment ban for them.

The Japanese American young men who somehow remained loyal to the United States after being treated as subhuman by their government were critical to the U.S. eventual victory in the Pacific theater. Those who spoke Japanese put their language skills and cultural knowledge to use in the Military Intelligence Service. Their impact could not be exaggerated. “Never before in history did an army know so much concerning its enemy prior to actual engagement, as the American army during the Pacific campaigns,” said Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, chief of intelligence for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. “Those interpreters and translators saved over a million lives and two years.”

The Japanese Americans who became grunts were also crucial to the war effort throughout France and Italy toward the tail-end of the war. The entirely Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army became the most decorated unit in army history. “They are the best goddamned fighters in the U.S. Army,” Gen. Mark Clark told  Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

At the very beginning of Infamy, Reeves explains his book is “a look into a dark side of the ‘American way’” to remind ourselves that “there is always a possibility of similar persecutions happening again.” Unfortunately something similar is quietly happening right now in America.

Currently, the U.S. government is indefinitely detaining thousands of traumatized women and children from Central America who last year began fleeing brutal violence in their home countries in search of asylum. Housed in family detention centers like Crystal City, they are sent a clear message: You’re not welcome.

When Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson opened the euphemistically named South Texas Family Residential Center last December — the government’s largest immigration-detention facility — in Dilley, Texas, he spoke candidly. “Frankly, we want to send a message that our border is not open to illegal migration, and if you come here, you should not expect to simply be released.”

Instead these women and children are being detained like criminals and denied due process protections so that they can be deported as soon as possible. And so they remain behind high fences and watched over by surveillance cameras, afraid they will soon be returned to certain death.

When Americans and their leaders violate their ideals, there’s an urge to reply, “Never again.” Those words, however, aren’t full of resolve but laden with resignation, just a national-security excuse away from the better angels of our nature breaking bad again.

“We are not only a nation of immigrants,” Reeves reminds us. “We are a nation made by immigrants, foreigners who were needed for their labor and skills and faith — but were often hated because they were not like us until they were us.” A reminder that’s too often ignored, disastrously so.

This article was originally published in the February 2017 issue of FFF’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, and others. He is managing editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.