When politicians try to hide behind the internment of Japanese Americans as an excuse to refuse refugees, as Roanoke's mayor recently did, it betrays much, much more than they think.
The Internment And Fear Of The 'Foreigner': Groundless Then, Groundless Now
Two children at the Minidoka Relocation Center, Idaho, 1943
November 19, 2015

[Cross-posted at Orcinus.][

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

-- Roanoke, Va., mayor David Bowers, explaining why the United States should reject the entry of refugees from Syria

This remark, uttered Wednesday morning by a Democratic mayor to justify his order suspending all aid from his city in the effort to resettle Syrian refugees, is more deeply revealing than the man who uttered it might think. If nothing else, looking back at the internment casts a very dark shadow on our current behavior -- as it should.

First of all, it has to be pointed out that Bowers' remark is profoundly ignorant: Among the 110,000 or so people of Japanese descent rounded up into concentration camps by the U.S. government during World War II, some 70,000 of them were American citizens. Of the 40,000 non-citizens who were shipped off, the vast majority were (usually elderly) immigrants who had been in the United States for over 30 years, and who were only non-citizens because U.S. law at the time actually forbade Japanese immigrants from naturalizing. So these people were "Japanese nationals" only in a very technical sense.

More importantly, though, the now-largely-settled historical consensus is that the supposed threat posed by Japanese Americans living on the West was virtually nonexistent, and cannot in retrospect even remotely serve as justification for stripping over an entire class of citizens and their parents of their civil rights, based on their ethnicity, and rounding them up into concentration camps.

It is this nakedly racist component of the internment episode that makes Bowers' lame justification so striking, because it appears to be an endorsement of such policies. And using FDR as a fig leaf in this regard is similarly lame, because we know now that, sainted president though he may be, Roosevelt was also a deep-seated racist when it came to the Japanese, and was an avid subscriber to the patently racist "Yellow Peril" conspiracy theories that provided the grist for so much of the anti-Japanese mill of the times.

Here's a sampling of FDR's thoughts about the Japanese, from an editorial he wrote for the Macon Telegraph in 1925:

Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results...In this question, then, of Japanese exclusion from the United States, it is necessary only to advance the true reason -- the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples. This attitude would be fully understood in Japan, as they would have the same objection to Americans migrating to Japan in large numbers.

Unfortunately, Japanese exclusion has been urged for many other reasons -- their ability to work for and live on much smaller wages than Americans -- their willingness to work for longer hours, their driving out of native Americans from certain fruit growing or agricultural areas. The Japanese themselves do not understand these arguments and are offended by them.

Anti-Japanese hysteria was part of a 1920 political campaign.
Moreover, it is abundantly clear that the racist stereotypes to which not only FDR but most of the rest of the nation subscribed were in fact prerequisites for the internment. Americans believed that Japanese-Americans would betray them because racist propaganda had been assuring them of this for the preceding half-century. This was especially clear in the nature of the hysteria that swept the Pacific Coast after Pearl Harbor, which was not only unusually vicious, but constantly referenced these well-established beliefs in a nonexistent conspiracy.

Central to these beliefs was the notion that the immigrant Japanese (the majority of whom were engaged in agriculture) were secretly "shock troops" sent by the Emperor to serve as a "fifth column" on American shores; they supposedly only awaited the signal to spring into action at the right moment to act as a linchpin of the long-planned invasion of the Pacific Coast.

Of course, in retrospect, we know now that no invasion of the coast was ever contemplated by Japan; their entire purpose was to establish hegemony in the Asian Pacific. But the reality is that even at the time, the military was fully aware that no invasion was even remotely likely. Nor even was a full-scale attack, a la Pearl Harbor, even feasible. At the worst, scattered raids were primarily the threat faced by the Pacific Coast.

Indeed, federal authorities already had made the assessment that the Japanese living in America posed no threat to the security of the nation. Some months before the war arrived, President Roosevelt had secured the services of Chicago businessman Curtis Munson in coordinating an intelligence report on Japanese in the United States. Munson's report, delivered on Nov. 7, 1941, couldn't have been more clear: "There will be no armed uprising of Japanese [in the United States] ... For the most part the Japanese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war."

Military strategists at the War Department were well aware that the Pacific Coast was under no serious threat of being invaded or under any kind of sustained attack, despite constant clamoring by various jingoes in the press. General Mark Clark, then the deputy chief of staff of Army Ground Forces, and Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations, both ridiculed the notion of any kind of serious Japanese attack on the Pacific Coast when they testified that spring before a Senate committee, though Clark (who had spent several years as an officer at Fort Lewis, Washington) did admit that the possibility of an occasional air raid or a sustained attack on the Aleutian Islands "was not a fantastic idea."

Secondarily, West Coast Commander John L. DeWitt’s clamorous appeals for devoting badly needed troops for the defense of the West Coast were dismissed by War Department officials who knew better; to the planners there, preparing an offensive army for operations in Europe and the Pacific, such requests were self-indulgent wastes of their time.

However, the justification of the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese Americans, at least in the popular mind, was not because of fears of mere sabotage, but because of fears of invasion, to which DeWitt in his proclamations made frequent reference. The most infamous of these embodied the twisted logic behind the drive for internment:

“... It therefore follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today. There are indications that these are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.

It is important to understand that, as Tetsuden Kashima explores thoroughly in his definitive text, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II, the incarceration of the Nikkei in World War II was not simply the result of hysteria. In fact, as he demonstrates, it had been planned and well in the bureaucratic works for quite some time, beginning as early as the late 1920s.

However, allowing the military to incarcerate citizens en masse -- which in the end was the underlying bureaucratic purpose of the episode -- obviously raised real civil-liberties issues. And these almost certainly would have been raised immediately had anyone suggested evacuating and placing in concentration camps the nation's entire Italian-American or German-American populations.

The Nikkei, however, offered a unique opportunity in this regard, particularly since they represented a relatively smaller ethnic population -- one which was, moreover, popularly reviled and almost completely marginalized. The hysteria was already latent in the cultural landscape, and government officials and politicians at all levels -- local, state and federal -- readily whipped it higher at nearly every opportunity.

The race-driven hysteria, in essence, did not in itself cause the internment -- but it was the linchpin in convincing the public to proceed with it. And indeed, the public not only approved, it demanded it.

The result was a horrific episode in our history, a permanent black mark, and in the end a tremendous waste of the nation's resources and energies. As I've explained in my book Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community:

The overwhelming weight of the postwar evidence is that the internment prevented very little, if any, sabotage or espionage. Moreover, even beyond its transparent unjustness, the damage to the integrity of the Constitution, and the dangerous precedents it set, the internment of the Japanese Americans was an unfathomable waste. It demonstrably undermined the war effort, and proved not to be worth a penny of the billions of taxpayer dollars it wasted.

In addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars the actual enterprise itself cost -- rounding up 120,000 people by rail car and shipping them first to "assembly centers"; building ten "relocation centers" in remote locales, and then shipping the evacuees into them; maintaining and administering the centers for another three years, which included overseeing programs to help internees find work outside the camps; feeding the entire population of internees during this time; and then helping them to relocate near their former homes once the camps closed -- there were $37 million more in initial reparations costs in 1948, and then $1.2 billion more in the later reparations approved by Congress in 1988.

At the same time, the Japanese on the Pacific Coast, who occupied some 7,000 farms in the "Military Exclusion Zone," actually were responsible for the production of nearly half of all the fresh produce that was grown for consumption on the Coast (the Japanese also shipped out a great deal of produce to the Midwest and East). Indeed, Nikkei farms held virtual monopolies in a number of crops, including peppers, snap beans, celery and strawberries, and a large portion of the lettuce market.

When these farmers were rounded up and interned, a handful of enterprising whites decided to try running their farms with the hope of making a killing from the crops. But labor was so short that not one of these enterprises lasted beyond about five weeks, and none of them had a successful harvest. Nearly all of these farms lay fallow for the next four years. This major loss of production of fresh vegetables clearly harmed the war effort on the home front, and played a significant role in triggering the rationing that came during the war years.

Now, our nation's Republican governors and all of the GOP's presidential candidates, along with a handful of spineless, mewling Democrats like Bowers and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, are demanding that President Obama halt his plans to bring in large numbers of refugees from Syria. In doing so, they are not only giving in to exactly the dark impulses that the ISIS terrorists who recently struck Paris intended for them respond with, they are simultaneously empowering the far-right extremists who have been ginning up their xenophobic campaign against the refugees for several months now.

Nevermind that the vast majority of these refugees are children and the elderly (as the Washington Post explained: "The United States has asked the UNHCR to prioritize refugees who are considered vulnerable – women with children, the elderly, people who have been tortured or who may require modern medical treatment they cannot easily get elsewhere. Half the accepted refugees so far have been children. A quarter are adults over 60.")

Nevermind that the screening process, contrary to the shivering xenophobes' quivering claims, is in fact multilevel, quite arduous, and only begins after the refugees have been in camps for two years. It's hard to imagine a terrorist submitting himself to that kind of challenge unnecessarily, given that a set of fake papers and a tourist visa will get him into the country with only a fraction of that kind of scrutiny; and waiting as a "sleeper" through a multi-year process is not how ISIS terrorists have ever operated.

Nevermind that, contrary to the widely spread assumption repeated in the media that the Paris attackers included men with Syrian refugee passports, the passports they intentionally left to create that impression are now believed to have been fakes, left there so that the media would report that terrorists were coming in among the refugees. In other words, conservatives' factual basis for connecting the refugees to the Paris attacks is entirely groundless.

No, what's really important to understand is that in the end, by locking our doors to the victims of ISIS, we give ISIS exactly what it wants. We succumb to the fear, and they win. We victimize these refugees a second time, and we create a massive cauldron of extremism that will overrun whatever walls we try to erect.

Adam Taylor perhaps explained this best in the Washington Post:

The very same refugees entering Europe are often the very same civilians who face the indiscriminate violence and cruel injustice in lands controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (though, it should be noted, many in Syria are also threatened by the brutal actions of the Syrian government). Globally, studies have shown that Muslims tend to make up the largest proportion of terror victims, with countries such as Syria and Iraq registering the highest toll.

If Muslim refugees come to Europe and are welcomed, it deeply undercuts the Islamic State's legitimacy. Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has helpfully catalogued some of the Islamic State's messages on the refugees pouring into Europe from the Middle East. The messages give the impression of deep discomfort and even jealousy that the Muslim population the Islamic State so covets for its self-proclaimed "caliphate" would rather live in "infidel" Western lands.

... What seems almost certain is that the Islamic State wants you to equate refugees with terrorists. In turn, it wants refugees to equate the West with prejudice against Muslims and foreigners.

Let's be clear: It's not that there is no risk attached to bringing in refugees from Syria, just as there was risk attached to leaving the Japanese American community unmolested. There is always the possibility that one of those children will grow up to be a radical terrorist who kills lots of people. That risk, though, becomes a virtual certainty if we slam our doors on them. And it becomes less likely the more thoroughly we welcome the refugees and help them to assimilate to American society, as the vast majority are eager to do.

As Middle East terrorism expert Daniel Bynam explained several months ago in a paper for Brookings:

Both sides have it wrong. Concerns about terrorism and the refugees are legitimate, but the fears being voiced are usually exaggerated and the concerns raised often the wrong ones.

... Because the refugees are from Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State is based, it is easy to conjure up fears that the jihadi group has inserted sleeper agents among the refugees who will burrow into host societies and then spring their trap. But the Islamic State doesn’t work that way. In its online magazine Dabiq and other propaganda organs, it stresses the ingathering of Muslims, though it does toss the occasional rhetorical bomb calling for Muslims already in the land of the infidels to“attack, kill, and terrorize the crusaders on their own streets and in their own homes.”

However, the Islamic State argues most “good Muslims” should travel to Iraq and Syria to fight on behalf of the Islamic State against its local enemies, not the other way around. (In contrast, Inspire, the English-language online magazine of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, stresses launching terrorist attacks in one’s home country.) The Islamic State might call for attacks in the West, but it has focused its own money, fighters, and suicide bombers on defeating its enemies in the Middle East. The refugees themselves, fleeing war and extremism, are not strong supporters of the most violent groups: if they were, they would have stayed in Iraq or Syria.

... If the refugees are treated as a short-term humanitarian problem rather than as a long-term integration challenge, then we are likely to see this problem worsen. Radicals will be among those who provide the religious, educational, and social support for the refugees – creating a problem where none existed. Indeed, the refugees need a comprehensive and long-term package that includes political rights, educational support, and economic assistance as well as immediate humanitarian aid, particularly if they are admitted in large numbers. If they cannot be integrated into local communities, then they risk perpetuating, or even exacerbating, the tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe. Despite their current gratitude for sanctuary in Europe, over time the refugees may be disenfranchised and become alienated. We’ve seen this movie before, where anger and disaffection fester, creating “suspect communities” that do not cooperate with law enforcement and security agencies and allow terrorists to recruit and operate with little interference.

There is no easy solution to this problem, one we have had no small hand in making in the first place. I know from having dealt with the nature of terrorism for some years that the path out is fraught, but it is the only path out. We just have to be brave enough to take it. We cannot succumb to fear, because in truth, that is the only weapon they have.

If we do, our grandchildren will look back on this episode, just as most of us do today with the Japanese American internment, and regard with shame and regret for the utter waste it will leave in its wake.

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