Frank H. Wu, a visiting professor at George Washington University Law School, is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White and coauthor of Race, Rights & Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment.
Even the greatest leaders remain human beings. By most measures, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal created our modern society, ranks among the best politicians in our nation's history. Yet FDR was capable of misjudgments too, and it ultimately was his decision to authorize the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. The mass imprisonment of approximately 125,000 individuals—a majority of them native-born in this country—was unjustified.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a devastating attack on the United States at its Pearl Harbor installation in the Hawaiian islands. FDR declared it "a date which will live in infamy." Because the Japanese hostilities came without provocation, our declaration of war was justified.
Soon thereafter—67 years ago today, in fact—Roosevelt signed an executive order granting the military the authority to round up and intern Japanese-Americans. Virtually everyone of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast was sent to 10 internment camps. Given a few days' notice, they could take only what they could carry.
They lost their jobs, possessions, and freedom. In the shadow of watchtowers, behind barbed war, guarded by armed soldiers, they were held captive by their own government. There were never allegations of individual wrongdoing, much less any proven cases of treason.
The internment was supported by public figures of every background. Promoters of the program made a simple claim: Japan and the United States were at war, hence persons of Japanese descent should be regarded as enemies even if they were citizens. To extremists, the Pacific war was a racial war, and so it followed that the Japanese together were an enemy race.
Liberals were no different. Earl Warren, who would later serve as chief justice and bring an end to the official segregation, backed the policy. The American Civil Liberties Union national office was unwilling to challenge the plans, so its California chapters broke away in order to do so.
There were compelling reasons to be skeptical about the generalizations that Japanese-Americans as a group would be traitors. Long before any fight against the Axis powers, demagogues had been campaigning for the exclusion of Asian immigrants and the expulsion of Asian-Americans.
They had succeeded in many respects. Asians who wished to come to this country on a legal basis were limited to strict quotas, and those who had managed to come here could not naturalize as citizens because they were not "free white persons." In many states, as the only people who were "aliens ineligible to citizenship," they could not own real estate. To ensure their isolation, they could not intermarry with Caucasians. Asians born on American soil had to litigate all the way up to the Supreme Court to be deemed citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment, and nonetheless nativists sought to strip them of the right to vote.
The internment applied to men, women, children, the elderly, and the disabled alike. It made no distinctions, other than along the lines of blood.
Its proponents dismissed due process because, they asserted, the Oriental mind was inscrutable, rendering it impossible to sort out the loyal from the disloyal. Ironically, they argued that the assimilation of Japanese-Americans was a disguise.
If the arguments for the internment were accepted at face value, it would have made sense to lock up Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, which was in the actual theater of conflict, or to do the same with German-Americans and Italian-Americans. Neither idea was attractive. Japanese-Americans made up much of the workforce on Hawaiian plantations. A relatively low number of German-Americans and Italian-Americans were incarcerated because they were considered suspicious as individuals, but it would have been ill-advised to try ethnic incarceration of such sizable populations.