THE BLOG

75 Years After Pearl Harbor, The Threat Of Internment Returns

01/01/2017 21:43 GMT | Updated 01/01/2017 21:43 GMT
David Madison via Getty Images

Seventy-five years ago, the Japanese military launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the US into World War II. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, paid respects to honour the fallen at Pearl Harbor this December. Abe's visit is not only significant in terms of keeping relations between the US and Japan on a positive footing, it is also a timely reminder of why the events of World War II need to be remembered.

While everyone is familiar with what happened immediately after Pearl Harbor in terms of the US declaring war on Japan, there are many things that happened on the home front that still resonate in today's America, such as the internment of those considered threats to national security.

During World War II, anyone who was a citizen of an Axis nation automatically became an 'enemy alien'. The FBI had lists of these individuals in case war broke out. Some of these enemy aliens were given the chance to defend themselves in tribunals to prove their innocence, and this meant that many Germans and Italians were able to remain at liberty. However, when it came to enemy aliens who looked significantly different from mainstream America - the Japanese and their American born children - the risk was considered so high they were rounded up and sent to euphemistically termed 'relocation centers'. This policy of wholesale internment meant over half of the population of the camps were children - born in the US and supposedly protected by the US Constitution. Even children who had a fraction of Japanese blood were taken out of orphanages and placed behind barbed wire.

After years of legal battles, the Japanese American community eventually received an apology from Ronald Reagan in 1988. This was followed two years later by a payment of $20,000 to all survivors of the camps, made by George Bush. When the case was reassessed, the Supreme Court ruled internment:

stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to exercise their authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused.

If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it is happening again. There has been a huge rise in prejudice and fear during the recent US presidential election. Just as after Pearl Harbor all Japanese were seen as the enemy, since 9/11 all Muslims have been viewed as enemies because of the actions of Islamic extremists. This is despite the fact that the number of deaths caused in America by gun crime is significantly greater than the number caused by jihadi terrorism. That has not stopped President Elect Donald Trump and his supporters reviving interest for a Muslim registry. A Muslim registry is nothing new in the US - just look at George W. Bush's National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) , which was primarily targeted at men from Muslim countries. But, while the policy wasn't unconstitutional, it was highly controversial, and was ultimately scrapped because it was found to be ineffective at protecting the nation. Which begs the question as to how a resurgence of this policy would be in the best interests of national security.

Recognising that something similar to internment could happen to American Muslims, the Japanese American community has been vocal in their condemnation of this misrepresentation of history. While Trump supporters cite the legal case of Korematsu v. USas being precedent for this type of policy, they seem to have forgotten that a) the Supreme Court ruled the decision was made on misleading information; b) a Republican president has publicly apologised for the wrong; and c) a second Republican president saw the apology through with financial compensation.

However, this misinterpretation of history - which puts everyone's constitutional rights at risk - is creeping into the mainstream. Just last month, the Los Angeles Times published an article about the National Park Service's work to commemorate the racial and civil rights history at several of their sites. However, the LA Times also published two letters in response to the article that were not 'civil, fact-based discourse'. These letters included many myths, including the argument the Japanese were interned for their own safety. The letters also claimed that the Japanese had experienced a comfortable war, protected from harm, whereas, in reality, thousands of Japanese Americans served in the US Armed Forces in the most decorated unit for its size and service while their families lived in primitive conditions behind barbed wire. It is remarkable that these letters were published in the first place, and it is particularly disturbing how many of these myths are being perpetuated in modern day America.

If the constitutional rights of Americans are to be protected, the lessons of World War II are more important now than ever.