"The Burning Question"

The Burning Question

Could internment campus for American citizens be established again?

by Matthew Mizenko
Associate Professor of Japanese and East Asian Studies

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the signing, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the creation of “military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded” at the discretion of the Secretary of War or “the appropriate Military Commander.”

Issued on Feb. 19, 1942—just over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor—the executive order provided the justification for the relocation and incarceration in camps of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. Separated from their homes, businesses, farms and communities, and allowed to bring just a few possessions, they were sent to 10 major “relocation centers,” located mostly in desolate areas in the western states, in which they lived in poorly built barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

They were held in these camps without having been charged, let alone convicted, of any crimes.

The incarceration was based on what was called “military necessity,” although most scholars agree that there were no acts of espionage or collusion committed by Japanese Americans, the vast majority of whom professed loyalty to the United States. However, there had been a long history of prejudice against people of Japanese heritage, who were thought by many to hold allegiance to the Japanese emperor. They were seen as an economic threat and were considered resistant to Americanization by virtue of cultural and social traditions. As the non-white “Other,” they were automatically held in suspicion by many white Americans.

By May 1943, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had determined that there was no longer any justification for the continued incarceration of Japanese Americans, but it wasn’t until December 1944 that President Roosevelt suspended Executive Order 9066 and the incarcerated were released.

In its report, Personal Justice Denied, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, created in 1980 by an act of Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter, concluded that the “broad historical causes” underlying the decisions that emerged from Executive Order 9066 were “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” In keeping with the recommendations of the committee, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1988 that apologized to the Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated and their families, and authorized the payment of reparations to them.

On the occasion of this anniversary, a group of Ursinus students is reading Personal Justice Denied and other texts with me this semester. We are studying the socio-historical context of the camps, the lives of the incarcerated and the lasting impact on them and their descendants. This is a part of American history that must be acknowledged and understood. But it is also an issue of continued relevance. In 2014, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stated, with regard to the camps, that “you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing won’t happen again” in a time of war.

And sure enough, in just the few years since then, talk of travel bans and even camps for Muslim American citizens has emerged in our political discourse in the context of the “war on terror.” Is it possible that we are in another historical moment in which “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership” could potentially lead to this history repeating itself?