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Why Did the U.S. Intern the Japanese During WW II?

It is sixty years since the biggest case of racial profiling in U.S. history. February 19, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, usually referred to as the"Japanese Internment Order." The order actually called only for the creation of security zones over which the military had control of access and residence. That Japanese residents and Japanese-American citizens were the intended target was no secret: Roosevelt had been suspicious of this population since at least 1936.

In this case he was reacting to specific reports of evidence of Japanese espionage activity, false reports by a particularly anti-Japanese general. A month later the actual exclusion order was released, giving"all persons of Japanese ancestry" barely a week to collect a few necessities, put affairs in order and report to" control centers," where over a hundred thousand citizens and long-term resident aliens were cataloged and put on trains to ten internment camps. The camps were isolated, with primitive barracks and facilities. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, then a child, was interned at Heart Mountain camp.

To add insult to injury, the internees were forced to answer a questionnaire regarding their loyalty to the United States. Over one-fifth of draft-age Japanese-American males surveyed answered"no" to questions about their willingness to serve in the military and about their"unqualified allegiance to the United States." This group, known as the"'no, no' boys" was singled out for persecution during the years of internment, as were internees who initially answered yes but resisted being drafted. Japanese-American men, like Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye, who did serve in the military, did so with great distinction: the Hawaii-based 100th Battalion was known as the"Purple Heart Battalion" ; the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which included interned citizens, was instrumental in liberating Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

What is perhaps more remarkable than the gross injustice of the dislocation and internment camps is the fact that the United States, which rarely apologizes for anything, in 1988 apologized and offered payment to surviving internees. This act of Congress (Democratic) and the President (Republican) was the result of a long process of activism and oral history, primarily by Japanese-American activists, with the support of Japanese-American politicians including Norman Mineta and Daniel Inouye. Though there was little discussion of the internment in the years following WWII, the next generation of Japanese-Americans, in the process of investigating their heritage, uncovered this atrocity and began to collect stories and make public objections. In the wake of the genocidal racism of the Nazis, and the civil rights struggle in the U.S., it became clear to almost everyone who heard this history that what the U.S. did was racist, short-sighted, unfair and very damaging.

What is the lesson of this history? Jumping to conclusions about individuals or groups based on limited information is dumb. If we violate our own principles, we will regret it. We can admit mistakes, and learn from them. Apology doesn't make things right, but it can make things better. Our success in destroying evil in WWII is tarnished more by denying or ignoring the full range of history than it is by admitting errors and making amends. But that success is only fully realized when we make a commitment not to make the same, or similar, mistakes again.

SOURCE: Much of this account is based on Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Penguin, 1989).