Saturday, February 25, 2012

Executive Order 9066 -- The Internment

Why Were Japanese-Americans Interned during World War II?

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Benjamin Franklin

Relocation Camp
The Internment of Japanese-Americans that was authorized by FDR's executive order 9066 over 70 years ago.  Clearly there were many innocent victims who were incarcerated for the duration of the war.    Their rights as Americans were trampled upon as a result of paranoia and wartime hysteria.  Many years later two US Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, offered formal apologies and compensation on behalf of the US government for the Internment.

Conservatism, as I understand it, implies a respect for individual rights and liberty which were trampled on by the Internment.  Conservatism also stresses the importance of remembering the past and allowing its lessons to help guide our future.  Every partisan Republican bone in my body rises up to criticize the extremism of Democrat FDR's blatant statist power grab as exemplified by the Internment.  For these reasons, I salute George Takei and his artistic endeavors.  Moreover, my own father, Robert Kelly, grew up in Sacramento, CA and knew of neighbors who hid a Japanese-American family in their basement for the duration of the war.  I heartily commend this act of courageous civil disobedience.  Internment was a horrible policy and a crime against human rights.

Internment also usefully serves to remind us about the fundamental clumsiness of nearly all government interventions.  When the federal Government gets wrought up over ANY issue it typically acts with all the finesse of an enraged bull elephant.  It tramples all in its path indiscriminately.

442nd Regimental Combat Team
Moreover, many Japanese Americans proved their loyalty where it counts most during wartime on the battlefield.  The famous 442 regimental combat team which fought in Italy was the most highly decorated American unit of World War II and was featured in the terrific 1951 war move with Van Johnson Go For Broke! (http:/  Over 30,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry served in the US armed forces during World War II.

And yet...? And yet, there's a bit more to the story...

It is incredibly difficulty for those of us who live in the 21st century to understand the horrendously difficult decisions that were faced by those alive and in charge in 1942.

The American fleet at Pearl Harbor had been effectively wiped out.  The allies appeared to be losing the war on all fronts.  German panzers were advancing to the oilfields of the Caucasus.  The Japanese conquered in short order Guam, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Burma  and the "invincible" British fortress at Singapore.  The inevitability of Allied victory was completely opaque to the leaders of 1942.

The historian Niall Ferguson writes, "The Germans had already made the concept of 'lightning war' their own.  But never in military history has lightning struck in so many places with such devastating results as it did in Asia and the Pacific between the beginning of December 1941 and the end of April 1942.  Moreover, the distances involved were vastly greater than those being covered simultaneously by the Germans in Europe.  At its maximum extent, the Japanese Empire stretched 6,400 miles from west to east and 5,300 miles from north to south; its circumference was a staggering 14,200 miles.  By the beginning of May 1942, the Japanese could plausibly contemplate attacks on Midway, New Caledonia, Fiji, Samoa, New Guinea and even Australia , Ceylon and India."  The War of the World, Niall Ferguson, 2006. (http:/

The West coast of the United states lay almost completely unprotected form Japanese assault.  The Japanese did, in fact, invade and occupy some of the Aleutian islands as part of the Midway campaign.  A Japanese submarine surfaced and shelled a lighthouse on the coast of British Columbia.  Submarines were spotted off the coast of Santa Barbara.  A Japanese submarine shelled Fort Stevens on the Oregon coast.  A Japanese sea plane bomber actually bombed Oregon in 1942.  There were some in the US government that actually considered the evacuation of US forces to positions east of the Mississippi due to the vulnerability and indefensiblity of the West coast.

More than 1/3 (about 50,000 out of 120,000) of the Interned were not, in fact, US citizens.  These were the Issei.  There were Japanese citizens and residents of Hawaii that assuredly did spy on US naval and military assets prior to Pearl Harbor.  Here is the most well know and devastating example...(

Please indulge me in a brief interruption for a thought experiment.  If, God forbid, Iran were to attack and sink a US aircraft carrier tomorrow in the straits of Hormuz, would we not expect the US government to, at the very least, monitor the activities of Iranian citizens now in the US?  The legal justification for the detainment of foreign aliens in wartime goes back to the Alien Enemies Act of 1798 and is still in place today.  Furthermore, would we not expect the US government to monitor the activities of US citizens who had become naturalized US citizens in the past five years?  My point is merely that the World War II Internment was not based on race, but rather on nationality.

It is also an established historic fact that the Second World War, in addition to its record setting casualty count, also caused enormous dislocations of people throughout the world.  Civilian Refugees fled one war zone after the other.  There were more than FOUR times more Volga Germans (500,000) than US Internment victims were deported by the Soviet government, mainly to Siberia, with many of them dying along the way.  Half a million Chechens were also deported by the Soviet Union during the course of the war.

Here in the UK, there were massive evacuations of women and children away from exposed urban areas in the face of the blitz.  Later in the war, the civilian populations of Dover and Cornwall to forced to abandon their homes and relocated to other parts of Britain.  This was not, of course, on account of their race or nationality, but rather a military precaution.  The allies needed to do their rehearsals for D-day and they did not want any nosy civilians watching!  (

From 1939 through 1941, the victories of the Axis powers had been unbounded.  Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Yugoslavia and Greece were all swiftly conquered by the German war machine.  It was the overwhelming initial success of Hitler's operation Barbarrossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) that convinced Japanese diplomatic and military advisers based in Europe that Germany was unbeatable and would quickly compel a Soviet capitulation.  The Japanese dramatically spread their sphere of influence throughout the Pacific, invading New Guinea, bombing Darwin Australia and sallying their fleet into the Indian Ocean.  1942 was, however, the decisive year of World War II.  It was in 1942 that the German 6th army under the command of Paulus was trapped and surrendered at Stalingrad.  In June of 1942, American naval aviators sank four precious aircraft carriers of the Japanese Imperial fleet at the battle of Midway.  From then on out it was all downhill for the Axis powers.

Saboteur 1942
Fear of sabotage was widespread and well-grounded.  Hitchcock's film Saboteur of 1942 (http:/ captures the fear that engulfed the allies during the war.   The German-affiliated Duquesne spy ring of 33 individuals, including many naturalized US citizens, was rounded up and sentenced to over 300 years of incarceration (  A tiny minority of disloyal saboteurs of Japanese ancestry living in the US could have done immense damage to the Allied war effort.

Meanwhile the Japanese, who had been fighting longer than any other combatant nation (since 1937 with the war in China), were unwilling to give up the struggle.  They desperately grabbed at any opportunity to win the war or to make its prosecution so costly to the allies as to force a negotiated settlement  to the conflict.

Japanese women were mobilised to sew paper balloons that would use the jet stream to carry incendiary devices to the United States.  These early intercontinental weapons were responsible for many forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.  In May 1945 a pregnant woman in Oregon, Elsie Mitchell, found one of these balloons and accidentally set off the device which killed her and five local children. (

The recently declassified Magic decrypts (uncovered by the US equivalent of Bletchley Park) clearly demonstrate that there was a systematic effort on the part of the Japanese to recruit and exploit the Japanese-American population of the United States.  There was a substantial increase in radio traffic around Hawaii and the US West coast before and after Pearl Harbor which is not explicable without reference to the Japanese and Japanese-American population.  While the vast majority of the interned were innocent of any wrongdoing, there were exceptions.  According to the Honolulu Star, Richard Koshimodo was a Japanese American who actively aided Japanese spies keeping track of ship movements in Pearl Harbor.  Another Japanese American was shot in Kanehoe when he fled after being discovered signalling a Japanese submarine.   Three Japanese Americans on Niihau aided a downed Imperial Navy aviator to the point where they attempted to kill (the victim was shot three times and later awarded a purple heart) some of their Hawaiian neighbors. One of the Japanese was killed in a struggle and the other two surrendered to authorities. Source: (
The Japanese population in the Philippines (about 30,000 strong) helped to guide, support and celebrate the arrival of the Imperial Japanese army in its conquest of that country in 1942.

David Lowman, former special assistant to the Director National Security Agency, in his book Magic (http:/ writes, "In early 1942 the country appeared to be faced with a dangerous espionage situation on the West coast, an perhaps an unmanageable one, at a time when the military outlook was, to say the least, bleak.  The decision to evacuate was not made without evidence and in bad faith.  The United States government did not act shamefully, dishonourably, and without cause or reason as charged.  Years of hindsight may cast doubts on the wisdom of the evacuation decision, but the intelligence illustrated in this book will provide ample proof that the decision was made honestly and with what seemed at that time to be complete justification."

More recent scholarship has proven that the Imperial Japanese Navy succeeded in constructing the most advanced large submarines of World War II.  These E-400 class ships ( were underwater aircraft carriers capable of carrying bomber aircraft that could have reached the United States mainland with conventional and bacteriological weapons. (  We know, furthermore, that the Japanese developed and used germ warfare that was responsible for the deaths of up to 50,000 Chinese during the war (  What's more, we now know that the Japanese were much further along with their own nuclear program and, according to a History Channel documentary, were planning an attack on the Western United states with a primitive nuclear device in the summer of 1945 and may have actually tested a device in North Korea earlier that year (  Their primary target was alleged to be San Francisco.

It is, therefore, quite plausible to imagine a very different and even more frightening conclusion to World War II in the Pacific with a mushroom cloud rising over the Golden Gate.  Imagine also that FDR had not issued his infamous executive order 9066 to intern Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans.  It is not difficult to imagine kind of vigilante fury would have been unleashed against this minority.  My guess is that, under this scenario, George Takei would never have gotten a chance to act as Lieutenant Sulu!

I visited Pearl Harbor on Oahu in the Spring of 2011 and had a chance to visit the USS Missouri on which the declaration of surrender with Japan was signed.  It was there that I was surprised to learn that the crew members of the USS Missouri were fully prepared to train their big guns on and fire on the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in the event that the surrender ceremony proved to be a Japanese trick.

I was once told a true story about a man in Butte, Montana who chose to wear an orange sweater on St. Patrick's Day many years ago.  The police locked him up overnight in the local jail "for his own safety"--a situation closely analogous to the fate of the Internees during the Second World war.
Louis Zamperini story

We must, as George Takei suggests, remember the crime of the Internment.  Remember the bravery of the 442 regimental combat unit-- Go For Broke!   But remember also the crimes of Cabantuan, the Bataan death march, the building of the Burma-Siam railway line ("Some prisoners were made to wear armbands bearing the inscription: 'One who has been captured in battle and is to be beheaded or castrated at the will of the Emperor.'"  The War of the World, Niall Ferguson, 2006), and the countless thousands who suffered and died in the Japanese POW camps.   Remember the inspiring story of Louis Zamperini, recently documented in Laura Hillenbrand's amazing book, Unbroken. (http:/

FDR's decision to Intern Japanese and Japanese-Americans (made also by Canada with regard to their Japanese-Canadians) was harsh, hard-hearted and driven, at least in part, by racist bigotry.  In spite of being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, it may well be accounted a crime from the perspective of today.  Nevertheless,  by making that decision, I would argue that FDR saved countless lives and exercised the least horrible option available to the President at that time.  The Internees became a hostage to the (mis)fortunes of war their civil liberties trampled by an over-reaching and indiscriminate federal government.  The crime of not Interning would have been far greater than the crime of Internment.

I started this essay with Benjamin Franklin's great quote.  "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  In March of 1945 an aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin, was subjected to Japanese air attacks that left over 800 sailors dead--the greatest damage to any US aircraft carrier that still survived the war.  I would suspect that Benjamin Franklin, understanding all the circumstances in their historic context, might appreciate why the Internees deserve our appreciation for "giving up a little temporary liberty to help purchase the safety and essential liberty of all Americans" during World War II's darkest hours.*

Acknowledgements.  Special thanks go to Adam Wilson for first bringing Allegiance the musical to my attention.  I must also thank fellow Americans in London Chris Moran, David Michaelson, William Funk and Jon Shields for patiently enduring my earlier rantings and ravings on this topic.

For more on the Internment you may want to read... and, Magic David Lowman 2000, http:/ and, finally, In Defense of Internment, Michelle Malkin 2004. http:/

*  Interestingly, this is almost exactly the sentiment expressed by Mike Masaoka, the national secretary of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in an April 1942 bulletin, "Our primary consideration as good Americans is the total war effort...We may be temporarily suspending or sacrificing some of our privileges and rights of citizenship in the greater aim of protecting them for all time to come and to defeat those powers which seek to destroy them."  Source: In Defense of Internment, Michelle Malkin, 2004.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice to see the Commander softening his stance and acknowledging some of the points I and others raised this past week. Thank you Commander.

I am not an american conservative, liberal or libertarian. I'm a "Decline to State" registered voter which in my home state of California means unaligned with any political party. I do not think positions on this topic fall along traditional conservative, liberal or libertarian lines. Indeed, I find spot on the 1988 federal legislation signed by President Reagan, the hero of american conservatives, that apologized to American-Japanese interned and authorized more than $1 Billion in reparations. The legislation said that US government actions were based on "...race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership".

Internment of 80,000 Japanese-Americans was one of the darkest moments in our great nation's history. I acknowledge that much of the west coast was sparsely populated and poorly defended and that people truly feared an invasion by Japan's Imperial Navy. But our country's leaders at the time should have known it was legally, morally and ethically wrong to intern these americans. And these were "americans". The 80,000 were not Japanese citizens living in our nation, but american citizens who had as little as 1/16 japanese ancestry. These people lost their homes, their business, their property and most shockingly their liberty even though they were law abiding, loyal americans who had done nothing wrong. We threw-out our most cherished and important Constitutional principles on the only basis that these people had some japanese ancestry. And unfortunate for them, they looked different from the majority of americans. Italian-Americans and German-Americans whose blood lines came from the other two axis powers at war with America had the good fortune of looking like the majority of us...and they were not interned.

Our nation's leaders gave in too easily to the west coast war hysteria amped-up by a long history of west coast discrimination against Japanese immigrants (especially in agriculture). Worse yet, the US Supreme Court, charged with the responsibility to employ the constitution as a backstop against such government-imposed actions, totally blew it. In my opinion, it ranks among the top five Supreme Court failures. And as the last voice able to stop such government-imposed wrongs, we simply cannot afford our country's top court making these types of grave errors.

The mark of a great nation is its ability to safeguard in the most difficult of times the most vulnerable among us (those the majority fear or dislike or distrust). Our country's most important and fundamental laws, embodied in our Constitution, should have protected the Japanese-American population from denial of its liberty and the theft of its property. It's one of the rare times that our country failed the test. We are one of the greatest nations to ever have graced this planet and I acknowledge that at times we fail to live up to important ideals and stray from our moral compass - after all our leaders are only human. But we also learn from our history. Case in point, post 9/11 our nation did not round-up and intern muslims and/or people of arab descent, nor did our nation put under surveillance everyone who fit into one of those categories. But heed this warning. For those who say what happened to Japanese-Americans will never happen again, I say you are wrong. It can, and if we are not careful I dare say will, happen again. Only through education and honest self-reflection do we reduce the risk of repeating history.

BTW, if Ben Franklin could pop out of his coffin, he'd yell "Darn it Commander, the "majority" of our great country in 1942 did not deserve liberty and safety because they snatched the liberty from these other americans just to buy themselves some temporary peace of mind."

Thanks Commander for giving me the vine.

David Michaelson