In honor of George Takei giving one of the best "Peace, y’all, I’m outta here" monologues I have ever seen come out of a reality television show after his firing from The Apprentice last week, I thought I would take a moment today to remind my readers of a piece of American history that most people probably were never taught, and most of the rest probably try to actively forget:
Once upon a time, America had concentration camps*, on her own soil, for her own citizens.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which permitted the military to circumvent the constitutional safeguards of American citizens in the name of national defense.
The order set into motion the exclusion from certain areas, and the evacuation and mass incarceration of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast, most of whom were U.S. citizens or legal permanent resident aliens.
These Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
They were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their jobs; in some cases family members were separated and put into different camps. President Roosevelt himself called the 10 facilities "concentration camps."
Some Japanese Americans died in the camps due to inadequate medical care and the emotional stresses they encountered. Several were killed by military guards posted for allegedly resisting orders.
Oh, and the "best" part of this wholesale abrogation of the very tenets that made America great?
At the time, Executive Order 9066 was justified as a "military necessity" to protect against domestic espionage and sabotage. However, it was later documented that "our government had in its possession proof that not one Japanese American, citizen or not, had engaged in espionage, not one had committed any act of sabotage." (Michi Weglyn, 1976).
Yeah, you read that right. We violated 120,000 American citizens’ rights simply because we were caught up in the hysteria of war. Maybe some of those folks might have eventually committed one of those acts of espionage or sabotage that the American people were so afraid of, but that certainly does not excuse the incarceration of all of them.
And people wonder why folks like me are concerned about the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 and all of the other, disturbingly-similar bills floating around in our federal government these days… American history, in and of itself, stands in mute witness to the cold reality that words, fear, dehumanization, and prejudice can – and did – result in American citizens being forced into concentration camps, which makes the panty-bunching idiocy of head-in-the-sand narcissists like Bill Quick all the more ludicrous.
Yes, I firmly believe that people should be allowed to express themselves as they see fit, as is guaranteed by the First Amendment, and yes, I firmly believe that (barring specific circumstances) individual, adult human beings are personally responsible for their own actions and decisions. None of that changes the truth that it is hardly "hysteria" to observe that some of the political sentiments we are seeing bandied about now have yielded disrecommended outcomes in the past.
Unfortunately, few learn the past any more. Hell, I challenge you to find a textbook from any pre-college school anywhere in America that actually mentions the concentration camps we set up for American citizens of Japanese descent during World War Two; I know I only found out about them by doing research on Mr. Takei’s biography (being the Trekkie nerd I was/am), running across a mention of the camps, and then going to my parents with a "WTF?" moment. Thankfully, sites like Densho and facilities like the Japanese American National Museum (Mr. Takei’s charity for Celebrity Apprentice, which sadly did not receive any funds) exist to ensure we cannot sweep unpleasant memories under the rug, and to help us hopefully learn from our mistakes in the past.
It happened here, and as sure as I know anything, I know this: some people are swinging back to the belief that the only thing wrong with those concentration camps is that they unjustly imprisoned the wrong people. I do not hold to that. It is incumbent upon all Americans to systemically and absolutely resist all future attempts at this kind of travesty, lest we be caught creating another shameful history annotation future generations would rather forget.
(* – Better Half disagrees with my use of this term; however, I stand by it, and fully acknowledge that it is a historically- and emotionally-laden term, and use it with full malice aforethought. Why? Because it is the correct term to use:
Let us review the main points of the debate. Over 120,000 residents of the U.S.A., two thirds of whom were American citizens, were incarcerated under armed guard. There were no crimes committed, no trials, and no convictions: the Japanese Americas were political prisoners. To detain American citizens in a site under armed guard surely constitutes a "concentration camp." But what were the terms used by the government officials who were involved in the process and who had to justify these actions? Raymond Okamura provides us with a detailed list of terms. Let’s consider three such euphemisms: "evacuation," "relocations," and non-aliens." Earthquake and flood victims are evacuated and relocated. The words refer to moving people in order to rescue and protect them from danger.
The official government policy makers consistently used "evacuation" to refer to the forced removal of the Japanese Americans and the sites were called "relocation centers." These are euphemisms (Webster: "the substitution of an inoffensive terms for one considered offensively explicit") as the terms do not imply forced removal nor incarceration in enclosures patrolled by armed guards. The masking was intentional.
… And because the person who signed the Executive Order creating the camps called them that himself:
In response to a reporter’s question about the West Coast "evacuation," the President called Nisei "Japanese people from Japan who are citizens," and went on to state ". . . it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can’t be kept locked up in concentration camps."
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Press Conference, November 21, 1944, FDR Library, #982.
To be certain, the concentration camps in America were drastically and markedly different from the concentration camps run in Nazi Germany, but they both satisfy the Merriam-Webster definition of "a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined". The Nazis, of course, went above and beyond that basic notion into the realm of torture, wholesale slaughter, forced labor, and so forth, but the term applies to both.)
(Picture of Tule Lake Relocation/Detention Center, the second camp where Mr. Takei and his family were detained, courtesy of Darkchilde.)