The 1942 Internments and Today’s Security Crisis

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, scholars, politicians and journalists have reported and condemned acts of revenge against Arab people living in the United States. To emphasize the injustice of such vigilantism, these voices refer to the infamous forced relocation during World War II of some 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese resident aliens. Looking back on the Japanese internment allows us to see what is unique about the threat to our national security today and perhaps make better judgments on the treatment of Arab-Americans.

Following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, hysteria gripped the United States. Americans feared an attack on the U.S. mainland. Sporadic vigilantism  erupted against Japanese residents, whose race made them seem possible conspirators. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the designation of “military areas” along the Pacific coast and the removal from them of anyone deemed a national security threat. While the order legally encompassed Germans and Italians, in practice only the Japanese were removed; they were shipped to guarded relocation centers in the interior.

The Japanese became the only targets because of their relatively small numbers; the physical features that identified them as “Japanese”; and the fact that nine of ten Japanese on the U.S. mainland lived near the Pacific. All of these factors made detaining them relatively simple.

The situation now is far different. There are an estimated three million Arab-Americans in the United States. They constitute about 1 percent of the U.S. population, ten times greater than the Japanese-American proportion — a tenth of 1 percent — in the 1940s. Although there are large clusters of Arab-Americans in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Brooklyn, they live in all states. Many Arab-Americans are united by language and culture, but unlike the Japanese they do not share a single “race” or one “Arab” physical appearance. Even logistically — never mind policy reasons — internment of Arab-Americans by the government would be practically impossible.

Although the Japanese internment, once it began, was relatively easy to accomplish, it met fierce resistance from the U.S. attorney general at the time, Francis Biddle. A month after Pearl Harbor, Biddle declared, “Every man who cares about freedom must fight for the right of the minority, for the chance for the underprivileged with the same passion of insistence as he claims for his own rights.” The fact that an internment policy was not enacted until some three months after Pearl Harbor reflects Biddle’s stubborn, if futile, resistance to the plan.

Currently, the attorney general, John Ashcroft, has condemned retaliation against domestic scapegoats. On Sept. 13, Ashcroft warned, “Reports of violence and threats [against Arab-Americans] are in direct opposition to the very principles and laws of the United States and will not be tolerated.” Ashcroft’s public defense of Arab-Americans echoes the fight for protection of Japanese rights by his World War II predecessor.

But while in 1942 the attorney general tried vainly to protect Japanese civilians against a U.S. government crackdown, today Ashcroft has warned only against private reprisals against Arab people — vigilantism. We cannot yet know what the government itself may actually do. President Bush spoke on Sept. 20 of the need to protect “homeland security” with a “comprehensive national strategy” involving FBI agents, intelligence operatives and military reservists. He created a cabinet-level position to administer these measures. All this implies a possible compromise of important civil liberties.

Two overriding developments prodded the U.S. government to go forward with Japanese internment. The Japanese military won a frightening string of victories in the Pacific in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam and Singapore all fell by February 1942. Stark news of these events confirmed for Americans the reality of war as well as the need for extraordinary security actions at home — that is, the roundup of people of Japanese ancestry.

Today, despite the president’s claims, the United States is not at war. The country is not engaged in resisting an enemy army and navy openly committed to imperial expansion, as were Japanese forces in World War II. 

The other vital force prodding the government to crack down on the Japanese in 1942 was American journalism. In the first weeks after Pearl Harbor, U.S. newspapers and radio echoed the attorney general’s pledge to protect Japanese civil liberties. But six weeks after Pearl Harbor, Walter Lippmann, the most influential American journalist of his age, began writing newspaper columns urging removal of all persons from the entire West Coast who could not justify their presence there. Japanese internment followed swiftly after Lippmann and other opinion-shapers called for it.

The role of journalists at the present time is potentially the same as it was in 1942. Journalists again will influence whether a minority group will be denied democratic protections as the United States fights for abroad. If journalists begin calling for a crackdown on Arab-Americans, we cannot be sure that the government will resist. That is the most relevant lesson we should take today from the failure of democracy within the United States during World War II.

Tim Roberts is an assistant professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Virginia, 2009).

September, 2001