Trump, Unlearning the Lessons of Internment
Donald Trump has a fixation with public opinion polls, especially those that show him lapping the crowded 2016 Republican presidential field. This obsession, which began as a verbal tic, has morphed into the primary rationale for his candidacy.
“I'm leading every single poll,” Trump explained in the face of widespread censure over his comments about banning Muslims from entering the United States. “Nationwide, I'm leading in every one of them. So obviously, I'm very happy where I am.”
Here’s the problem, and it’s hardly Trump’s alone, with relying on opinion polls to guide public policy: 74 years ago, when 110,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast were ripped from their homes and incarcerated in rural internment camps, 80 percent of Californians supported the policy.
We’re not so proud of that policy now. It’s a source of national shame.
The decree came from the top. On February 19, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the relocation. One of the most notorious presidential edicts in American history was uncontroversial in Congress and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It enjoyed grassroots support, too. The Los Angeles Times began agitating for the removal of American citizens and alien residents of Japanese ancestry within days of the attack in Hawaii. Two weeks before FDR’s order, the Orange County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling for their removal on the grounds of military necessity. To his later regret, California Attorney General Earl Warren, a future governor—and guardian of civil liberties as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—pushed the policy, too,
We know now, as many knew then, that the military justification was flimsy. Americans were justifiably angry after Pearl Harbor, and frightened. They gave into racial resentment and succumbed to fear—the very emotion Roosevelt had counseled Americans to resist in his 1933 inaugural address. Greed played a role, too, as the dislocated families sold household goods, businesses, and farms at fire-sale prices.
Half of those incarcerated were children, most of them U.S.-born. Their numbers included two future congressmen, Norman Y. Mineta and Robert Matsui, actor George Takei, and more than a dozen Medal of Honor winners who volunteered from the camps to fight for their country in the famed all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
It took a long time for America to address this injustice. It happened, in part, because Japanese-Americans like Mineta and Matsui grew up and entered public service. They helped persuade Congress to form the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980.
The commission’s report, “Personal Justice Denied,” affixed blame for the internment, and set a price for reparations. The cause, the commission stated flatly, was “largely… racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The price, codified in 1988 legislation and signed by the president, was $20,000 for each survivor—and a formal apology. Almost to the last man and woman, the apology meant more than the money.
Thus ended a shameful chapter in American history. Except that, as the old U.S. Army saying goes, there’s always one person who doesn’t get the word. Sometimes it’s more than one. In 2004, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin produced a provocatively titled and thinly reasoned book, “In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror.”
Malkin apparently had an extreme reaction to attending uber-politically correct Oberlin College. But “In Defense of Internment” wasn’t just revisionist history. As its subtitle suggests, it was a rationalization for treating Arab-Americans harshly after 9/11. Fortunately it wasn’t heeded. But the mass murder in San Bernardino and the unorthodox presidential campaign of Donald Trump has re-roiled these waters.
Last week, another columnist who confuses iconoclasm with sagacity invoked Franklin Roosevelt’s treatment of resident aliens in defense of Trump’s sketchy comments about Muslims. The headline of the article by conservative commentator Jeffrey Lord says it all: “FDR Was Trump on Steroids.”
Too savvy to invoke Executive Order 9066, Lord instead points to three other regressive Roosevelt wartime proclamations— 2525, 2526, and 2527,—dealing with Germans, Japanese and Italians, in which FDR decreed them “liable to be apprehended, retrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.”
“We have been here before,” Lord explained on CNN. “We need to focus on the fact that Franklin Roosevelt was Donald Trump on steroids, and everybody thinks FDR is a great president.”
“Everybody” is an exaggeration, although one grants the point. But is it impolite to point out that Roosevelt is admired in spite of his World War II internment policies, not because of them? Yet there was Trump, also on CNN, proclaiming his appreciation of Lord’s line of reasoning.
In an interview with Time magazine, Trump was asked directly about Executive Order 9066. He acknowledged that it was “a tough thing,” but refused to condemn the internment program. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he said. This is stupidity on steroids.
George Takei was “there at the time”—in the relocation camps with his family—and he promptly issued a challenge to Trump to educate himself by attending his Broadway show, “Allegiance,” which explores the internment.
If Trump is too busy for Broadway, he could pull newspaper clips from December 1945 and read how Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell pinned the Distinguished Service Cross on a woman named Mary Masuda on the porch of her modest Orange County home. Mary Masuda was one of the first Americans to return from the relocation centers, and “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was there to honor her brother, a staff sergeant who gave his life holding off Nazi mortar fire while protecting other members of the 442nd regiment.
The old newspaper article I have in mind noted that several show business personalities including Robert Young and Will Rogers Jr. were present for the ceremony. A 34-year-old film star was quoted in the piece.
“Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all of one color,” the movie actor said that day in 1945. “America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on an ideal. Not in spite of, but because of, our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”
The actor’s name was Ronald Reagan. More than four decades later, he mentioned that fact again at the signing ceremony making the apology to the Japanese-Americans official government policy. The president ended his remarks by adding, “And, yes, the ideal of liberty and justice for all—that is still the American way.”
Reagan didn’t need a poll to tell him he was right.