Thousands of words have recently been written eulogizing the late Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. People praised his accomplishments as three term governor of California (where he used the taxpayers' money to build more roads, hospitals and public monuments than any previous governor) and lauded his nearly two decades on the U.S. Supreme Court. There seemed to be a pretty general consensus: Earl Warren was a great humanitarian.
Of course, one expects obituaries and eulogies to indulge in a bit of hyperbole—custom decrees speaking kindly of the dead. But Warren's eulogizers so assiduously avoided mentioning one particular "blot" on his record that one wonders if they were only being kind. The blot? Warren's support, first as California Attorney General and then as Governor, of the forced evacuation in 1942 of 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans (70,000 of them U.S. citizens) from the West Coast and their internment in "Relocation Camps" for the next three years.
On the other hand, maybe his eulogizers weren't ignoring the matter out of kindness or because Warren later regretted his stand. Perhaps they were affected with the same selective blindness that allows so many Americans to listen to tales of the Russian or German concentration camps and then exclaim self-righteously "Well, that can't happen here! After all, we're a free country with laws that protect us from the sort of repression the Russians or Chinese have to endure!" Yet, on August 7, 1942 it did happen here: General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Army's Western Defense Command, announced that 110,000 people of Japanese blood had been removed from their homes and taken to War Relocation Authority (WRA) Centers in California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arkansas. The U.S. had set up its very own "Gulag Archipelago"—not as brutal as the Russian version to be sure, but for those Japanese-Americans literally bedded down in stalls at Santa Anita Racetrack Assembly Center and then shipped off to such "garden spots" as Gila, Arizona it was bad enough. Some of them even died from the hardships of travel and imprisonment. And the camps are still there, complete with barbed wire.
The Japanese, of course, had been discriminated against long before the Relocation Centers were built. In 1923 the Supreme Court had ruled that alien Japanese were not eligible for naturalization and prior to that California had passed a law excluding aliens from buying land. Violent racial incidents against Orientals were not uncommon—yellow journalism touted the Yellow Peril. After Pearl Harbor it didn't take much to sell the public on "doing something" about the Japanese, what with 1942 being an election year and such groups as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West being in favor of removing the Japanese from the West Coast. In February 1942 General John DeWitt urged Secretary of War Stimson to order the evacuation from the West Coast of "Japanese and other subversive persons" and on February 19, 1942 President Roosevelt signed his infamous Executive Order No. 9066 which allowed the establishment of "military areas" and the exclusion from them of "any or all persons." Ostensibly the 40,000 alien Japanese and their 70,000 U.S. citizen children were potential spies and saboteurs; in fact only one Japanese ever received even a minor sentence for espionage and Hawaii (with much better race relations) did not restrict its Japanese. For that matter, the 58,000 Italian nationals and 23,000 German nationals living on the West Coast retained their freedom.
So the Japanese went off to the camps. For the 70,000 Nisei (American born and hence U.S. citizens) the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was a sham—civil statutes were still in effect—martial law was never declared—yet they received neither due process, equal protection under the law, nor did they ever receive just compensation for loss of their property (they could only take hand luggage to the camps). At best they've gotten 10 percent compensation on their real property losses and nothing for their hardships, sufferings and loss of wages. And the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Evacuation, ruling in essence that the military knew best (or at least the Army knew best—the Navy, as well as the FBI opposed the internment). That precedent has never been reversed.
And the whole incident has been almost forgotten. Many people remember how bravely the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought against the Germans and Italians during World War 11 incurring incredible casualties (MGM even made a movie based on their exploits) but they don't remember that many Japanese mothers received their son's posthumously awarded medals while still interned in the camps. After all, it can't happen here.
But it can and it has. And it's imperative that all persons and groups who value their freedom not let the U.S.'s internment of West Coast Japanese be forgotten. Aside from the issue of obtaining justice for those Japanese-Americans unjustly imprisoned by the WRA, the American public needs to realize that the Gulag Archipelago is just an Executive Order away (remember the Wage-Price Controls?). Every group that's distinguishable from the mass of the public in some way, whether because of skin color, religion, occupation, or political philosophy is vulnerable. It has happened here—it can happen again.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "It Has Happened Here".