Donald Trump

Today Is Fred Korematsu's Birthday, Which Seems About Right

Plaintiff of historic case over Japanese-American internment during World War II was born in 1919.


Densho Encylopedia

What is it that Marx said about history occuring first as tragedy and then as farce?

President Donald Trump's orders halting all refugees and barring all nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries are no farce but they strongly call to mind past instances where presidents have acted abominably toward suspect minorities. As it happens, today is the birthday of Fred Korematsu (1919-2005), the American citizen of Japanese descent who challenged Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 (1942), "which authorized that all individuals of Japanese ancestry were to be removed from their homes and forced to live in internment camps." Korematsu is the subject of today's Google doodle.

As odious as Roosevelt's order was, it's even worse that the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the order, which was borne out of war-time and racist hysteria. In a 2004 review of Michelle Malkin's book-length polemic defending the rounding up on U.S. citizens irrespective of any evidence that they posed a threat to the nation's security, historian Eric Muller wrote:

Historians have shown that the chief causes of the Japanese American internment were ingrained anti-Asian racism, nativist and economic pressures from groups in California that had long wanted the Japanese gone, and the panic of wartime hysteria. As the Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians said in its 1981 report to Congress, "The broad historical causes which shaped [the decisions to relocate and detain Japanese Americans] were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."…

What supported [internment] was instead the sort of view that Gen. DeWitt expressed in 1942, when he said that "the Japanese race is an enemy race, and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted." What supported it was the sort of opinion voiced by California Attorney General (later U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice) Earl Warren when he argued that the absence of subversive activity by Japanese Americans proved that such activity was just around the corner. What supported it, in other words, was racism and wartime hysteria.

Muller notes that even as citizens of Japanese descent were being rounded up in the absence of any compelling evidence of divided loyalties or secret plans to sabotage the war effort, Americans of Italian and German heritage went about their business unmolested.

Germany was a more dangerous presence along the East Coast of the U.S. mainland for a far longer time than was Japan along the West Coast, and it twice landed saboteurs on Eastern shores. Germany had a network of spies whose existence did not need to be pieced together from vague references in decrypted diplomatic messages. And as for Malkin's point that there were so many potential German-American and Italian-American saboteurs on the East Coast that it made sense to do nothing to them–well, that argument refutes itself.

Malkin's book, of course, was written in the early years of the "Global War on Terror" (GWOT) and represented one of many attempts to assure people that this time, things were different. Racial anxiety was a thing of the past, goes this line of thinking, and we are simply calmly and cooly dealing with a real ideological enemy, radical Islam, that threatens our very existence. Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan officially apologized for the internment of Japanese-American citizens, and in the late 1980s, victims, who had lost their homes and had their wealth confiscated without any compensation, were given a token payment of $20,000 per person.

Donald Trump's executive order has already been stayed by several judges and his administration has walked back the portion barring permanent residents from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Such quick course correction shouldn't be mistaken for wisdom; it's fully the product of protest, outrage, and legal pushback. Barely a week into his presidency, it's clear that Trump and his administration doesn't think deeply or seriously about many issues—the White House had not even discussed the order fully with the Department of Homeland Security or fully legally vetted its language and process before it went into effect.

Hovering over Trump's executive order, now being defended by conservatives and other Trump apologists as righteous action in the GWOT, is the ghost of Fred Korematsu, who died in 2005. "I'll never forget my government treating me like this. And I really hope that this will never happen to anybody else because of the way they look, if they look like the enemy of our country," he once said. "Don't be afraid to speak up. One person can make a difference, even if it takes forty years."

Reason TV's Alexis Garcia and Zach Weissmueller reported from Saturday's protest at Los Angeles Airport: