World War II is remembered as the last good war, one with clear heroes and villains where the forces of freedom and democracy overcame the evils of fascism and Nazism. America’s conduct fighting the war and administering the peace afterwards in particular has long been held-up as the model for belligerents executing a war. To this day, World War II is invoked when America’s participation in a foreign conflict is criticized.
But there was one aspect of the execution of that war that has forever stained this otherwise benevolent portrait of American intervention, and that’s the shameful imprisonment of over 120,000 U.S. citizens out of an irrational fear rooted in racism.
In the aftermath of the Japanese empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Americans of Japanese descent, most of whom were born here, were rounded up and transported to internment camps scattered across remote areas of the western United States. Many lost businesses, property, and other assets as they waited nearly four years in confinement for the war to end, and only decades later did the U.S. government make any attempt at amends.
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The military cited concerns over spying and sabotage at the time to justify the controversial move. Congress, the courts, and even President Franklin Roosevelt agreed, or at least acquiesced to the military’s dubious rationalization. Those fears might have been believable if Italian and German Americans were similarly rounded up and imprisoned, but nothing remotely resembling the scale or scope of Japanese internment happened to them. Can you guess why?
Many thought that kind of disgraceful treatment of an imagined enemy could never happen in this country again. And yet the crisis along the southern border shows that Americans are as capable as ever of these reprehensible atrocities – at least the Americans those currently in power represent.
Many Republicans and supporters of President Trump have sneered at anyone trying to compare the separation of families and the virtual incarceration of children at the border to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, saying the two are in no way related. You know who’s not sneering? Japanese Americans, including and perhaps especially those who lived through interment the first time.
One survivor who spent his boyhood years locked-up in an internment camp is activist and Star Trek icon George Takei. He and others are not only acknowledging the similarities; they’re admitting that internment 2.0 is in some ways an even bigger travesty.
“In one core, horrifying way this is worse,” he wrote in a op-ed in Foreign Policy published late Tuesday. “At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents. We were not pulled screaming from our mothers’ arms. We were not left to change the diapers of younger children by ourselves.”
“I cannot for a moment imagine what my childhood would have been like had I been thrown into a camp without my parents,” he continued. “That this is happening today fills me with both rage and grief: rage toward a failed political leadership who appear to have lost even their most basic humanity, and a profound grief for the families affected.”
You can read George Takei’s op-ed in Foreign Policy here.