Executive Disorder

Sometimes we face difficult choices between our security and our values. But often the two go together. So where do we go wrong?

75 years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the US military to exclude any persons from designated areas to promote national security. The word “Japanese” appeared nowhere in the order, but under its authority approximately 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent, including 70,000 American citizens, were incarcerated, primarily on the West Coast. In remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and military police, they were stripped of their property and civil liberties.

The government’s justification was military necessity, but not a single attempt at sabotage or espionage by Japanese-Americans or resident Japanese nationals was ever documented. Moreover, internment weakened the war effort by depressing Japanese-American enlistment. Beginning in 1943, the War Relocation Authority offered enlistment in a Japanese-American unit, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, as a way out of the camps, but only about 1,000 volunteered.

Many of us are familiar with this story. But what is less well-known is that the situation in Hawaii, the site of the Pearl Harbor attack, was quite different. Of its nearly 158,000 persons of Japanese descent, only 2,000 were interned. It wasn’t just good values, it was good sense: detaining 35% of the population is impractical, especially when there is no credible threat. What’s more, without mass internment, nearly 10,000 Japanese-Americans from Hawaii proudly volunteered to serve in the Japanese-American unit, ten times the number from the entire continental US.

My grandfather, Master Sergeant Tom Oshiro.

More followed, my grandfather among them. Born in Hawaii, Tom Oshiro was just five days from his fourteenth birthday and ten miles from Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He enlisted in the US Army at age 17 and served with thousands of other Japanese-Americans in occupied Japan, where their knowledge of local language and culture helped lay the foundation for the US-Japan alliance. Fighting in Europe, the 442nd became one of the most decorated units in US military history. These contributions demonstrate that internment not only deprived thousands of US citizens and residents of their rights, but also deprived our country of the service of many Americans when they were needed most.

So how did Washington make such a poor decision? In 1982, after extensive review of records and testimony, the US Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) concluded that it was driven by “race prejudice, hysteria and a failure of political leadership”. Navy Secretary, Frank Knox, helped popularize the false rumor that ethnic Japanese on Hawaii aided in the Pearl Harbor attack. John DeWitt, Commanding General of the West Coast, discounted military, FBI, and intelligence analysis in recommending internment. Instead, he relied on racist myths, believing, for example, that the thought processes of ethnic Japanese were different from Caucasians’ and determining loyalty was impossible. Ultimately, President Roosevelt neglected to discuss DeWitt’s proposal with his Cabinet and signed the order against the Attorney General’s recommendation.

This story might sound familiar: an executive order driven by fear and “alternative facts”, drafted to avoid explicit references to the group targeted, and signed without Cabinet consultation or the Attorney General’s support.

The Trump administration argues its travel ban against refugees and nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries is an important national security measure. Like Roosevelt’s executive order, however, Trump’s is not a necessary compromise between American security and values, but a policy that runs deeply counter to both. No terrorism-related deaths on American soil in the past three decades were caused by individuals from the groups affected by the ban, just as there was no evidence of Japanese-American disloyalty during World War II. And, like Hawaiian tolerance then, American openness today — coupled with intense vetting already in place — increases our national security by promoting mutual exchange, fostering cooperation in places like Iraq and Yemen, and demonstrating the strength of American values.

It is disheartening when the choice is obvious, but people — often afraid and uninformed — choose poorly. History offers some good news, however: even when Washington fails, patriotic Americans can still act. Delos Emmons, the commanding general in Hawaii during World War II, repeatedly resisted plans for expanded internment. He advised trust in military intelligence over rumors, emphasized the importance of ethnic Japanese to the war effort, and argued that, war or no, “we must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”

We should learn from Emmons’ principled, practical, and persistent resistance. A state-led lawsuit has already won a temporary halt on the travel ban. Trump, however, has promised a replacement executive order to resolving the legal issues that have been raised, but seems uninterested in addressing the moral and security concerns. More work will be needed to defeat this and any other forthcoming policies similarly based on fearmongering and falsehoods.

In 1983, the CWRIC warned, “Our nation’s ability to honor democratic values even in times of stress depends largely upon our collective memory of lapses from our constitutional commitment to liberty and due process.” Today, the anniversary of Roosevelt’s unjust executive order and Day of Remembrance, I urge you to read their words and heed their warning.