What does Pearl Harbor have to do with the Bill of Rights? Everything.
The attack that led to the war that grew the National Security State
Today marks the 75th anniversary of Imperial Japan’s attack on America’s Pacific Fleet headquarters. Only a tiny handful of U.S. survivors of the assault remain with us. Some are only now, in their 90s or even older, returning to the attack site for the first time. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will not be at today’s memorial ceremonies in Oahu but is scheduled to meet with President Obama in Hawaii just after Christmas, “to pray for the war dead at the naval base at Pearl Harbor and to hold a final summit meeting with Obama before the latter’s presidency ends.” It’s a coda to Obama’s past trip to Hiroshima, the first by a sitting U.S. president.
Out of the suffering and destruction of that conflict has risen an enduring partnership between the two Pacific powers. But something else emerged from that war that has had far more baneful effects here at home, and elsewhere around the world: the American National Security State. It should not have been this way.
The Founding Generation, which fought the Revolution and created the Constitution, had suffered greatly at the hands of a British government that used the power of the state against its own citizens — taxation without representation, warrantless searches and seizures, and the forced quartering of British soldiers in American homes. The experience gave the Founders a mortal fear of large, standing armed forces — something that most of President Washington’s successors shared and only discarded during times of extreme emergency, such as the Civil War. But as America expanded across the continent and its national character changed in the wake of the “War Between The States,” it transformed from a loose group of mini-republics held together by relatively small federal government into economic and burgeoning international political, economic, and military powerhouse.
Fueled by the writings of American naval officer and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan and other emerging internationalist thinkers, American policymakers began looking abroad for new opportunities for U.S. markets and influence — a move that spurred an unprecedented expansion of the American navy and a growing sense that the country needed to be able to project power abroad in order to remain safe and prosperous at home. The Spanish-American War (1898) and Boxer Rebellion in China (1900–01) gave expansionist proponents — de facto imperialists — like Theodore Roosevelt the opening they needed to turn their vision into reality.
Concurrently, new political and economic philosophies that challenged the prevailing capitalist paradigm — anarchism and socialism — were increasingly viewed as threats warranting strong measures from the government.
Even prior to President William McKinley’s assassination by self-proclaimed anarchist Leo Czolgosz in September 1901, the Secret Service had been monitoring anarchists (real or imagined) on a global basis. That effort would expand exponentially in the wake of McKinley’s murder, to be followed later in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration by the creation in 1908 of the (Federal) Bureau of Investigation. Cooperative agreements with telecommunications providers Western Union and AT&T for the monitoring of telegraph (and later, telephone) communications came shortly thereafter. The basic structure of the National Security State, including a robust domestic surveillance capability, took root.
By the end of World War I, the basic structure of the American National Security State had been tested both overseas and here at home, targeting anti-war activists, socialists, anarchists and other political dissenters using measures at extreme as the wartime-passed Espionage Act. Although there would be a limited public and Congressional push-back on the wartime excesses, the governmental structures and associated laws used to surveil and persecute those opposed to the war and related government policies remained in place. And as the 1930s came to an end and another global war loomed on the horizon, those structures began to grow. After Pearl Harbor, they exploded in size and power.
Organizationally the FBI mushroomed, given carte blanche by President Franklin Roosevelt to spy on virtually anyone suspected of disloyalty no matter how ludicrous the allegation. The Army, under Roosevelt’s executive order, rounded up and interned in concentration camps an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans who had committed no crime and had no connection to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Simply being of Japanese ancestry was sufficient cause for these citizens to have their constitutional rights suspended for the duration — even as this nation’s white majority asked the sons of interned Japanese-Americans to fight for freedoms they no longer enjoyed.
Congress not only went along with these assaults on the Bill of Rights, it aided and abetted them by the creation of the so-called House Un-American Activities Committee in 1944. It was the official Congressional seal-of-approval for domestic political repression in wartime. And all of these structures and precedents can either trace their origin or expansion to that fateful morning in the skies over Pearl Harbor 75 years ago today.
In the wake of America’s victory in World War II, the communications revolution was exploited aggressively by the newly-created National Security Agency, which in 1945 and for the next 30+ years began reading every incoming and outgoing telegram — without any court oversight, much less authorization. The FBI, already a major domestic surveillance force prior to the world wars, became the federal government’s leading domestic spying apparatus throughout WW II and the Cold War. The Congressional HUAC remained the FBI’s eager partner thoughout this period, until revelations about the decades-long domestic spying and political repression operations began coming to light in the early 1970s, leading to the disbandment of HUAC and the passage of still more laws designed to prevent such abuses in the future. But those reforms failed, as still more domestic spying revelations have trickled out ever since, most spectacularly by Edward Snowden in 2013.
War — and the fears, real or imagined, that go with it — can drive a nation to discard its most (allegedly) cherished beliefs and legal protections for its citizens. Even as we pause today to remember the heroism and valor of American Pearl Harbor survivors, we must also remember that that same generation — in panic and fear after the attack — turned on a group of their fellow Americans in ways that betrayed the Bill of Rights and our self-proclaimed values as a nation. For me, that’s become the most important lesson from, and legacy of, Pearl Harbor — particularly in light of the threats made by our President-elect against our Arab/Muslim-American neighbors.
If, like me, you’re worried that we may be on the threshold of a new, even darker chapter of war, domestic surveillance, and political repression, you might consider letting our President-elect know that you’re not down with that. I hear he likes Twitter and can be reached via @realDonaldTrump.