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Great America

Concentration Camps, Again?


- August 10th, 2019
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The Left’s hatred for America comes across most clearly in the bogus charge from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D.-N.Y.) and others that Americans have set up “concentration camps” on our border filled with adults and children. In leveling this falsehood they think they are dealing a fatal blow to alleged injustices surrounding immigration policy by comparing detention facilities for illegal border crossers with the so-called “Japanese American concentration camps” of World War II.

This demagogic, inflammatory charge is all the more offensive when it becomes clear the relocation centers for ethnic Japanese had nothing in common with the death camps of Nazi Germany or even with the prisoner of war camps of imperial Japan.

Fortunately, recent studies of the relocation policy and the centers, which housed my parents during World War II, make clear the dishonesty of the concentration camp comparison. This rebuttal does not, of course, require a full-scale defense of the Japanese relocation. One can understand and describe a policy with which one disagrees without hysterical hyperbole, though that concept appears lost on today’s Democrats. The point of any honest reexamination of the relocation camps should be to understand what happened as a response to imperial Japan’s foreign policy and its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

If the United States had simply uprooted 110,000 people of a particular ethnicity for no reason at all, that of course would be a grotesque injustice. But the United States had been attacked by a nationalistic Japan that counted on the loyalty of its fellow subjects around the world.

Enemy Aliens

There were many reasons why it was rational for Japan to assume such loyalty from ethnic Japanese living abroad.

First, Japanese immigrants to America were denied citizenship and after 1924 even entry into the country. When the war began, what nation would protect them? Their children, born on American soil, were citizens by birth but often became subjects of Japan by application to the local Japanese consulate.

Second, many of these ethnic Japanese supported Japan’s expansionist adventures, its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, including its brutal invasion of Manchuria, in financial contributions and in ethnic newspaper reporting and editorials. Would that support continue following war with America? After all, collaboration with invaders fit Japanese tactics in its Asian conquests

Finally, there was evidence of collaboration with Japanese agents by both enemy aliens and resident ethnic Japanese. National security officials could not be certain that these identifiable enemies were the only ones.

The most egregious episode was the Niihau island takeover by a Japanese fighter-bomber pilot on December 7, 1941. The damaged Zero landed on the tiny, sparsely populated island of Niihau, at the western tip of the Hawaiian archipelago. The pilot urged a simple Japanese-American farmer and his wife to claim the island for the Emperor; they knew nothing else of the morning attack on Pearl Harbor. The farmer agreed but the native Hawaiians declined the honor, killed the pilot, and the farmer then committed suicide.

Was this bizarre episode a one-off or a tip-off that Hawaii and west coast hid many future Niihaus, just awaiting a Japanese agent to come ashore from a submarine or a ship or might they respond simply on orders from Tokyo? Japan surprised the United States at Pearl Harbor; perhaps the Japanese had more surprises in store.

The Niihau episode also raised the question of whether mass relocation might be justified, despite the conceded loyalty of most ethnic Japanese, most of whom were citizens, albeit young. Immediately following the December 7 attack, FBI agents arrested suspect ethnic Japanese community leaders and enemy aliens, who were sent to internment centers, where nothing was heard of them for months. They spent the duration of the war in these internment centers isolated from family, friends, and former communities.

The Best of a Bad Situation

After voluntary evacuation failed, the government ordered most other ethnic Japanese, those on the West Coast of the continental United States and Alaska, to assembly centers while 10 relocation centers located primarily in the mountain region were built to accommodate 110,000 residents, who had sold or stored their possessions. While no one would voluntarily live in these crude barracks, it was wartime. The ethnic Japanese occupants made the best of a bad situation and, governing themselves, improved their living quarters, prepared collective meals, established flourishing farms outside the centers. Ethnic Japanese farmers in Utah reaped bounteous harvests in soil where Mormon predecessors had failed.

One resident, writer Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, described her camp as “a totally equipped American small town, complete with schools, churches, Boy Scouts, beauty parlors, neighborhood gossip, fire and police departments, glee clubs, softball leagues, ‘Abbott and Costello’ movies, tennis courts, and traveling shows.” Athletic teams competed with those of local high schools.

In fact, the government funding often gave the center residents better schools, health care, and wages than what could be expected in neighboring towns, which led to charges that they were being “coddled.” Many camps were not even fenced in; guards were typically not visible. Residents could apply for short- or long-term leave from the centers. The centers’ populations declined throughout the war as residents left for college or much-needed work. My father and mother left their center for temporary agricultural work, returning only in the winters. Aunts and uncles moved to Chicago for work there.

That my family’s experience was not unique is documented in the recent useful book by historian Roger Lotchin, Japanese American Relocation in World War II. While some of his argument can be disputed and he makes occasional errors (for example, Justice William Murphy dissented in the Korematsu case, not in Endo), the book is a solid refutation of the “American concentration camp” libel and deserves a wide readership. A more scholarly study of the centers and the conflicted loyalties of ethnic Japanese, one relied on by Lotchin, is Japanese American historian Brian Hayashi’s Democratizing the Enemy.

Questionable “Court of History”

But is there truth to the charge that the Supreme Court nonetheless uphold the right of the government to relocate an ethnic minority, already discriminated against by state and federal laws? Here, too, common accounts of the cases bear the tint of demagoguery.

In the recent “Muslim travel ban” case of Trump v. Hawaii, Chief Justice Roberts, responding to a taunt by Justice Sondra Sotomayor, declared “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—‘has no place in law under the Constitution,’” quoting dissenting Justice Jackson in Korematsu v. U.S., the case that supposedly upheld the constitutionality of American concentration camps.

Whether Chief Justice Roberts is also the chief justice of the “court of history” is questionable,  and I note one error of omission. On the same day (December 18, 1944) the court announced Korematsu, which reaffirmed its precedents using common nationality with a warring nation as a rational basis for residential restrictions, the court also announced the unanimous decision of ex parte Endo, which held that a loyal American could not be detained at a relocation center. That closed the camps.

Anyone who cites the threat of Korematsu to civil liberties without also citing the companion case of Endo encourages a great distortion of American history. To be sure, the decisions were argued and announced much later than necessary—doubtless to prevent a return of the ethnic Japanese to the West Coast before November and possibly hurting Franklin Roosevelt’s and the Democratic party’s election chances.

There is ethnic and racial demagoguery in our politics, but the side practicing it has a legion of liars in high and low places.

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