Calls for leadership in the war against COVID-19 inevitably compare unfavorably our current effort to that of Franklin Roosevelt. But those who pine for such a leader—a ruthless partisan after all—who eventually crushed Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany seem to forget one element of his war strategy: The forcible removal of some 110,000 ethnic Japanese, citizen and alien alike, from the West Coast into inland centers and internment camps.
This drastic action, in the months following Pearl Harbor, routinely has been denounced as “the worst violation of civil liberties” in the 20th century. FDR defended it as vital to combat potential espionage or even Imperial Japanese invasion of the West Coast that might recruit local ethnic Japanese. And late in the war, the Supreme Court upheld the relocation as constitutional (Korematsu v. U.S., 1944), while also freeing ethnic Japanese who were concededly loyal Americans—that is, virtually all of them (ex parte Endo, 1944).
Yet this repugnant element of FDR’s leadership may be the more appropriate comparison to make regarding today’s “war” against the pandemic. For example, my parents had to dispose of property, lost their livelihoods, and had to endure barracks living for almost three years before returning to a hostile West Coast.
Today, some 75 years after an earlier “social distancing,” their son knows people who have lost their businesses and jobs and are restricted to home detention through anti-COVID-19 dictates from governors, acting under federal government guidance. Though the federal government made symbolic restitution of $20,000 per surviving evacuee in 1988, there will never be such individual compensation for the billions lost to the survivors of the 2020 shutdown.
Millions more are terrified to leave their homes, see friends, mourn their departed, or engage in ordinary activities of life. Yet many governors insist on continuing or even intensifying these policies as essential for public safety.
Even though World War II is supposed to be our indisputably “good war,” assailing the relocation (while always adding “racist”) has been a popular way to attack America—and not just for the Left.
For example, two years ago, former first lady Laura Bush, echoing others who were fed the same script, denounced the separation of children from illegal immigrants caught at the border as “eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
But despite the consensus against the camps, it is undeniable that my parents and their fellow Japanese enjoyed significant liberties greater than those of most Americans under the COVID-19 restrictions. It’s 1942, and we all lack even the limited freedoms of those ethnic Japanese.
Of course, we need to keep in mind that wartime restrictions such as food rationing burdened all Americans. In Hawaii there were curfews, enforced by the military; martial law replaced the courts. The draft laws continued to apply to ethnic Japanese men. Yet pro-Japan demonstrators could express their views, though they were mainly segregated into one center, Tule Lake.
The advantages the relocated ethnic Japanese had over Americans today include numerous elements of everyday life. Though denied their livelihoods, they did have paying jobs and could leave (and return) for seasonal agricultural work (which my parents did) or leave for permanent jobs in inland cities such as Chicago (as some of my relatives did), Denver, or Salt Lake City.
Within the relocation centers socializing, dancing, sports teams (which played teams on the outside), churches, and other group and individual activities enlivened routines. Medical care was available. Private businesses and farming flourished. Schools (including one certified junior college and several trade schools) were of more than respectable quality, with a high proportion, including 43 percent of the high school teachers having M.A. degrees. Others left for four-year colleges around the country. It is no wonder that Americans who resided near the camps accused the government of “coddling” these putative “potential enemies.”
Even before the Endo decision, inhabitants of the camps left them in droves. These American Japanese preferred freedom.
In comparing the rationales for relocation and internment of ethnic Japanese with the advocates of shutdowns, one might note the similarity of representative statements of western military commander General John DeWitt and others in World War II with those of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, one of the most vocal opponents of restoring freedom.
DeWitt: The west coast is “a battlefield.” Both of them echoing FDR, “DeWhitmer” says: “President Trump called this a war, and it is exactly that. So we must act like it.” I am the general you are the privates.
DeWitt: “A Jap is a Jap….” DeWhitmer: “Private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited.”
The enemy is everywhere.
Distinguished journalist Walter Lippmann: That “there has been no important sabotage on the Pacific Coast . . . is a sign that the blow . . . is held back . . . .”
DeWhitmer et al.: We have to be ready for the second wave. I will rule in perpetuity.
In many ways, the government and military in post-Pearl Harbor 1942 presented a far more credible case for the social distancing of the ethnic Japanese relocation than the various governments have today for the COVID-19 regulations.
This current war for the sake of health has crippled the physical, moral, and political health of the country; it has struck its soul. Even the slaves enjoyed some religious liberty. We have swapped a life of promise for compromised mere life. Unless, of course, you are rioting.