APR 2002

Executive Order 9066 and I:
A Reflection After 60 Years

by Yuzuru J. Takeshita, Ann Arbor

It was on February 19 sixty years ago that President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the internment of 110,000 of us who were of Japanese descent—the majority of us American citizens—living then on the West Coast. How this Order came about and especially how it was implemented take on added significance this year in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. In a newly-published book Roosevelt’s Secret War ( New York: Random House, 2001), Joseph E. Perisco writes that President Roosevelt had convincing information from several intelligence sources that Japanese Americans and Japanese aliens posed no threat to American security in the event of a war with Japan and yet disregarded the intelligence reports out of political expedience, choosing "to appease public paranoia, and signed Executive Order 9066, which uprooted these people and sent them to remote inhospitable ‘relocation centers’ in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho." In a recent NPR program discussing this book, Perisco even claimed that Roosevelt knew it was unconstitutional to apply this executive order to an ethnic minority en masse as he did without due process but went ahead anyway. If these revelations are true, we must agree with the American Civil Liberties Union’s condemnation of our internment as "the worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of American citizens in our history."

What were some of the documented expressions of paranoia that President Roosevelt acceded to? General John Dewitt, Commander of the Western Defense Command, was quoted in the newspapers under the headline: "Once a Jap, Always a Jap": "The danger of the Japanese is espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still Japanese. American citizenship does not determine loyalty. All Japanese look alike and therefore cannot be distinguished as to their loyalty. You needn’t worry about the Italians and the Germans, except in individual cases. But we must worry about the Japanese…as long as he is allowed in this area." An even more egregious statement was issued by California’s Attorney-General at the time, Earl Warren—yes, the same Earl Warren who later became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and who will be remembered as a champion of civil rights: "So far as this great state of ours is concerned, we have had no fifth-column activities and no sabotage reported. It looks very much as though it is a studied effort not to have any until the zero hour arrives (italics added)." Few realize that the Executive Order 9066 did not specify to whom it should be applied, although clearly it was intended from the start by President Roosevelt primarily for the Japanese on the West Coast. The Order authorized "the Secretary of War and military commanders designated by him to prescribe military areas with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate military commander may impose in his discretion." The Commission On Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, appointed by President Carter, in their 1982 report (Personal Justice Denied, Washington, D.C., December 1982) concluded that the most critical condition that permitted the evacuation of all of us residents of Japanese descent from the West Coast was General Dewitt’s "temperamental disposition to exaggerate the measures necessary to maintain security and his placing security far ahead of any concern for the liberty of citizens" and his distrust of the ethnic Japanese which led to his belief that ethnicity determined loyalty. Thus, if it was in General Dewitt’s discretion appropriate to remove all of us from the West Coast for national security reasons, it was General Emmons, Commander of the Pacific Defense Command in Honolulu in his discretion to reject any thought of a mass evacuation for any of the Japanese residents of Hawaii and to insist on dealing with the issue of national security on a case-by-case basis. In spite of all the rumors, later proved to be completely false, about the anti-American acts of the Japanese residents during the attack on Pearl Harbor, General Emmons chose not to cast any suspicion of disloyalty on the local Japanese as a group in the way General Dewitt and Attorney-General Warren did on the West Coast against us Japanese residents even though numerous intelligence reports available to them had concluded that we posed no threat to the nation’s security.

At the personal level, I suffered one of the most humiliating experiences of my life a few days after Pearl Harbor when my 8th grade teacher asked those of us of Japanese descent who were Boy Scouts to turn in our flashlight, compass, and scout knife presumably because she thought less of us as American citizens, influenced by the negative rhetoric of the time. To this day, my voice breaks when I relate this ugly episode to those who seek to hear about our wartime internment experience. Soon FBI agents started arresting leaders of our community such as officers of Japanese associations, Buddhist priests, Japanese language school teachers, and the like. Rumors were rampant that, lest we be charged with intent to engage in espionage, we should get rid of anything that could be construed as suggesting pro-Japan sentiments such as any family photos containing anyone in Japanese military uniform, books, magazines, and records that had any martial flavor to them and, of course, any equipment such as a short-wave radio, torch light, or arms—whether operational or not—that may be construed as potential weapons for use in any subversive acts. We hastily burned those things we could burn, not without tears, and buried in our backyard those that could not be burned. (It is likely that those things we buried are still there since we never went back to the house we had rented.) What I did not burn or bury were several dictionaries I needed in my desperate effort to relearn the English that I lost while spending my childhood in Japan. In the one suitcase that each of us was allowed to carry into camp I made sure these instruments of language support were packed. However, soon after entering the temporary assembly center set up on the grounds of the Tanforan Race Track near the San Francisco International Airport, the authorities announced that any Japanese books and records still in our possession would be subject to confiscation on a designated date when troops would come through the barracks. Desperate as I was, the night before the designated date, I sneaked out of the barracks at around 2:00 a.m. and hid my dictionaries under one of the buildings I could crawl under and retrieved them again at around 2:00 a.m. the next day. I was not going to let the authorities deny me my right to study the two languages, English and Japanese, that represent my dual heritage. Such defiance, I believe, had nothing to do with loyalty or disloyalty.

The time behind barbed wire as a prisoner in my own country by virtue of my ancestry represents the worst four years (1942-46) of my life. En route to the more permanent camp in Central Utah, I experienced another humiliation that still rankles. As our train pulled into Salt Lake City, today the site of the Winter Olympics promoting international friendship, and as we waited for a change of tracks to head southward to our final destination, a troop train pulled up right next to us. We knew where the troops were headed and so quietly prayed for their safety only to be greeted with abusive catcalls and obscene gestures. To this day, I wonder how many of those soldiers whose safety we prayed for survived the war in the Pacific where they were headed. I hope many did.

I entered high school in camp and graduated from high school in camp. Ironically, as a high school student behind barbed wire, I had the good fortune to meet a teacher who taught me the true meaning of citizenship in a democracy: Margaret Crosby Gunderson. She and her husband had abandoned their teaching posts in Alameda County, California in protest of our internment and joined the faculty at a camp in Northern California where my family and I were transferred from Utah. In our American history class, she challenged us to fight injustice against any group of people among us when it happens, insisting that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. "Today it may be you but next time it may be we Irish-Americans," she argued, not realizing then how prophetic those words would turn out to be in 2001 when the Arab-Americans are threatened with the kind of injustice to which we Japanese Americans were subjected to then. I wrote the following words in Japanese poetic form in tribute to her when she passed away at age 93 in 1996:

My dear Margaret
You taught me through words and deeds
During World War II
How to be a warrior
In the fight ‘gainst injustice

She insisted to the end that she only did what she thought was the right thing to do. To which I would respond: Yes, many of us know what is the right thing to do, but, Margaret, how many of us have the courage that you showed to do the right thing—especially in the absence of support from others? Someone wrote: The defense of freedom comes at its test at the extremes, not at the comfortable center, and therefore it is rarely easy. I am reminded of the words of Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust: "…I learned the perils of language and those of silence. I learned that in extreme situations, when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is sin. I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference…" My teacher and her husband chose not to be indifferent. They did not remain silent even though they were ostracized as "Jap-lovers" and "traitors" by the local townspeople and frequently denied services for their necessities.

As a long-time resident of the City of Ann Arbor, I am proud that the City Council on January 7, 2002, passed a resolution in support of due process for all members of the Ann Arbor Community in reaction to recent events affecting the lives of our Arab-American neighbors. Contrast this with a resolution passed on February 21, 1944 by the City Council of Sunnyvale, California to permanently bar any Japanese, citizens and aliens alike, from residing in the community (hastily rescinded in 1988 when the city discovered to their embarrassment that this resolution was still on the books). I like to think that we have come a long way in the 60 years since the Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Roosevelt. President George W. Bush, for one, has called upon the nation not to blame the Muslim community in our midst for the events of September 11. However, some of the statements made by his Attorney-General Ashcroft and the treatment of those arrested by the Justice Department on suspicion of being connected to the terrorist groups warn us not to be complacent. The balance between national security and civil rights is a delicate one, but we as a nation must seek that balance, however difficult, in our fight against terror rather than allow national security concerns ride roughshod over our individual liberty as we once let happen in the lives of some of us. R

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