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Why Does Team Trump Keep Talking About Japanese Internment?

The Roosevelt-era horror was a national shame. Just ask the survivors.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, facilitating one of the most shameful atrocities ever perpetrated by the United States government against its own people.

As The New York Times reported decades later, “The order, which permitted the War Department to designate specific areas from which people could be barred, resulted in the military’s excluding all those of Japanese ancestry from California, Oregon, and Washington State. Some 77,000 Japanese-American citizens and 43,000 legal and illegal aliens of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and confined, out of a fear that they posed a threat.” 

Families were often given just a few days to vacate their communities. They had to leave their entire lives behind. They were taken to government detention centers far from their homes, where they would be surrounded by security. The Library of Congress describes the “spare, prison-like compounds situated on sun-baked deserts or bare Ozark hillsides, dotted with watchtowers and surrounded by barbed wire”:

Life in the camps had a military flavor; internees slept in barracks or small compartments with no running water, took their meals in vast mess halls, and went about most of their daily business in public. Physical mistreatment was rare, but the armed guards and the ever-present snipers in the watchtowers were constant reminders of the residents’ new status.

These camps, the last of which closed in 1946, were a grotesque civil liberties violation and act of racial discrimination, which also turned out to be useless from a national security perspective. “Studies by a Government commission years later found that no incident of espionage or sabotage by any Japanese-American had occurred during the war,” the Times reported.

To most Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is remembered clearly as dark history, a national shame—and as wrongdoing that can never be justified, repeated, or emulated. And yet, 70 years later, in 2016, we’ve learned that President-elect Donald Trump and some of his biggest supporters might not buy into that consensus. And they’re not alone: Citing internment as historical precedent for contemporary discrimination against Muslims is more common than you’d think.

The latest incident came Wednesday, when Carl Higbie, a spokesman for the pro-Trump Great America PAC, told Fox News that the president-elect could legally reinstate a Bush-era government registry for new immigrants from Muslim countries in part because “we did it during World War II with Japanese.” He may not have been endorsing internment specifically, but as actor and internment survivor George Takei told MSNBC Thursday, “Registration of any group of people, and certainly registration of Muslims, is a prelude to internment.” It certainly was during World War II.

Under fire, Higbie later called internment “horrific” and said he opposed it, but nonetheless reiterated to The New York Times, “There is historical, factual precedent to do things that are not politically popular and sometimes not right, in the interest of national security.”

He wasn’t the first high-profile Trump supporter to say something like this. Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative who advised the president-elect on veterans issues during his campaign, defended Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from the United States last December by calling it “no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps.”

And in a jaw-dropping interview that same month, Trump himself, questioned about his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, told Time he might have supported internment under Roosevelt. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he said. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.” 

Defending internment is a fringe position on the American right, of course. But since the 9/11 terror attacks, a few prominent conservatives have done just that.

In 2004, Michelle Malkin published an entire book called In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror. In addition to justifying Roosevelt’s actions, she cast remorse over the incident as political correctness, foisted upon impressionable history students by left-wing educators.  

“I think that, for three generations, American schoolchildren have been guilt-tripped into believing that what happened during World War II was simply the result of knee-jerk racism and wartime hysteria, and it simply isn’t true,” Malkin told Sean Hannity. “There’s a lot of evidence, intelligence that was available to the Roosevelt administration, that laid out a clear and what they thought was a grave threat of espionage, sabotage, possible fifth-column activities being planned on the west coast.”

Malkin further claimed Roosevelt had evidence that “Japanese-Americans who had not otherwise shown disloyalty ... went over to the imperial forces’ side based on appeals of ethnic loyalty and loyalty to the emperor.”

Mainstream scholars and other reviewers condemned her book, but Malkin also won some converts. Conservative scholar Thomas Sowell endorsed the text, as did right-wing historian Daniel Pipes. He wrote that Malkin performed “the singular service of breaking the academic single-note scholarship on a critical subject, cutting through a shabby, stultifying consensus”:

She correctly concludes that, especially in time of war, governments should take into account nationality, ethnicity, and religious affiliation in their homeland security policies and engage in what she calls “threat profiling.” These steps may entail bothersome or offensive measures but, she argues, they are preferable to “being incinerated at your office desk by a flaming hijacked plane.”

Is this the type of twisted rationalization driving Trump and some of his supporters? On Thursday, Representative Mike Honda told The New Republic the president-elect should denounce Higbie’s statements. The California Democrat was among those interned in 1942, and he said the United States must never repeat this atrocity. 

“If Trump does not say something about this—does not disavow it—he will be failing in political leadership,” Honda said. “He will be failing in his own promise to make America great.”

As the congressman noted, the United States issued a formal apology for internment in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan and Congress made restitution payment to 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans. “For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law,” the president said.

It’s outrageous that Trump and any of his supporters would throw that commitment into question. It’s beyond the pale, and it should be universally condemned, just like internment itself. 

“I think it’s very frightening,” said Madeleine Sugimoto, an 81-year-old New Yorker who was interned in Arkansas camps, in an interview with the New Republic. “It’s very frightening and discouraging that anything like this even comes up again.”