Nelson: A case for forced evacuation of a war zone

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On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a day of infamy.” Several months later he issued Order 9066, calling for the forced evacuation of any persons “as deemed necessary” from military zones. One such zone was America's entire West Coast and part of southern Arizona, and though they were not named in the order, it fell heaviest on Japanese citizens and Japanese-Americans. (Thousands of German- and Italian-Americans were interned as well.)

The order and the U.S. Supreme Court “Korematsu v. United States” decision that held it to be constitutional have been almost universally criticized from every conceivable political stripe. But was the American reaction purely racist? The answer might be more nuanced than most people suspect.

Notably those of Japanese descent elsewhere in America were left unmolested. Listening to American Public Media's “Order 9066” piqued my interest in reading Michelle Malkin's book “In Defense of Internment,” for which she was roasted by all sides.

But she makes some interesting historical observations: During the War of 1812 America removed and interned British citizens from East Coast cities, and in World War I interned 6,300 European-born residents. In both World Wars practically every country involved, from Canada to China to New Zealand, did likewise. Regardless of one's race or descent, it wasn't a good idea to be somehow connected to an antagonist country while living in the opposing country during war. There was plenty of precedent for Order 9066.

But was the order justified? We can look back now and see that Japan had no serious plan to invade the U.S. The real question is: Did internment seem reasonable given what American officials knew at the time? Even the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover (of all people) was against removing those of Japanese descent, but Japanese submarine predations on merchant shipping off Hawaii following Pearl Harbor, their brief bombardment on southern California's Ellwood oil field in 1942, other minor attacks on Canadian and American soil and shipping, and Japan's occupation of the Aleutian Islands made invasion seem plausible.


There was legitimate concern that some of Japanese descent in America would become or stay loyal to Japan. A Japanese fighter pilot shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack took shelter with a Japanese-American couple and, “exploiting their ethnic ties,” won them over to help him destroy his papers. (They failed, with a bloody ending.) At least one Japanese commander shortly before the attack remarked that he thought the ethnic Japanese in Hawaii would probably cooperate with Japanese occupation of the islands.

What's more, MAGIC messages—decoded intercepts of Japanese communications—showed signs of extensive espionage networks and recruiting of ethnic Japanese on the West Coast. These messages likely helped persuade Roosevelt to issue Order 9066. In fact, both Canada and Mexico carried out the same policy on their vulnerable west coasts—were the Mexicans racists too? There's much more to the story, of course. But Malkin's book casts some light on whether Americans were raving racists, defending themselves, or something in between.

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