I am reminded lately of a 1949 political cartoon with the caption “Fire!” that pictured a hysterical man racing up a ladder with a bucket of water to extinguish the torch on the Statue of Liberty.
The cartoon warned against the hysteria that was gripping the country in the midst of the escalating Cold War, reminding Americans that while our fears may be justified, sometimes our solutions — like dousing the flame of liberty — are irrational. In this case, the image was referencing the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) investigations of Hollywood, which may have satisfied certain political ends, but hardly made America safer from the real threat of the Soviet Union.
In another moment of fear and hysteria, two months after the Japanese Invasion of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order that interned more than 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, more than 70,000 of whom were American-born U.S. citizens who had committed no crime except having been born to Japanese parents. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who dissented in the Korematsu Decision that upheld Japanese internment, argued passionately that the internment order was unconstitutional because of the principle that lies at the heart of our legal system: “guilt is personal and not inheritable.” We are accountable for our actions as individuals, but we cannot be be condemned as a group simply because of our race or ethnicity.
In the case of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, there was never any evidence of individual disloyalty, a fact that Ronald Reagan highlighted when he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a law that granted restitution to internment survivors and acknowledged that Japanese Americans had been incarcerated “without trial, without jury” entirely because they “were Americans of Japanese descent.” Careful not to pass judgment on those Americans who “may have made mistakes” while defending America during war, Reagan insisted that “we must recognize that the internment of Japanese Americans was just that: a mistake.” Reagan closed his powerful speech by reaffirming America’s “commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.” I encourage you to watch it at bit.ly/Reagan_1988.
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As a sign of the times, a recent opinion piece in the Herald (“Was the Relocation of West Coast Japanese Racist” by Gary Bullert) argues that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two was justified, in part, because of the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan in Asia. There is no defending the atrocities of the Japanese Empire — but those atrocities were not committed, nor aided, by Japanese American citizens on the West Coast. Should they have been punished for the actions of the Empire of Japan? By this logic, all German Americans should have been held culpable for the Holocaust; all Muslims held responsible for Sept. 11.
Bullert also argues that Japanese relocation was justified because of “Fifth Column” activity in Hawaii and the Philippines. It is telling that he provides no evidence of spying or espionage by Japanese Americans on the West Coast, where the internment orders were actually implemented. In Hawaii, where people of Japanese ancestry constituted a much larger percentage of the population, local politicians resisted hysteria and prevented a general internment order, leaving loyal Japanese Americans to contribute to the war effort as a vital part of the Island’s workforce.
The analogies to our current era of fear-driven politics are striking. Just as Japanese American citizens were condemned for the actions of a foreign government with which they had no involvement, some politicians today are pandering to popular fears of Islam, connecting all Muslims by association to the atrocities of ISIS and radical terrorist groups.
As in the 1940s, the fears of Americans are real and warranted: there is no defending the atrocities of ISIS. But once again, our solutions are irrational and ideological rather than constructive. Many foreign policy experts today expect that Trump’s recent orders will make us less safe by jeopardizing our alliances with Muslim nations, by serving as a recruiting tool for ISIS, and by reinforcing anti-American attitudes throughout the Muslim world.
According to terrorism researchers, 123 Americans have been killed on American soil by Muslim terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001, out of a total of more than 230,000 killings in the country over that same time period — and none by an immigrant from one of the seven countries in the current travel ban. Despite the minuscule odds that the average American will perish in a terrorist attack, the fear of terrorism is continually stoked by politicians who seem more interested in scoring political points than devising effective strategies to keep us safer. The fact that these orders did not include Saudi Arabians (who were the majority of the 9-11 attackers) shows that these policies were designed to fulfill campaign promises rather than strengthen our national security.
I don’t blame American citizens for being afraid: they have been inflamed by demagogic politicians who should know better. But these politics of fear threaten to destroy our core values and tarnish our reputation throughout the world, fulfilling an intolerant, mean-spirited image of America created by the terrorists themselves.
There is always a “fire” — some kind of existential threat — be it the Axis Powers in the 1940s, the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or ISIS today, but we need to be careful that the measures we take to combat such threats are rational and constructive rather than hysterical and ideological.
David Arnold has a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and teaches at Columbia Basin College and WSU-TC.