April 28, 2004


Cruel Detentions: The Supreme Court considers whether the president can throw away the key. (Dahlia Lithwick, April 28, 2004, Slate)

How you feel about the indefinite military detentions of Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla will turn largely on what you think life will look like when it starts. By "it," I mean the moment at which fundamental liberties are curtailed by well-meaning governments and the legal system becomes unable to offer relief. Never having seen "it" happen in my lifetime, I'm hardly an expert. German Jews who survived the Holocaust will tell you that it's hard to know at exactly which instant you've crossed the line into "it." Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American detained during World War II, knows what "it" looks like, and he says it looks a bit like this. Professor Jennifer Martinez, Padilla's oral advocate at the Supreme Court this morning, says we are at the line separating "it" from "not it" right now, today—as the court stands poised to decide whether "the government can take citizens off the street and lock them up in jail forever."

The detention of Japanese-Americans was a mistake because they represented no threat and were targeted merely because of FDR's racism. Had there been a serious threat of widespread sabotage in that community or had there been specific allegations and evidence against individuals, then it would have been entirely proper to round folks up. But what's most interesting about the detention is that it signaled almost nothing wider about civil liberties. It did not begin a descent into tyranny--it stands out precisely because it was an aberration.

If the Dahlia Lithwick's of the world are looking for a comparison from WWII to the current detention of enemy combatants--both these clowns and the guys at Guantanamo--they'd be more honest if they chose German,Japanese, and Confederate POWs. It seems rather unlikely that they were allowed access to the American criminal system to argue that their detentions were unjust and to the best of our knowledge not a soul has ever complained about that not to this day thinks it transgressed civil liberties.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 28, 2004 11:20 PM

FDR may have been a racist, but there was pretty significant immediate historical justification for interning Japanese residents -- the manner in which Malaya was conquered by the Imperial Army.

Posted by: Jorge at April 28, 2004 11:56 PM


Had it had anything to do with military security they'd have been interned on Hawaii too, where they were in close proximty to significant installations.

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 12:02 AM

Ummm, Hawaii was under martial law during the war. Being stuck on small islands in the middle of the Pacific was about as effective an internment policy as one could imagine...

Posted by: brian at April 29, 2004 12:07 AM


Putting them in barbed wire wrapped camps patrolled by guards with orders to shoot is a tad more effective, no?

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 12:12 AM

You wanna round up more than half of the population?

Posted by: brian at April 29, 2004 12:17 AM

Orrin's FDR phobia leads him down odd pathways.

The roundup in the western states was racist, Christian and based on equal parts fear and greed.

However, it was not begun by FDR but by the Republican governor of California, Earl Warren, inspired by an incompetent and frightened Army general, DeWitt.

Roosevelt, as was his practice, deferred to local political sentiment.

In Hawaii, panicky and incompetent Army generals also moved for widespread arrests but were talked out it by a Roosevelt appointee, the local head of the FBI.

Jorge, Malaya was not conquered by Japanese sugar cane cutters but by a large element of the Imperial Japanese Army.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 29, 2004 2:17 AM

Gee, Harry, I missed the part where Christian priests and ministers took part. Elucidate?

Posted by: Chris at April 29, 2004 7:37 AM


Warren was equally culpable, but he was only a governor. The official military report of course told them that the internment was completely unnecessary as the Japanese-Americans posed no threat.

One does enjoy though your vision of an FDR doing the bidding of crazed right-wingers--too bad he didn't listen when they tried stopping the disastrous New Deal.


You missed it? It's in all the pamphlets Harry hands out on Sunday mornings. He's the one with his head wrapped in tinfoil.

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 8:06 AM


And there you arrive at the core truth of the matter--where they were a minority they were easy prey, where a near majority their political power was feared.

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 8:24 AM

Well, none of this has much to do with the actual internment.

On December 8, 1941, the Army started to notice that all of its bases in California were surrounded by Japanese truck farms. This wasn't particularly sinister -- the bases had moved to the truck farms -- but the Army found it worrying. At the same time, the FBI raided a few clubs it had been keeping an eye on, in which some Japanese, mostly Issei (immigrants) were collecting tin and other material to send back to Japan.

As a result of all this, the Army commander of the California military zones, with the agreement of Earl Warren, started excluding the Japanese from sensitive military areas. That might not sound too bad, but (a) the sensitive military zones started out encompassing most of the places the Japanese actually lived and (b) kept expanding until it included all of California.

So the Japanese started heading inland. You can imagine the reaction of small towns in Nevada and Arizona as much of California's Japanese population started migrating through town. The Army started to get panicky calls about "California's Japanese escaping", some were arrested for no particular reason, and worse happened.

At this point, the federal government set up the War Relocation Authority, under Milton Eisenhower (Ike's brother) to set up internment camps. The theory was that the Japanese would be concentrated in the camps while they were vetted by the government and slowly released. Unfortunately, and unconstitutionally, the Japanese, incarcerated because of their race, were given the burden of proof to demonstrate a negative (that they weren't agents of the Imperial Japanese government). Very few were released during the war.

(This is based on my memory of 20 year old research I did in college, so some of the details might be off. I also have a vague memory of a Gallup Poll showing, prior to the internment, that a substantial portion of Japanese-Americans supported internment.)

Posted by: David Cohen at April 29, 2004 8:53 AM

AG Francis Biddle and FBI Director Hoover opposed it. West Coast congressmen, Warren, local sheriffs and some of the military supported it. In February '42 Secratary of War Stimson went to the White House where FDR was "very vigorous about it."

On February 26, FDR told Sec of Navy Frank Knox that he wanted Hawaii's Japanese evacuated too. However, the armed forces objected because it would have deprived them of the skilled workers needed for the war effort.

(source: The New Dealers' War, Thomas Fleming)

As I recall David Kennedy is even harsher as is Paul Johnson.

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 9:05 AM

Appreciate the effort to bring actual facts to the argument, but it just confuses people, so forget it.

OJ you have the advantage of hindsight, and yes you can pluck from history, testimony of some people who had foresight. FDR was probably confused as to various threats, and just didn't want to take a chance. Similiar to decisions that George Bush has to make today.

Why is it so irrational to think that Japanese-Americans might aid Japan, or at least enough of them to cause significant problem? Could not professional Japanese saboteurs intermingle with the resident Japanese-Americans? (Really delightful that there was someone in Hawaii who knew better)

Yes the same could be said of Germans, but German spies and saboteurs could also intermingle with the rest of society with great ease, which would mean interment was impossible. A German with a heavy accent, I'm sure was checked out.

Posted by: h-man at April 29, 2004 10:43 AM


Because they were Americans, not Japanese.

It was simple racism, though that's not what made it wrong.


Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 10:54 AM

As to the differences between the way Germans and Japanese were treated, we must remember that German immigrants "proved" their loyalty in the first war with Germany in 1917. And at that time there were plenty of mass arrests and detention.

And individually the govt did watch suspected Nazis. My dad told me a story of Chicago in the 1940's when the FBI confiscated the radio of a member of the German Bund.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at April 29, 2004 11:41 AM

The story of Japanese-American internment is part racism, part undefined need for security but mostly pure self-interested political pandering to to the redneck segment of the California electorate. Earl Warren was a creep.

Posted by: Tom Corcoran at April 29, 2004 12:23 PM

Bring back the iron mask.

Posted by: genecis at April 29, 2004 8:42 PM

Tom is getting there.

The agitation against the Japanese did not start on Dec. 8, 1941, and, yes, it was whipped up by Christian preachers right along. Yellow Peril and all that, opium smokin' heathens.

During World War II, German, Austrian and Italian aliens and anti-Nazi refugees were rounded up and imprisoned. The architect who later designed the USS Arizona Memorial spent the war in jail.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 29, 2004 11:04 PM

Christians were particularly wrought up about the Japanese war against China, which we had ties to through missionary work. They went after Japan, not Japanese Americans, though the rhetoric was racist.

Posted by: oj at April 29, 2004 11:18 PM


Left-wing, west coast labor unions were a large part of the redneck segment of the California electorate. Even more than your so-called "Christians". Both FDR and Earl Warren were interested in placating them rather than Christians, don't you think?

Posted by: Tom Corcoran at April 30, 2004 8:59 AM

Do I take it the only reason Christians got worked up about the Japanese invasion of China is that Chinese Christians were suffering?

That speaks volumes.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at April 30, 2004 9:35 AM

No, the Chinese people. It's been an article of faith for over a century that the destiny of China is Christian--WWII and Mao were just a brief detour.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 9:46 AM

Just so, Tom, but you are not going back far enough.

The opposition to Asian immigration began almost as soon as the immigration did, and a large part of it focused on the "heathenism" of the Asians.

All those other factors work in, as well, and to my mind a mere expectation of plunder had as much as anything to do with the sequestration of the West Coast Japanese.

It is, however, just like German acceptance of eliminationist antisemitism -- if Christianity hadn't prepared the ground, neither the Nazis nor the Hearsters could have carried their programs.

At the other side of the country, in Norfolk, Va., the good Christians didn't have Japanese to hate so they posted signs that read "No dogs or sailors allowed"

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 30, 2004 8:13 PM

Christianity had been around for thousands of years with no eliminationism. It required Marx, Darwin and hygiene theory.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 8:17 PM

Padilla is owed access to the courts. An american citizen arrested on american soil. Hamdi is an arguable case. The guys in Gitmo, do not have any rights of access to the courts individually.

I wonder what it will be like to be declared a POW in effect for a war that everyone believes will last for decades.

Posted by: Mike at May 1, 2004 3:39 PM


How many captured Confederates got trials?

Posted by: oj at May 1, 2004 5:12 PM

Christianity prepared the ground--see the Oberamergau Passion Plays, a long standing German tradition.

The only thing lacking was the tools provided by the Industrial Revolution. They allowed grasp to finally meet reach.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at May 2, 2004 7:38 AM

No one ever died because of a Passion Play. Hate isn't murderousness.

Posted by: oj at May 2, 2004 8:50 AM

Hatred is an essential precursor. Those virulently anti-Semitic passion plays were both symptomatic and inflammatory.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at May 2, 2004 11:03 AM

Everyone hates everyone else--after all, no one hates more than folk like you and Harry. But you need that key element of Darwinism and hygiene theory to convert Germany to eliminationism.

Posted by: oj at May 2, 2004 11:06 AM