Nation must learn from shameful episode of Japanese Internment

Erica Lee/Staff

Seventy-five years ago, in the midst of World War II, former president Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.

Written ostensibly in the interest of national security but fueled largely by widespread racial prejudice, the order directed the U.S. military to remove people of Japanese ancestry from their homes in California and the Pacific Northwest and to place them into internment camps throughout the country. This systematic and forced displacement derailed the lives of more than 122,000 individuals, including hundreds of UC students who were forced to suspend their enrollment. It resulted in monumental personal turmoil, yet no interned Japanese American was ever implicated in any plot against the United States.

At the time, UC president Robert Sproul called the Japanese American internment what it was — discrimination dressed up in the guise of national security — and proclaimed that a person’s appearance and ethnicity had no bearing on “the quality of his mind, the strength of his character or the depth of his loyalty to the United States.” Sproul sought out other institutions willing to enroll displaced UC students and argued fervently for fair and equal treatment of Japanese American citizens under the law, noting that “whenever and wherever the constitutional guarantees are violated in the treatment of a minority … the whole fabric of American government is weakened.”

Sproul’s words, unfortunately, were largely ignored, and Japanese American internment lasted until nearly the end of the war.

Lessons from this shameful chapter of our nation’s past take on renewed relevance in our current political moment as fear, racism, xenophobia and jingoism again endanger the civil rights of friends and neighbors, while simultaneously betraying our country’s bedrock values. The recent executive order banning entry into the United States by individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries, vitriolic attacks on refugees, plans to build a wall on the Mexican-American border and the specter of ramped-up deportations are all being advanced under the spurious guise of promoting national security while in fact reflecting only a lamentable fear of otherness, to say nothing of a startling disregard for our common humanity.

For many members of the Berkeley community, these recent orders and actions are no abstract or faraway threat. Many among us are grappling with fear, confusion and uncertainty, stricken with worry about the possible deportation of relatives, about whether they will be able to go home for spring or summer breaks or even about whether they will be able to complete their studies. Many not directly affected by the orders still find themselves asking: “Am I next?”

As a campus, we are committed to standing with those who find themselves under threats that echo the Japanese internment policies of 75 years ago. I see great urgency and determination in the courageous and compassionate acts of leadership being taken by our students, staff and faculty. I would like to express my sincere gratitude for those in our student affairs office, the Berkeley International Office, the Undocumented Student Program and others who have been working tirelessly to provide affected students with legal aid, mental health services and other support during this tumultuous time. The University of California, for its part, has taken public stances against recent executive orders and declared that we will not cooperate with immigration authorities.

While the second World War ended in 1945, it took 30 years before the United States, under president Gerald Ford, formally terminated Executive Order 9066 and apologized for the period of Japanese American internment. It took until 1980 for president Jimmy Carter to commission a government study on the effects of displacement. And it took until 1990 for the government to begin issuing redress payments to surviving Japanese Americans.

Seventy-five years later, let us remember this history, and vow not to repeat it.   

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Nicholas Dirks is the chancellor of UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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