The relocation of ethnic Japanese from the U.S. west coast in World War II has once again been played as a trump card in the homeland security debate. The chairman of the House subcommittee on domestic security maintained that the drastic action was justified, if only for their own safety. Though Representative Howard Coble (R-NC) was actually denying the need for any displacement of Arab Americans, he has nonetheless been met with strident criticism. One spokesman for a Japanese-American organization actually called on the Republican to resign from his subcommittee chairmanship —shades of Trent Lott's resignation. But despite his attempts at clarification, he is likely to remain a subject of controversy, for he is dealing with forces beyond the pale of reason.
Why should even the mildest defense of the reasonableness of the relocation (which my parents underwent) evoke such a response? After all, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in his recent book, All the Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime (1998), made as emphatic a constitutional defense of the WW II measures as we have recently seen. He maintained that valid national security arguments were raised by the executive branch. Even liberal Justice William Brennan cited the reasoning of the relocation constitutional cases approvingly, in his defense of racial quotas and set-asides in his joint concurring and dissenting opinion in the Bakke affirmative action case. He was following Justice William O. Douglas, who, in the earlier DeFunis affirmative action case, took time to defend the relocation cases in a curious footnote. (They were both offering defenses of racial preferences.) Despite the fact that scholarly consensus, left, right, libertarian, and post-modern, condemns the cases in vehement terms, they remain the law of the land.
But we should not let matters rest with the mere state of the law. There has been much confusion about what the Court did and how those cases remain a lesson for us today. First, what should be kept in mind is that just as the Court justified the relocation, it also denied that the government could hold an admittedly loyal citizen (ex parte Endo).
But the great need here is to defuse the charge of American racism (in a war against what can be called Japanese racism) and thus permit thoughtful consideration of the domestic security measures we need to deal with the crisis confronting us.
The premise of the relocation was that immigrants and even American citizens may have a fondness for the land of their ancestors. That fondness can take the form of ethnic foods, an interest in culture, learning a foreign language, engaging in commerce, accepting dual citizenship, or raising money for and fighting in the army of that country. The Japanese were no different, as their pre-WW II activity spanned this range of attitudes. But the big, unavoidable difference was Pearl Harbor, which forced the issue of loyalty.
Moreover, there was one clear instance of disloyaly to America on the part of a Japanese-American that may have been decisive in justifying the relocation.. This is the Niihau episode. (I refer the curious to distinguished historian John Stephan's Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan's Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor for more information and an indication of the problem among Japanese-Americans, especially in Hawaii.) At the end of the attack on Pearl Harbor a Japanese fighter-bomber landed on the isolated island of Niihau, at the westernmost tip of the Hawaiian archipelago.
The pilot was able to persuade the Japanese-American farmer that he should help him take over the island for the Emperor. After several hours both were dead, one by suicide, the other killed by Hawaiian farmers, and U.S. military forces arrived. The Japanese-American was neither an agent nor a fervent nationalist; he was a transplanted Californian who found himself torn, at a moment of crisis. How many other ethnic Japanese on the mainland might feel torn, now that Japan had dealt its Pacific enemy a mighty blow? This is a perfectly legitimate question to raise. It has nothing to do with anachronistic charges of "racism." After all, Japanese and other Asian-Americans had experienced discriminatory laws, especially in California. Time for some payback?
As Congressman Coble argues, the relocation and contemporary policies have to be judged with these questions in mind. This is sobriety, true moderation and restraint in a crisis. After all, the more questions we ask, the better policy we are likely to get. Anything else is ideological fanaticism. Congressman Coble's critics are the fanatics. They are the ones who should be regarded with wariness in these nervous times.