President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's the voice of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, delivering his first inaugural address in March 1933. America's longest-serving president, FDR led the nation out of the depression, and through World War II. He ushered in a New Deal and established both the minimum wage and social security. President Roosevelt also issued Executive Order 9066, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The order forcibly removed all people of Japanese descent from their homes and communities, this included US citizens.
President Roosevelt: The only thing we have to fear is--
Melissa: From 1942 to 1945, the American government incarcerated more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in isolated camps with brutal living conditions.
President Roosevelt: The only thing we have to fear is--
Melissa: Anyone with even 1/16 Japanese ancestry was rounded up and had to report to an assembly center. Then they were sent to a relocation center, Topaz, Colorado River, Gila River, Grenada, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Rohwer, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, 10 sites where the US government imprisoned its own citizens solely because of their identity.
President Roosevelt: The only thing we have to fear is--
Melissa: The last of the prison camps closed in 1946. In 1988, Congress passed the civil liberties Act, which awarded victims of the internment camps the amount of $20,000 each in reparations. The Act was sponsored by then California congressman Norman Mineta, who himself was incarcerated in an internment camp during the war.
Mineta has had a long and distinguished career of service, first as mayor of San Jose, and as a US Congressman, Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton, and then Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush. Mineta spent his life in service to a country that once denied him and his family their freedom, property, and humanity. I had the honor to speak with Secretary Mineta and asked him how he was made to feel like a stranger in his own country.
Secretary Norman Mineta: These big placards were being posted, and it said, "Attention, all those of Japanese ancestry, alien and non-alien." Now, I was 10 years old at the time, and I saw this placard be put up. I said to my brother who was nine years older than me, I said, "Hey, What's a non-alien?" He said, "That's you." I said, "That's not me. I'm not a non-alien. I'm a citizen of the United States of America." That's why to this day, and I'm now 89 years old, I cherish the word citizen because my own government would not use it to describe us.
Melissa: I asked the Secretary to tell us how swiftly he and his family were taken.
Secretary Mineta: When Pearl Harbor occurred about 1:00 PM in the afternoon, people were being arrested by the FBI. The reason for it was military necessity. After we were picked up by the military, we then left San Jose on May 29 to go to Santa Anita racetrack in the LA area.
Melissa: The Secretary is describing the assembly and relocation centers.
Secretary Mineta: In November of 1943, we were then transported to Heart Mountain, Wyoming and we were in this desert camp for the duration of World War II.
Melissa: Families were herded onto freight trains without knowing their destination.
Secretary Mineta: When we boarded the freight train or the passenger train to go to camp, they wouldn't allow us to get on the trains at the passenger rail station. They had as board the trains at the freight yard and the grammar school I went to was about three blocks from the graveyard. Some of the kids during their lunch hour came down to the graveyard to us off.
Melissa: Two years later, Secretary Mineta and his family were released and made their way back to his hometown of San Jose.
Secretary Mineta: We arrived in San Jose on Thanksgiving Day of 1945 and that was the best Thanksgiving I've ever had, just to be able to get back into our own home. It was just thankful to be back.
Melissa: I want to thank Secretary Mineta for sharing his story with us. Despite the cruelty and racism they faced, 33,000 Japanese Americans served with distinction during the war. I spoke with Susan Kamei, author of the new book, When Can We Go Back to America? Voices of Japanese American incarceration during World War II. I asked her why this is the right time to tell the story of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated by their own country.
Susan Kamei: Well, actually, so many people don't even know the story. What I hear from my students at the University of Southern California, is that they did not hear about it in their US history classes. They might come from other parts of the country, where there wasn't an awareness that this even happened during the war, let alone two-thirds of those who are incarcerated were American citizens. If they had any word of it, it was something bland seen, or as Secretary Mineta pointed out, that it was this false narrative that, "Well, you have to understand our country was attacked, we were at war with Japan, you people" the phrase, "you people look like the enemy, how could we trust you."
There was the assumption of disloyalty without any evidence to that, and that is news to people because the government put forth this story that was false. The other element is that history repeats itself and that we could see issues that are going on in our society today that similarly cause a reaction based on how people look or their ethnicity, their religion, their country of origin. These are issues that are front and center today, and this is the story that's relevant to that.
Melissa: Let's begin with some of the very important clarifying work that you do at the start of the book around language. I want you to talk to us about the language of incarceration versus internment.
Susan: Very important, thank you for asking. The confusion comes that the term internment applies to aliens and the government ability to deal with them as aliens. In the case of World War II, as Secretary Mineta was describing, that individuals who are not citizens, but are citizens of countries with which our country is at war, then become classified as enemy aliens. They fall under the jurisdiction of what was then the alien control board within the FBI in the Department of Justice.
The first generation, business people, and community leaders were pre-identified before even Pearl Harbor happened to be identified as those who would be immediately rounded up and detained under the power of the government to "control aliens." However, as American citizens, the term internee or internship really was inaccurately applied and was purposefully applied to blur the distinction between the parents of Secretary Mineta, my grandparents, and conflate that with the US citizens, the second generation, the American born Nisei.
For them, and for all those who were under the jurisdiction of the war relocation authority, approximately 120,000, in the Japanese American community we believe the appropriate word is not interment to apply to US citizens, but rather incarceration to share the connotation that it was an imprisonment.
Melissa: Can you talk to us a bit about how it is that the US government, even as we were prosecuting a war overseas around human rights presumably, were making a kind of argument to the other American people about what we were doing to these American people?
Susan: Yes. Actually, I think in terms of the relevance today, the message is not that this happened to aliens, but that or non-citizens, but that it became enlarged, it became conflated to apply to US citizens.
Melissa: Are you at all surprised by the level of optimism and patriotism that remains among the generation that lived through this?
Susan: The valor that they put forth, the sacrifice, and the ultimate sacrifice that many of them may was because they wanted to prove their loyalty, and their phrase was, "Go for broke." They were willing to give it all and that just never ceases to move me to tears. The valor of that record did, in fact, make it possible for the long experience after the war that eventually helped I think rehabilitate the image of the Japanese Americans as citizens and as loyal citizens. It took many years, but it was also very instrumental in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, legislation that Secretary Mineta when he was a congressional leader was instrumental in.
Melissa: Susan, what do you make of our selective memory? When I say our selective memory I want to encompass a lot of communities. Those of us in media, who might not want to remember the US media publications that created and stoked fear of the so-called Yellow Peril or the selective memory of those of us who visit sites of slavery, but have never taken a trip to the racetracks or to Hart Mountain, to actually stand in the places where this happened. Maybe just the selective memory of those who might want to remember FDR as the greatest president while ignoring this part of what happened. Why do you think we do that?
Susan: There's many aspects I think to this. One is that we can't remember what we don't know. First I think there's the element and this was a great motivation for me with this opportunity to do a book of the scope is to first have it be known, to tell the stories. Of course, so many of these experiences, the one that Secretary Mineta personally was describing, happened 80 years ago. We have, I think, a responsibility to know those stories, to bring them forward, and to share them, and to learn by those lessons. That we learned from the stories and how they relate to other communities that are experiencing similar patterns on the wrong side of social behavior.
Many of the communities, the Japanese American communities before the war were erased by the incarceration. For instance, there was a very vibrant Japanese American community in Tacoma, Washington, and for lots of reasons that community after the war did not get reconstituted. The community that did come back to Los Angeles and Little Tokyo came back in a different form. There's also this concept of community loss and eraser and in some cases have not ever been reformed and that aspect of our society has been lost. I think there's these consequences to be aware of and that knowing what the personal effect has been and the intergenerational impact has been is an important part of what my efforts have been about too.
Melissa: You've talked a couple of times about repeating our history. Can you contextualize this within the context of the rise in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American hate here in the US over the past few years?
Susan: Sure. The context of the Japanese American immigration that started in the 1880s was at that time an anti-Asian environment, the Japanese immigrants walked into the prejudice and discrimination that had already taken place against the first wave of Chinese immigrants. As the awareness of just recently of the rise of anti-Asian hate and violence has come up, I think it's been an important thing to remember that this is not the first time that the Asian American community has experienced it, and that there's been a longstanding pattern of this. Secretary Mineta, because of his experience was able to share that with President Bush.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and calls from the public that started right away once the identity of the terrorists became known that, "Well, we have to keep people who look like Muslims and Middle Easterners off airplanes. In fact, we should round them up and detain them." There were express references to, "Well, we did this in World War II, we're at war now. We need to do this again." These are concerns what was called then in World War II of military necessity, and now the phrase is of national security. It was because of President Bush's awareness of what happened in World War II, and the personal connection with Secretary Mineta's story that influenced president Bush's reaction.
He has been quoted as saying, "We're not going to do what happened to Norm in 1942," and had the FAA under Secretary Mineta's direction issue an email to the airlines reminding the airlines and the airport personnel that they should not be discriminating and that the policies for airline security still need to comply with all the legal requirements of non-discrimination. We do have some examples where we can stop the bad history from repeating, but I think this takes the collective will to remember these examples and to connect them.
Melissa: Susan Kamei, author of When Can We Go Back to America? Thank you for joining us.
Susan: Thank you. My pleasure.
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