The racist history of incarceration that Donald Trump is threatening to repeat

The internment of American citizens during World War II cannot remain a historical footnote.

Japanese citizens gather at a train which will take them from the Santa Anita assembly camp in California to the internment camp at Gila River, Ariz. in 1942. CREDIT: AP Photo/National Archives
Japanese citizens gather at a train which will take them from the Santa Anita assembly camp in California to the internment camp at Gila River, Ariz. in 1942. CREDIT: AP Photo/National Archives

Within days of taking office, President Donald Trump made good on a harsh campaign promise and signed an executive order banning entry to people from seven majority-Muslim countries. The order also temporarily prevented green card holders and other legal immigrants from entering the country.

And as thousands of people gathered at airports across the country to rally against U.S. immigration officials for blocking entry to people with valid visas, some Japanese Americans wondered out loud whether the U.S. government had learned anything from its history.

Today’s headlines are a disturbing reminder of the mass exclusion and forced incarceration of legal U.S. residents during World War II. Most of the 120,000 people incarcerated in ten internment camps were of Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds were U.S. citizens.

In 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 requiring all U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry to submit to government custody and “evacuate” the West Coast. Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, the head of the Western Defense Command based at the Presidio in San Francisco, helped lead the anti-Japanese effort.

“The Japanese race is an enemy race.”

There was no evidence that Japanese Americans were involved in activities that could hurt other Americans. But by May 20, 1942, cities like San Francisco were eerily devoid of Japanese American residents.

DeWitt claimed the lack of evidence meant that Japanese Americans were secretly planning an attack.

“The Japanese race is an enemy race,” DeWitt wrote at the time. “And while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted.”

The U.S. government has since formally apologized for the reactionary expulsion and paid each family $20,000 in reparations. But many people are now seeing a repeat of the same xenophobia and exclusion present in Trump’s executive order targeting refugees and people from certain countries with large Muslim populations. For Trump, the specter of a future attack on U.S. soil is enough to start indiscriminately punishing foreigners and, in some cases, legal immigrants.

Japanese Americans like Peter Yamamoto, a volunteer coordinator with the National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), know what it means to be the target of government-sanctioned hatred. Although Trump has walked back promises to create a so-called Muslim registry, Yamamoto could envision the Trump administration moving forward with a similar dark scenario.

That’s because his father’s family was sent to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona between 1942 and 1945. After the Pearl Harbor attack, neighbors and friends suddenly stopped interacting with his family. There was no widespread support to prevent Japanese Americans from being rounded up for internment.

Poster of Lt Gen. John L. DeWitt’s order to forcibly incarcerate Japanese citizens and immigrants. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Poster of Lt Gen. John L. DeWitt’s order to forcibly incarcerate Japanese citizens and immigrants. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

During a conversation at the NJAHS office, Yamamoto told ThinkProgress that his father “went through the same thing” as the people now targeted by Trump’s executive order. “It was just point-blank discrimination based on association with an image and he was associated with Japan.”

At the age of 11, Yamamoto’s Sansei father, a third-generation Japanese American, reeled in horror when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. Yamamoto said his father’s immediate thought was that Japan had “created the pretext for us to be discriminated against.”

His father’s family members were sent from Los Angeles to Gila River, forced to sell or give away everything at a tremendous loss. Life was difficult in the camps. Labeled an “enemy alien,” Japanese American residents living in the internment camps were forced to answer a questionnaire asking whether they were “loyal” or “disloyal” to the United States.

One of the questions called on Japanese American residents to “swear unqualified allegiance” to the United States and “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization.” Another asked if individuals would be willing to serve with a segregated combat unit.

Out of the 75,000 people who filled out the questionnaire, 6,700 answered “no” to both questions, earning themselves the nickname of “no-nos.” And some 180,000 Japanese Americans served in the infamous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, whose “go for broke” motto helped them become the most decorated unit for its size and length of service. In total, they earned 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations.

“It’s almost as if it was made to be that way to dismantle the Japanese community.”

“The ‘no-nos’ broke the community apart…and they didn’t talk to anyone,” Yamamoto said. “The ones who went to fight were killed or maimed. The ones who stayed were maimed psychologically or shunned to the side — made pariahs by their own community. It was a lousy situation. It’s almost as if it was made to be that way to dismantle the Japanese community.”

Returning back to society in 1945 was even more demoralizing for the Japanese-American community. Incarceration embittered his grandfather. As a Nisei, or a second-generation U.S. citizen, Yamamoto’s grandfather never stopped feeling “subtle resentment, real inferiority, and blame.”

Like many other forcibly incarcerated individuals, Yamamoto’s family never truly healed after their release.

“You cannot believe the intensity of the anger and prejudice and the hate that was expressed,” he said.

Mural at the Nihonmachi Little Friends Preschool in San Francisco, CA. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Mural at the Nihonmachi Little Friends Preschool in San Francisco, CA. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Yamamoto’s family history is just one of many stories of forced incarceration during World War II embedded into the tourist landscape of the ten square city blocks of Japantown.

Nearly two dozen historical plaques and interpretative signs dot the various areas of interest relevant to the 1940s, with black and white photos of Japanese Americans showing life before, during, and after internment.

On the birthday of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who challenged Roosevelt’s executive order, only two Japantown storefronts on the main strip displayed posters impressing the significance of his U.S. Supreme Court case on passersby. That poster was advertising a major event earlier that week featuring Fred’s daughter Karen Korematsu — who urged caution over Trump’s executive order targeting Muslims.

Fresh beige paint now coats the Kinmon Gakuen, or the Golden Gate Institute, a place for Japanese language learning — a building that was used in 1942 by the Wartime Civil Control Administration to process Japanese Americans for internment. Next door, a long mural guides visitors down a flight of stairs to the Nihonmachi Little Friends Preschool. The legible part of the mural reads in part, “Children of Nihonmachi Little Friends dedicate this mural to the memory of the Issei [first generation] and Nisei who were assembled at this site before being unjustly interned during World War II.”

Building 35 was used as the headquarters for the Western Defense Command during World War II. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Building 35 was used as the headquarters for the Western Defense Command during World War II. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

To the north of the city, the Presidio of San Francisco is a prime hillside hotspot that offers breathtaking views for hikers making their way to the Golden Gate Bridge or onto the California Coastal Trail. Without the historical plaques, the unremarkable white buildings and Victorian-era houses here evoke a sanitized military past. But in November 1941, Presidio Building 640 served as a secret site for the U.S. army to train Japanese American soldiers as military linguists in the Military Intelligence Service in preparation for an impending war.

“Muslims understand that now…They’re identified with evil stereotypes.”

Only months later, Building 35 — headquarters for the Western Defense Command (WDC) — would take on a more sinister use. It was in this white three-story building that DeWitt helped to oversee “the evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast,” according to the National Parks Service. It was also here that DeWitt produced his first order in large bold font with a kerning that screamed urgency: “INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY,” first published in the San Francisco News on April 2, 1942.

Remarking on the visible markers around the city that speak to Japanese-American internment, Yamamoto believes that Trump could do well to learn the lessons of his family.

“Muslims understand that now — they’re walking down the street and other Americans start shouting at them,” Yamamoto said. “They are experiencing point-blank intense hatred. They’re identified with evil stereotypes.”

Americans should oppose Trump’s Muslim ban at all costs, Yamamoto added. “It’s unconstitutional, inhumane, based on hatred which is something alien to what Americans are supposed to stand for or any world citizen.”