Race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership

Today – February 19th, 2017 – is the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. And in the current political climate, it’s a day that invites considerable reflection.

Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, allowing the Secretary of War to create special military zones within the US. It led to the registration and then forced deportation of German, Italian and Japanese immigrants to special internment camps. Eventually, around 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated.

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Families who had emigrated to the US years earlier, and children who were born in the country, were moved to prison-like camps, sleeping in large dormitories behind barbed wire fences, some until well after the war had ended. Many lost everything they had owned, and when they were finally allowed to return to their lives, they found a still hostile environment.

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In 1980, a congressional commission found that the incarcerations were motivated by “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Eight years later, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that compensated every survivor with $20,000 and a formal apology. Admitting, somewhat belatedly, that mistakes had been made that even the hysteria of war could not justify.

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Many have found it hard to speak about their traumatic experiences at the camps, but a new exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in LA’s Little Tokyo is tackling the subject head on – marking the anniversary with a stark exhibition that features two pages of the original executive order, the Civilian Exclusion Orders that were posted along the West Coast warning Japanese Americans of their imminent forced removal, as well as numerous newspaper articles. They provide a chilling reminder of a time when democracy failed, and ask visitors to “contemplate the lessons of the past and how they continue to be relevant today.”

It is of course a gentle reference to events presided over by the current administration. However, the Japanese American Citizens League have not held back – stating, quite vehemently, their objection to the recent executive order entitled “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States”.

They noted that “although the threat of terrorism is real, we must learn from our history and not allow our fears to overwhelm our values.” If we can take just one lesson from the atrocities inflicted by Executive Order 9066, it must be this.

Instruction to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066 is on display at JANM until May 21, 2017.

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