As SCOTUS prepares to rule on Trump v. Hawaii, a reminder that Hawaii stood up for Japanese Americans in WWII
In 1945, my great uncle died for his country, one of 400,000 American soldiers who gave their lives during World War II. He was a member of the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare, one of the “little brown soldiers” that saved the Lost Battalion from Texas in the Vosges Mountains. Four casualties for every man saved. My great uncle, Robert Ozaki, shows up in written accounts of that battle, leading a bayonet charge when his lieutenant disappeared and was thought captured. He arrived at the hospital in Colorado with shrapnel in his back, and our family story has it that he kept shaking down his thermometer so that the doctors could attend to other soldiers.
Your hero? He served fiercely and with honor, and died in that hospital: a recipient of a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
Your enemy? His own government branded him class 4-C, an “enemy alien,” and would not let his family attend his funeral.
Unless you are in the Marvel Comic universe, it’s hard to be both. But my Silver Star great uncle was Japanese-American. The decades leading up to the war were a time of virulent hatred for the Japanese, with terms like “inscrutable,” “repulsive” and “the yellow peril” thrown around freely. Racism was codified and supported by the president, Congress, the courts and local government, and urged on in headlines in the media. Robert Ozaki would have remained a “menace,” if it were not for Hawaii. And this month, as we await the ruling of the Supreme Court on Hawaii’s challenge to Donald Trump’s travel ban, it is worth remembering that this is not the first time that Hawaii stood up to the overt racist policies of the U.S. government and said no.
In 1942, after Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, giving the military broad powers to detain anyone on the west coast of the mainland determined to be a threat. Although it did not mention ethnicity, it was designed to target people of Japanese ancestry and it did. Nearly 120,000 Japanese-American citizens and their immigrant parents were rounded up, stripped of their citizenship, labeled enemy aliens, and imprisoned behind barbed wire in incarceration camps across the country. My infant mother, her parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents were with them.
In what world are infants and old ladies a threat? In a world where anti-Japanese (and “Asiatic”) sentiment already had a long and ugly history. After importing them first as cheap labor, immigration from Japan had been completely banned. Laws had already been passed to ensure that the Japanese could never become citizens or own property. But their children were American citizens, and as they began owning farms and businesses, hysteria grew. The propaganda machine (the fake news of the 1940s) taught Americans that “Japs” were snakes, beasts, who would marry your daughters, rape the world and steal your stuff; they were to be slapped, smacked, banished and exterminated. American citizenship, hard work, community service and a clean record did not help those individuals then, just as law-abiding immigrants are not safe now. The messages were violent and they were everywhere.
It was a racism rooted in greed: Within a few decades, Japanese-American farms on the West Coast were seven times more profitable than the average. Japanese Americans controlled two-thirds of the Los Angeles flower market, and were projected to produce 40 percent of the produce needed for the war effort. In giving them a week to dispose of everything they owned, and holding them prisoner in camps where they could not make enough money to pay the taxes on any properties they still owned, the evacuation effectively stripped them of everything.
The mission that was accomplished by Roosevelt’s Executive Order was not safety for America. Despite the excuse of national security, there was not one single case of espionage during the war. The result was the successful cleansing of the West Coast of all persons of Japanese ancestry, and the transfer of between $150 million and $400 million of assets back into Caucasian hands.
In the territory of Hawaii, however, events spun out differently, with history-making results. There, martial law was also declared, with similar exclusion orders. However, the commanding general, Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, refused to evacuate the Japanese Americans, who made up 37 percent of the population and a significant portion of the economy. Emmons flipped the script, arguing that it was better for the overall economy to leave them free. He refuted the rumors, false claims of espionage and the violently anti-Japanese sentiment that was fueling calls for exclusion. Instead, he chose to do something radical: to treat the Japanese Americans as lawful, loyal citizens, and trust them. He even gave them back their guns.
After Pearl Harbor was bombed, Japanese Americans serving in the Hawaii Territorial Guard were discharged at first, but petitioned to continue to serve. Emmons eventually placed them into a lone battalion, the 100th, or One-Puka-Puka. Some 10,000 Japanese American men living in Hawaii volunteered to enlist. Their fierce dedication altered the face of the war for the Japanese Americans. Pressured to find a home for the battalion, the U.S. government began to reconsider their status. The War Department asked for volunteers from behind barbed wire, and eventually began drafting men out of the camps to create the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team that would include the 100th Battalion. The 442nd proved that they were not snakes by earning more than 18,000 military awards among 14,000 soldiers, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 560 Silver Stars and 21 Medals of Honor.
Today, 75 years later, racism is still rampant, and still a smokescreen for greed. All the horrifying treatment of humans that is playing out in our daily newsfeeds — within our own country and at our borders — is based on the same triggers, and the same arguments. Today’s monsters are still people of color, immigrants, people who don’t speak our language. They are still born from our worries about our safety and our fears that there is a lack of jobs and money and that there is not enough for us. As we twist ourselves in knots to erase or justify our actions (turning off body cameras, claiming to be protecting child refugees while we build new for-profit prisons for their parents), it is worth remembering that our safety does not come from threatening the safety of others. Quite the opposite. Our fears imprison us all. Racism is taught; it is deliberate. And until we can see through the lie that we are each other’s enemies, we cannot follow the money and the power to understand who our teachers are.
In 18 long months, the Trump administration has distinguished itself by its many racist and discriminatory policies and executive orders. The actions of its agencies are routinely being challenged in court. Though racism is hardly new in our country (the Japanese American incarceration being just one small example), it is clearly blossoming, thanks to the propaganda that is, once again, infusing the media and every branch of government, and coming from the top. The argument that this revised travel ban is not racist is bogus. It is worth remembering that Executive Order 9066 did not mention ethnicity or race but was to apply to “any or all persons.” Both were justified on grounds of national defense. Just as Roosevelt’s order was a tool for racism, this administration’s actions and words make it clear that the travel ban will be another tool in our growing arsenal against people who are “other,” who we are being told are threatening our safety and our stuff.
In the 1940s, the Supreme Court rejected the first three challenges to the incarceration, before finally ruling that the government had no legal right to imprison a loyal citizen. The damage was already done. In 1988, when Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act apologizing for the incarceration, he repeatedly mentioned the bravery of the Japanese American soldiers as proof that the incarceration was a “mistake” and one “based solely on race.”
These reversals may not have been possible if Hawaii had buckled under and followed a different path. Our safety will not be gained in lawsuits. Justice may not be supreme. We must all find a way to question the propaganda and the policies that have been designed to separate us and to see each other as human. If we need assurance that our enemy may indeed be our hero, the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Team is a potent reminder that beneath the different skin and eyes of “the other” may beat 9,486 Purple Hearts.