In February 1942, in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the U.S. government to forcibly remove the entire Japanese-American population of the West Coast. Within months 110,000 men, women and children were moved to concentration camps in the interior of the country, including Idaho. History records this unconstitutional treatment of thousands of people, the vast majority of them American citizens, as one of the worst violations of civil liberties in our history.
Driven by fear, racial prejudice, national security hysteria and even economic considerations, then-Idaho Gov. Chase Clark, a Democrat, and most every other political leader in the country willingly embraced the politically popular notion that citizens of Japanese ancestry represented a security threat. They “act like rats,” Clark said in a scathing indictment of all of Japanese ancestry. If they were to be brought to Idaho, Clark maintained, they must be kept under military guard. A better solution to the “Jap Problem” was to “send them all back to Japan, then sink the island.”
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act authorizing modest compensation for the Japanese-American citizens incarcerated by their own government a half-century earlier. Reagan remarked that the government’s “action was taken without trial, without jury. It was based solely on race.”
Now, history repeats with a new dark chapter.
Seventy-five years after Roosevelt’s grievous violation of civil liberties, another American president is using an un-American standard — religion — to discriminate and persecute American citizens, foreign citizens legally in the United States, and desperate refugees, primarily women and children, seeking to flee mayhem in Syria and elsewhere.
As with the events of 1942, Donald Trump’s recent sweeping order is driven by fear, misinformation about threats to national security and apparently by a misguided belief that all Muslims, even those who have put their own lives at risk to aid American military efforts in the Middle East, present a danger.
So far the response of Idaho’s elected officials to the arguably unconstitutional executive order has been faint-hearted acquiescence. This capitulation to fear and bigotry, particularly given Idaho’s troubled history of racial and religious discrimination, including battles against the Aryan Nations and anti-Mormon bigotry, deserves the strongest possible condemnation. This is an Idaho fight.
Racial and religious intolerance has been stoked recently in south-central Idaho by the alt-right website Breitbart, not coincidentally the same region where thousands of Japanese-Americans were incarcerated 75 years ago. Major political leaders have been silent, while Breitbart’s former CEO, Steve Bannon, becomes the top political strategist to the president, with a seat on the National Security Council. Breitbart’s immigration policy is now America’s.
As the late Bob Sims, a Boise State University historian of the Japanese-American internment, wrote of Gov. Clark’s position in the 1940s, it “may have seemed fearless and patriotic, but in retrospect it appears to have been nothing more, or less, than a combination of xenophobia and racism.” Sims acknowledged that Clark, who later become a respected federal judge, deserved to be remembered for the totality of his career, but also for “his shortcomings in World War II, for they were not his alone but America’s.”
In the life of every politician there comes a moment when moral reality presents a stark choice between principle and party, between what is momentarily popular and what is consistent with American values. This is such a moment, and the timid, spineless response from Idaho leaders is truly reprehensible.
If you oppose the president’s action as an un-American, unconstitutional religious test targeting one vulnerable group, then adopt the all-American response — oppose it, loudly and consistently.
Marc C. Johnson is a former journalist, public affairs consultant, and press secretary and chief of staff to former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus