Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, rumors spread that some of the Japanese American residents of Hawaii had blocked the path of emergency vehicles that were heading to the naval base to put out fires and save lives.
Such incidents, it was said, showed that the nation’s Japanese American community cloaked a secret army of saboteurs and spies who would undermine the budding U.S. war effort and had to be isolated from the rest of the country.
By Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, which granted the fear-mongers’ wishes by authorizing the forced removal of 120,000 from their homes on the West Coast and putting them in concentration camps from California to Arkansas.
The people in the best position to know about the alleged roadblocks in Hawaii, the territory’s police and military leaders, said Japanese Americans never blocked the roads.
“There was no deliberate blocking of the traffic during December 7 by unauthorized persons,” Honolulu Police Chief W.A. Gabrielson said.
By the time the truth from the experts reached Congress, it was too late. A mass forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast was already underway. Businesses closed or were sold for a pittance. Crops rotted in farms owned by Japanese American farmers. Students were torn from their schools and forced in the grandstands of racetracks used as temporary assembly centers.
Once again, we’re seeing a similar undermining of expertise, this time in the face of the COVID-19 virus. In this White House, as during World War II, knowledge and expertise are being pushed aside by ignorance and intolerance. Some officials have insisted on calling it the Chinese virus despite evidence that such claims fuel race-based reprisals against people of Asian descent, whether they are Chinese or not.
In the early days of World War II, officials who should have known better, such as California’s Attorney General Earl Warren, claimed that the absence of any evidence showing sabotage or espionage by Japanese Americans did not mean the threat didn’t exist. It just meant, Warren said, that there was no evidence.
In April 1943, evidence that showed that most Japanese Americans posed no security threat on the West Coast meant nothing to Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, leader of the Western Defense Command. “A Jap’s a Jap,” he told a congressional committee. “He is still a Japanese, and you can’t change him.”
Evidence or expertise be damned, DeWitt was playing to the emotions, hysteria and racism of the masses. He got away with it long enough to destroy once-thriving neighborhoods of Japanese Americans that could have boosted the war effort.
In times of crisis, so many things resemble the events of late 1941 and 1942, the peak months of the anti-Japanese American inquisition, because that is the standard for how bad things can get for the abuse of government power. Lives were destroyed not through expertise or knowledge but through racism and fear.
Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are experts in their field, and we should be listening to them, not those with political agendas focused on the election.
Our path should be clear: Let the people who understand the challenges use their talents to help the country emerge from the virus intact. Let’s reject those among us who attempt to profit from fear and division. It’s a lesson we failed to learn 78 years ago.
Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” due out from University of Wisconsin Press later this year. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.