What does an American look like?

For that matter, what does an enemy look like? And what can happen to those people who look like the enemy?

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." [1]

A year earlier, however, Roosevelt had authorized incarcerating more than 110,000 innocent people based on their ancestry, in what he called "concentration camps." Although two-thirds were U.S. citizens, they were targeted because of their ancestry and the way they looked. How could this happen?

In 1941 the United States entered World War II after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Without evidence, key U.S. leaders claimed that all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the U.S. posed a risk to national security. Justifying it as a "military necessity," the government forced U.S. citizens and their immigrant elders to leave their homes and live in camps under armed guard.

In 1983, however, a U.S. congressional commission uncovered evidence from the 1940s proving that there had been no military necessity for the unequal, unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. The commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in " ... race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."[2]

1. Public statement by President Roosevelt on January 31, 1943 praising the decision to form a segregated, all-nisei combat team. Roger Daniels. Concentration Camps: North America. (1971. Malabar, Florida: Kreiger Publishing Company, 1981,1989), pages 112-113.

2. Recommendations section, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. (1982. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), page 459.


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