America’s hysteria in 1942: Déjà vu?

March 14, 2017 6:30 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

We dont want Japs_Densho Digital Archive_23Aug14

Please see note below regarding Densho, the source for this photograph.


Recently, there have been various comparisons of the Japanese internment to what is happening today. I’d like to provide my own take.

In 2014, I published my first novel in the genre of historical fiction, How Much Do You Love Me? It revolves around the Japanese Internment of World War II. Having lived in California for 40-plus years, I had gradually been exposed to California’s history following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. To quote from the Preface of my book:

My intent in writing this book has been two-fold. First, I wanted to write an interesting mystery/love story. Beyond this objective, my goal was to remind us all, particularly the younger generations in the United States, of a noteworthy episode from our country’s history. Most of the time our country has acted honorably, and we can be proud of our accomplishments, both in peacetime and war. However, there are instances when we have acted neither nobly nor fairly and for which we need reminding so as not to repeat our mistakes. The unjustified internment of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was one of those times.

Following Pearl Harbor, it took less than three months before hysteria overtook the nation, emanating mostly from politicians and other officials spreading the notion that anyone who looked Japanese was either a spy or a saboteur. There was no evidence of such. Nonetheless, on February 19th 1942, some 75 years ago, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, sealing the fate of some 120,000 Japanese Americans, almost two-thirds of whom were United States citizens. If you were Japanese and lived on the West Coast at the time, you were removed from your home and taken to an internment camp. To read my 14-part series on the internment, please start here.

And so it happened in 1942. Are there similarities to what’s going on in the United States today? In fact, there was a legitimate reason for fear—but not for our reaction to our own citizens—following Pearl Harbor. But what is the reason now? Echoes of what happened 75 years ago are again coming from those in power, who fuel the fires of fear of anyone who is different. In 1942, it was Japanese Americans, but today there is a much wider variety of supposed villains to choose from, whether it be our Mexican neighbors to the south, immigrants from war-torn Syria, or any random Muslim from around the world.

But, what of the evidence? Prior to EO 9066, none other than the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, said that nothing from his intelligence suggested any problem with domestic Japanese. But those politicians with conspiracies to promote (often seeking political gain) rallied the cry against the Japanese—and won. (Can you see the hate in the face of the man in the above picture?) It seems to me that it’s actually worse today. Look at what has happened. Among the travesties reported: two Muslim mosques burned to the ground in Texas, an Indian Sikh in Seattle shot and told to “go back to your own country,” and—perhaps predictably—Jewish cemetery stones overturned. Worst of all, I think, is our diminishing reputation in the eyes of those around the world who have always admired our values and reputation for fairness—but who now question our nation’s path.

What all of this means is that words do matter. Evidence matters. In the name of our forebears and to those who have wisely said that we must never forget our history, lest we relive it, the United States must not fall victim to conspiracy theories, political agendas, and unfounded fears that result in the demeaning of any human being. It happened in 1942. Unfortunately, the threat of something similar happening is with us today.

Footnote: For a related article on the San Bernardino tragedy, please click here.

Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project is a digital archive of videotaped interviews, photographs, documents, and other materials relating to the Japanese American experience. Additional information on the project is available at

Categorised in: , ,

This post was written by paulmarktag