Seventy-five years ago today the president of the United States signed what would become the most infamous executive order in history.
Two months after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the creation of “military areas,” where any categories of persons could be removed without a hearing. While the order did not specify Japanese Americans, it was clear that that was the intent.
Even though we were at war with multiple countries, Executive Order 9066 was applied principally to Japanese Americans who were U.S. citizens by birth and those immigrants whom the law did not permit to become citizens because they weren’t white.
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Within weeks, the military organized the mass roundup of some 120,000 Japanese Americans across the West Coast, including children and grandparents.
Today, our nation faces an executive order similar to that of 9066. President Donald Trump’s order also targets people on the basis of national origin, declaring them a danger to this country.
But this time is different – because of us. Seventy-five years after 9066, Americans are ensuring that we don’t repeat a mistake from our past.
In 1942, much of America turned its back on its Japanese American neighbors. Ordinary citizens cheered the executive order. Newspapers described Japanese Americans as a “fifth column” lying ready to support our enemies. California Attorney General Earl Warren would support the removal of Japanese Americans, a decision that would later weigh on his conscience “whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home.”
In our town of Davis, the City Council asked Roosevelt to prevent Japanese Americans from returning home even after the war ended.
Trump’s executive order, in sharp contrast, was met with people taking to the streets and the airports. Across the country, families put up lawn signs supporting their neighbors. Large corporations such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Uber supported legal challenges. The attorneys general of various states are leading legal challenges. Here in Davis, the City Council and the school board have affirmed our welcome to all, regardless of religion, race, national origin, immigration status or sexual identity.
Bolstered by this public display, the federal courts have, thus far, proved a bulwark for rights. A federal district judge nominated by President George W. Bush blocked the implementation of Trump’s executive order, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to reconsider the judge’s order.
In the 1940s, when Fred T. Korematsu and a few others bravely challenged mass incarceration, federal judges refused to stand up for the Constitution. The 9th Circuit affirmed Korematsu’s conviction for violating orders, in the words of one judge, “not to leave and not to remain in the area.”
What happened at the Supreme Court during World War II is especially telling. The government’s principal argument for the mass incarceration was that it was a “military necessity” because Japanese Americans were likely saboteurs. But the government hid evidence from the Supreme Court that Japanese Americans presented no such threat.
While Korematsu would lose his case during the war, he would reopen his case decades later when it was easier to see that the decision was a result of “racial prejudice” and “wartime hysteria,” as Congress declared in 1988. Signing the bill recognizing the mistake, President Ronald Reagan said simply, “Here we admit a wrong.”
In the 1940s, a few courageous individuals like Korematsu spoke up. Imagine what we can do when we speak up by the millions.
Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder are professors of law at UC Davis and authors of the comic book “Fred Korematsu: All-American Hero” (2011). Chander can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sunder can be contacted at email@example.com.