When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a traumatized nation the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he declared December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” A little over two months later, on February 19, 1942, he signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced removal and incarceration of 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.
February 19, 1942, has always held special meaning for me, because exactly 10 years after EO 9066 was signed, I was born. This year will mark the 75th anniversary of the signing of EO 9066 and my 65th birthday.
It’s a little uncomfortable to know that something bad happened on your birthday, because to me, February 19, 1942, is another Day of Infamy. On that day the president set into motion a chain of events that forced people from their homes, caused massive economic and personal losses, placed innocent men, women, and children in concentration camps, and deprived American citizens of their constitutional rights.
This was all done under the guise of “military necessity.” We were at war with Japan, and the Japanese were our enemies. How could we tell the difference between loyal Japanese Americans and the few spies, saboteurs, and terrorists that were assumed to be among them? Rather than take a chance with the safety of our nation, our government chose to lock up ALL people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast.
Years later, in 1982, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians stated unequivocally that “the promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity,” but by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which included a formal apology and $20,000 in redress to survivors of the incarceration. Most government leaders today agree that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was unjust and caused grievous harm to innocent people.
Yet here we are, 75 years later, facing a hauntingly familiar situation. Another executive order has been signed, this one directed against refugees and people from Muslim-majority countries. Once again, the populace has been whipped into hysteria and fear — this time about “radical Islamic terrorists,” even though the chance of being killed by an Islamic terrorist is far less than being struck by lightning. Once again, prejudice is rampant — not racial prejudice this time, but religious prejudice against Muslims.
Like EO 9066, which did not specifically name people of Japanese ancestry, the executive order that President Donald Trump signed on January 27 does not specifically mention Muslims. Yet everyone knows who is being targeted. Once again, we have a failure of political leadership. While many politicians have spoken out forcefully against this new executive order, others (particularly those from the party in power) have either voiced lukewarm support or kept silent.
Now is not the time to keep silent. Because of EO 9066, both of my parents, my grandparents and many relatives were unjustly incarcerated solely on the basis of their ancestry. My uncle, Minoru Yasui, was one of those who spoke up. He knew that what the government was doing was wrong, and he challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost his case, but was ultimately vindicated, and in 2016, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
When I was a little girl, I remember Uncle Min telling me, “We were born into this world to make it a better place.” I took those words to heart, and now, on my 65th birthday, it’s time for me to stand up and speak out. February 19, 1942 may be a Day of Infamy, but we all need to make sure than January 27, 2017 is not.