Opinion: In 1942, we favored Japanese internment. Shame on us.


Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, The Times’ letters editor, and it is Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. The newsletter you are about to read was sent by an organization whose White House reporter was excluded from the daily White House press briefing on Friday. Here’s a look back at the week in Opinion.

No amount of “putting into context” can justify this country’s forcible relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in remote concentration camps during World War II. Sadly, The Times’ editorial page was too blinded by fear of the nation that bombed Pearl Harbor to recognize its own prejudice, and so 75 years ago this week, it published an editorial lauding the executive order that would ultimately lead to the inexcusable internment of tens of thousands of American citizens.

In an editorial this week, The Times expresses heartfelt regret for supporting internment and cites the pieces it wrote 75 years ago as a cautionary tale:

That was another time, and another Times. This newspaper has long since reversed itself on the subject. Not only was some of our reasoning explicitly racist, but in our desperate attempts to sound rational — by supposedly balancing the twin imperatives of security and liberty in the midst of World War II — we exaggerated the severity of the threat while failing to acknowledge the significance of revoking the most fundamental rights of American citizens based solely on their ancestry. In the 1980s, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians found there had been no military justification for the exclusion and noted that no Japanese Americans had been convicted of spying or sabotage. The incarceration was a “grave injustice,” the congressional commission concluded.

Korematsu vs. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court decision that found Executive Order 9066 to be constitutional, has never been officially overturned, but it is widely viewed as odious and discredited, and in 1998, President Clinton awarded its plaintiff, Fred Korematsu, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The original executive order, signed by President Roosevelt, and many other artifacts of the period are currently on display in an exhibit titled “Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066” at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

Strange things happen in times of turmoil, hysteria and populist anger. Given what we wrote in 1942, the 75th anniversary is a time for The Times editorial board to exercise some humility and to reflect on how we reach our positions on the passionate issues of the day. Here’s one obvious conclusion: Even in times of stress and fear, we need to keep a firm grip on our core values and bedrock principles.

For Americans more generally, the mistreatment of innocent Japanese people and Japanese Americans (and thousands of Germans and Italians as well) during the war is particularly relevant as a new administration in Washington stokes fears of a surge in nationalism and xenophobia — rejecting humanitarianism and internationalism in favor of isolationism and America First-ism. The simplest and clearest lesson from the exclusion and internment is that it is wrong to view entire populations as monoliths and attribute to all members of a group — be they Japanese or Muslims or Mexicans or Iranians or even Americans — the characteristics of a few. This is at the heart of what it means to not be prejudiced.

» Click here to read more.

More shame on us: Reader Martin A. Brower was just a middle-school teenager at the start of World War II, but he still feels unsettled by his silence as he watched his friends and neighbors being carted off to concentration camps: “I recall standing with my parents and hundreds of others on Huntington Drive adjacent to the Pacific Electric streetcar tracks as train after train of red cars, loaded with frightened-looking Japanese men, women and children, rolled by. We stood there in silence and did nothing. Even today, 75 years later, I look back in shame.” L.A. Times

Stephen Miller was no conservative hero in Santa Monica. Raffaella Gumbel, a senior at the White House advisor’s alma mater, takes issue with a Times news article that she says wrongly portrayed Miller as a brave truth-teller swimming in a sea of overwhelming leftism: “Conservatives in Santa Monica are in the minority, but they are generally argued against, not bullied into silence. Miller would have us believe something else.” L.A. Times

Watching the Oscars on Sunday? He isn’t. Trump-era politics aside, there are plenty of reasons to ignore the Academy Awards, says David Ulin. On top of the road closures that make parts of Los Angeles impassible for days and the obscene amounts of money spent that could go toward better uses, Ulin writes that the Oscars skew an art form’s purpose to exactly what it should not be: Just win, baby. L.A. Times

Celebrities who care should talk about something other than Trump on Sunday. We can expect to hear more than a few politically charged statements at the Oscars, but there’s evidence to suggest they will have precisely the opposite effect of their intent. Research has shown that when certain celebrities make political endorsements, voters are often less likely to support whatever cause it is those stars favor. Pacific Standard

The Nazis had inspiration for their racist laws: America. Long before Adolf Hitler’s legislators crafted the Nuremberg laws, Americans were laying the legal groundwork for a white-supremacist state, writes Yale law professor James Q. Whitman. “We must not forget how tenaciously the racist rulebook that the Nazis admired held on in the United States,” Whitman writes. “Antimiscegenation laws were only struck down at the tail end of the civil rights era, in 1967. Race-based immigration policies did not fully end until 1968 — long after the Greatest Generation stormed the beaches of Normandy and liberated Nazi death camps.” L.A. Times

Hey, L.A. might actually get the 2024 Olympics — and editorial writer Mariel Garza warns that may not be such a wonderful thing. “Interest in hosting an Olympic Games has waned worldwide because, as Nate Silver’s oddsmaking blog has noted, it is a terrible investment,” Garza writes. “One by one, other cities dropped out of the international competition — Hamburg, Germany; Rome; and finally Budapest — all of them citing the potential cost involved.” L.A. Times

Reach me: