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February 19, 2017

Annals of the President Trump Regime VIII

 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously characterized December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes swooped down on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor in a ‘surprise attack’ and devastated the greater part of the American Pacific fleet, as a “day which will live in infamy”.  A little more than two months later, seventy-five years ago, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.  Little did he know then that February 19, too, would go down as a “day which will live in infamy”; indeed, February 19 is likely to resonate far into the future, perhaps even more so than December 7.

Executive Order 9066, dated February 19, 1942, has long been described as a presidential decree that authorized the removal of Japanese Americans (and, though this is little known, a few people of German and Italian ancestry) from the West Coast to specified incarceration camps.  (In two previous blogs dating to mid-2015, I recorded my impressions of a visit to one such camp: Manzanar, California.)  This common understanding is by no means incorrect; however, the Executive Order does not once mention Japanese Americans, or any other ethnic community, by name.  It in fact authorizes “the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas”, that is to secure them against foreign enemies, in the interest of the “successful prosecution of the war [which] requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities”.  EO 9066 notes that persons may be “excluded” from “military areas” prescribed by the Secretary of War and the Military Commanders acting under his direction, and that the “right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave [such areas] shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”

Nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans would thus be ‘relocated’ to what have variously been described as war relocation centers, incarceration camps, detention centers, internment centers and concentration camps.  American citizenship did not save them from this hideous oppression; a full two-thirds of those so incarcerated were American citizens, the rest “resident aliens”.  Fred Korematsu was among the few who refused to comply with the Executive Order; he was hauled into jail and then convicted of evading internment.  His appeal to the Supreme Court fell on deaf ears, even if Justice Frank Murphy, in his dissenting opinion, unequivocally affirmed that “racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life.”  Four decades later, the conviction of Korematsu was vacated by Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who unambiguously declared that Korematsu’s case “stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect government actions from close scrutiny and accountability.”  Judge Patel did not, however, explicitly overturn EO 9066, and the decision of the court in Fred Korematsu vs. United States [1944] still stands, even if, as various legal scholars have noted, the decision is now routinely condemned and not even remotely taken to constitute precedent.  Korematsu would, in time, be decorated by President Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom; Japanese-Americans, as a whole, would be rendered a rare apology along with compensation for “a great injustice”.

Roosevelt’s EO 9066 calls to mind, of course, the recent and now recalled Executive Order issued by Donald J. Trump in the opening days of his Presidency.  Much ink has been spilled on EO 13769, or, as it is known in popular parlance, “the Muslim Ban”.  Barring Syria, no country is in fact mentioned by name; an exception is made for Syria with the argument that “the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States” and is suspended until such time as the President, or someone delegated by him, makes the determination that their admission to the US would not be inimical to American interests and the security of the American people.  Refugees from Syria, in other words, may be excluded for an unspecified length of time.  Neither the word ‘Muslim’ nor the word ‘Islam’ appears even once in Trump’s Executive Order; but that it is seven Muslim-majority countries that Trump had in mind when he barred admissions from those countries for 90 days may be inferred when the Executive Order is read in tandem with certain portions of the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as the United States Code.  Sec. 3(c) of EO 13769 states that “the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” and their admission is thus suspended for a period of 90 days.  The countries so referred to in the INA & USC are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, and Somalia.

There is much that calls for an analysis and comparison of EO 9066 and EO 13769.  There is no conception of a nation-state without borders; and borders exist to be safeguarded, patrolled, and policed; but they also exist, for precisely that reason, to be transgressed.  No border can be such until it is transgressed.  There is also the extraordinarily and palpable fact that the body of the nation-state in such political discourse is rendered much like the human body.  The body ingests food and expels it in the form of waste matter; the body has its points of entry and exit.  The language of Trump and his followers has hinted, and more, at immigrants as a repository of waste and filth that must be expelled from the body-politic.  All this is certainly worthy of lengthy comment.

At this juncture, however, only one arresting set of facts interests me and seems to have received little if any attention in the sprawling commentary on the ‘Muslim Ban’ and its comparisons with Roosevelt’s Executive Order.  Even those who hold no brief for EO 9066 have sometimes sought to argue that Roosevelt was responding to a declaration of war, indeed a pre-meditated and coordinated attack on American soil.  Caught up in the war hysteria, and the ferocious anti-Japanese sentiment that had been building up for decades and that would assume a terrifyingly xenophobic and vindictive characteristic in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt succumbed as anyone else would to the virulent racism of the day. Many of his supporters, even as they are critical of his Executive Order, insist that he was fundamentally a man of liberal and well-meaning disposition.

A man’s acts may be monstrous—let us call EO 9066 that—but he himself may not be a monster. On any reading, that is a reasonable view; and it may be a stretch to think of Roosevelt as a monster.  But it is not any less reasonable to ask whether Roosevelt’s racism was merely provoked by the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, or whether, as was true of much of white America then, it was a part of his (to use almost an Indianism) ‘constitutional makeup’.  In 1925, Roosevelt had retreated to Warm Springs, Georgia, to give his battered body some rest; between April 16 and May 5, he authored nine editorial columns for the Georgia Macon Telegraph.  On April 21, Roosevelt turned his attention to the subject of immigration into the United States.  “It goes without saying that no sensible American wants this country to be made a dumping ground for foreigners of any nation”, he wrote; and this sentiment is elaborated upon towards the end of his article:  “We have, unfortunately, a great many thousand foreigners who got in here and who must be digested. For fifty years the United States ate a meal altogether too large—much of the food was digestible, but some of it was almost poisonous. The United States must, for a short time at least, stop eating, and when it resumes should confine itself to the most readily assimilable foodstuffs.”  Just what Roosevelt construed as poison and indigestible is rendered more explicit in his column of April 30, where he let loose a volley of words about—the Japanese, who else?  Here is Roosevelt:  “Let us first examine that nightmare to many Americans, especially our friends in California, the growing population of Japanese on the Pacific slope. . . .  Californians have properly objected on the sound basic ground that Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. . . .”

We have heard much the same about the Muslim “nightmare” in the US.  Muslims are inassimilable and they cannot be reconciled to American values.  If the ‘liberal’ Roosevelt and the ‘authoritarian’ Trump speak nearly the same language, what does that tell us about ‘American values’?  Is what is happening really “un-American”, as we are being repeatedly assured by all those whose liberal sentiments are deeply offended by what is transpiring in the country?  And, just as importantly, might we not have to know something about the political past of Donald J. Trump, about which we have heard very little, to tell us about his ‘constitutional makeup’?

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