Editors’ note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed on Feb. 19, 1942.
Eighty years ago tomorrow, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066), under which nearly 75,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, 45,000 Japanese nationals who had been barred from citizenship on the basis of race, and 881 Indigenous Aleuts in Alaska were incarcerated. EO 9066 was suspended with the end of World War II hostilities, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford formally terminated the Order, calling it “wrong” and a “national mistake.” In 1988, after a years-long redress movement undertaken by Japanese Americans, a formal U.S. government apology and monetary reparations were provided in the landmark Civil Liberties Act.
The story of EO 9066 follows a familiar pattern in U.S. history: abuse of state power in the name of national security or other national interests, belated public apology, and a promise to learn from mistakes now safely in the past. The United States formally apologized for the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii exactly 100 years later, without reparations or other measures of substantive justice. The contents of the damning 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA rendition and torture under President George W. Bush’s administration were, in the words of President Barack Obama, “not who we are.” Instead, said then-Secretary of State John Kerry, release of the report’s redacted executive summary was proof “that one of America’s strengths is our democratic system’s ability to recognize and wrestle with our own history, acknowledge mistakes, and correct course . . . mark[ing] a coda to a chapter in our history.” But these narratives that cast the present as more enlightened than the past obscure deeper warnings of how national security policy repeats itself. Belatedly recognizing past mistakes is not necessarily proof that the present is inherently kinder, gentler, or wiser than the past – only that it is difficult (or perhaps inexpedient) to acknowledge mistakes while the country is in the midst of making them.
Such progress narratives can also be incomplete. In particular, they often obscure the principled opposition of contemporaries who did object to abuses of state power, thereby implying that it would have been impossible to act differently at the time. In Ford’s 1976 statement terminating EO 9066, he said: “We know now what we should have known then.” But others did know better then, and said so – including the Japanese Americans who resisted EO 9066 and faced criminal prosecution as a result, civil rights leaders and others who spoke out, and the three Supreme Court justices who dissented in Korematsu v. United States.
Against the backdrop of fast-paced national security work, there is value in recognizing the ways that these cycles repeat. Lori Bannai, Professor Emeritus of Seattle University School of Law and Director Emeritus of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, describes how the myth of facial neutrality is weaponized again and again against vulnerable communities. David Inoue, Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, outlines the danger of repeating history in post-9/11 discrimination against Muslims or those perceived as Muslim and expulsions of asylum-seekers under Title 42 during COVID-19. He calls on the United States to use the model of Japanese American redress to take accountability for other past wrongs, including slavery, Jim Crow, and police brutality against Black Americans. Shirley Ann Higuchi, an author, attorney, and Chair of Heart Mountain Foundation, shows what is at stake in disputes over historical memory, putting her own family’s history of incarceration in the context of present-day efforts to rewrite the historical record. And international human rights lawyer Alyssa Yamamoto explains why, if the United States really means what it says when it apologizes for past and present wrongs and intends to be credible in its promotion of human rights, it must make binding commitments to prevent recurrence of similar episodes.
A common theme across these essays is that, in grappling with historical wrongs – including the ways in which they persist in the present – the United States must take meaningful steps to ensure that the lessons learned result in more than oversimplified pronouncements that “the past was bad; we were worse then, but better now.” Lessons from history must be incorporated into law, policy, and public discourse in ways that create accountability and provide guardrails to prevent the next abuse of national security power. (For more on these issues – including both the dangers of unrestrained national security powers and recommendations for reform – readers may also be interested in past Just Security articles on emergency powers.)
With these reflections in mind, Just Security is marking the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 with a series of essays published today. Essays in the series can be found here and at the links below: