Homeland hysteria 

The lessons we learned from 'alien' detention at Fort Missoula

Donald Trump said during his presidential campaign that he wants both surveillance of Muslims residing in the United States and a registry to track who and where they are. And he definitely doesn't want any more Muslims let into this country. I think.

As with myriad other statements Trump makes, he obfuscates, contradicts himself, blames others and veers off in so many directions it's impossible to pin him down unless he's repeating one of his many "we're gonna build a wall, folks" declarations.

Whatever he means, or doesn't, he's emboldening both the blatant racists and the covert ones. The mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, cited the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese in America as precedent for banning Syrian refugees from the United States, saying the threats to national security were similar in both cases, making both actions clearly justified.

Missoula was the first city in the nation to directly experience the fallout from similar hysteria 75 years ago.

On Dec. 19, 1941, the first trainload of Japanese living in the states arrived at the railroad siding near the Buckhouse Bridge. Guarded by agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 364 "enemy alien" Japanese were marched to Fort Missoula for indeterminate detention. Over the next several weeks more West Coast Japanese arrived, until their numbers at the fort reached about 1,000. None knew why they had been arrested or what fate held for them or for the families they left behind.

Who were these men? All were Japanese nationals, and most had lived in the United States for decades. They were not American citizens because laws in this country banned them from citizenship. All Japanese emigration to the states had been banned by 1924, so most had a fairly lengthy history here. Their average age was 60.

Why were they detained? The answer is that fear, prejudice and paranoia had smoldered in the body politic for decades until being fully ignited by the attack at Pearl Harbor. The government for years had conducted covert surveillance of the Japanese living in America, placing them in A-B-C categories, with "A" ostensibly being the most dangerous. The "known dangerous" men on the list were so categorized primarily because they were the most successful, and consequently the most influential, members of the Japanese community in America. If there was to be sabotage here, the most revered would be those with the ability to exert the most influence over others.

  • photo courtesy of University of Montana

The Justice Department undertook hearings for the men at Fort Missoula. Prominent men from the cities where the arrested Japanese had lived volunteered to sit in judgment at the proceedings at the fort. But the hearings were time-consuming and the board members too few, so prominent Missoulians like Mike Mansfield, then a university history professor, and C.W. Leaphardt, dean of the law school, were called to serve. The board members' job was to determine whether individual Japanese were "likely to be disloyal."

Before the Alien Enemy Hearing Board's work was done, hysteria again changed the course of history. President Franklin Roosevelt was persuaded to issue an executive order that led to the relocation and detention of 110,000 Japanese from the West Coast, one that also let Roosevelt avoid direct responsibility for their fate. He placed the decision in the hands of military leaders, empowering them to decide whether "military necessity" required the evacuation of all Japanese from California and parts of Washington and Oregon. The government created the War Relocation Authority, which opened 10 ramshackle camps in remote locations to house the people forced from their homes.

It is a sordid history, made the more appalling by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed the constitutionality of the action. It's a decision that has not been overturned.

The Fort Missoula detainees were soon shipped to other Army and Justice Department camps. Hundreds were detained, always without explanation or justification, until months after the end of World War II. Most left the camps broken men, never to return to the homes and businesses they'd lost years before.

The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, created by Congress in 1980, studied the internment extensively and concluded that it was a "grave injustice" motivated by "racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership." Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, a bill that awarded $20,000 and a formal apology to each living internee. Many thousands had died by the time the bill was funded, but its cost came to $1.4 billion.

Perhaps Donald Trump won't be swayed by reason from violating the civil liberties of those whose nationality or religion don't meet his loyalty test. But he might just plan to set aside the money he says Mexico will pay to build his wall to compensate those whose rights he decides to trample on.

Carol Van Valkenburg is a professor emerita at the University of Montana School of Journalism and author of An Alien Place, The Fort Missoula, Montana, Detention Camp: 1941-1944.

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