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Japanese Americans, Internment, Democracy, and the U.S. Government


February 19 is the Day of Remembrance for those who wish to recall that on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing military personnel to lock American of Japanese descent in concentration camps that are often euphemistically called “internment camps.”

The internment of the Japanese Americans is one of our greatest examples of how majority rule functions in a democracy. Fueled by the usual war hysteria so often and enthusiastically propagated by the American voter, Roosevelt’s government was virtually unrestrained in its wartime powers, and it’s drive to jail innocent Japanese civilians was not just national, but international in scope.

As Rothbard noted in an article on Peru, the American government wasn’t content with merely jailing Americans. No, it was important to actually import people destined for the concentration camps:

The first Japanese were imported into Peru at the end of the 19th century to work as slaves on the coastal sugar plantations. The Japanese, however, rebelled within weeks, and moved to Lima, where they are now located. Fujimori’s parents emigrated to Lima in the mid-1930s where his father, along with other Japanese, created hundreds of successful small businesses.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government pressured Peru to go to war with Japan, to confiscate Japanese-owned businesses, including the elder Fujimori’s tire repair shop, and to ship almost 1,500 Japanese to internment in the U.S. Hence, the Peruvian Indians’ embrace of Fujimori as a fellow non-white rising up against the Criollos. The fact that Fujimori’s immigrant mother does not speak Spanish works in his favor with the Inca masses, who don’t speak Spanish either; Spanish is the language of Vargas Llosa and the Criollo conquerors.

In California, where the Japanese Americans, like the Japanese Peruvians, were treated like dirt, they set up a large number of highly-successful small business (most notably in small-scale agriculture and plant nurseries). In both cases, the success of the Japanese merely made the whites jealous, and the middle-class Anglos in California decided to wage class warfare on the Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century and passed a series of laws designed to outlaw Japanese-owned businesses. Fortunately, many of their plans failed. But when the opportunity came to ship the competition off to concentration camps, who would complain?

Camps helped cripple Japanese business well beyond the end of the war, since as Douglas Carey noted: “Over 110,000 Japanese civilians were detained in this way. Not one of them had been accused of any crime. After the war was over, the majority of those detained went home to find their property looted and destroyed.”

In a democracy, this is of course a win-win situation for the majority. The democratic system ensured that the Japanese, as a small minority, possessed virtually no political power either on the West coast or nationally, and were therefore at the mercy of the state. The few politicians who provided even mild resistance to stripping the Japanese of all rights, such as Colorado governor Ralph Carr, were promptly voted out of office.

The U.S. Government has never repudiated the legal principle behind concentration camps, and maintains the legal right to use them again. Often, when libertarians or others point out that the United States is not a free country, the defenders of the status quo point to the fact that people can vote. This magical talisman held out by government apologists, known as “the vote” doesn’t seem to have worked out very well for the Japanese Americans during World War II, who also had “the vote.”


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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