Matt Bai: Fred Korematsu, The Man Who He Said No to Internment

Roundup: Talking About History

In February 1942, a little more than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which effectively decreed that West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry - whether American citizens or not - were now "enemy aliens." More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans reported to government staging areas, where they were processed and taken off to 10 internment camps. Fred Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, was at the time a 23-year-old welder at Bay Area shipyards. His parents left their home and reported to a racetrack south of San Francisco, but Korematsu chose not to follow them. He stayed behind in Oakland with his Italian-American girlfriend and then fled, even having plastic surgery on his eyes to avoid recognition. In May 1942, he was arrested and branded a spy in the newspapers.

In search of a test case, Ernest Besig, then the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union for Northern California, went to see Korematsu in jail and asked if he would be willing to challenge the internment policy in court. Korematsu said he would. Besig posted $5,000 bail, but instead of freeing him, federal authorities sent him to the internment camp at Topaz, Utah. He and Besig sued the government, appealing their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in a 6-to-3 decision that stands as one of the most ignoble in its history, rejected his argument and upheld the government's right to intern its citizens.

After the war, Korematsu married, returned to the Bay Area and found work as a draftsman. He might have been celebrated in his community, the Rosa Parks of Japanese-American life; in fact, he was shunned. Even during his time in Topaz, other prisoners refused to talk to him. "Allof them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker," he later recalled. His ostracism didn't end with the war. The overwhelming majority of Japanese-Americans had reacted to the internment by acquiescing to the government's order, hoping to prove their loyalty as Americans. To them, Korematsu's opposition was treacherous to both his country and his community. ...

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