In an interview on Fox News Wednesday, prominent Donald Trump backer Carl Higbie — a former Navy SEAL and author of the book Enemies, Foreign and Domestic: A SEAL’s Story — cited the World War II era imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps a historical precedent for Trump’s plan to establish a “registry” of Muslim United States citizens.
In fact, in an earlier interview the same day, Higbie claimed that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule the proposed Muslim registry constitutional because it had done so during World War II, for Japanese interment camps.
But what were the Japanese internment camps? Did the United States really send thousands of its own citizens to prison camps without any trial or even reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. About 127,000 Japanese-Americans Were ‘Relocated’ to Internment Camps
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered American citizens and residents of Japanese descent to move out of their homes and relocate to holding centers, and then — once the camps were built — to one of 10 concentration camps mostly in the western United States.
Roosevelt signed the order about two months after the sneak-attack bombing of a U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which was then a U.S. territory though not yet a fully recognized state, by the Japanese Air Force. Roosevelt, historians believe, was responding to public pressure from a wave of anti-Japanese prejudice and hysteria, especially on the west coast where most of the Japanese-American population was located.
The order affected about 127,000 Japanese-Americans living in the U.S., only about one of every three of whom had been born in Japan. Japanese-Americans were already targets of explicit racial discrimination before the outbreak of World War II, prevented from owning land or voting or becoming citizens in many parts of the country.
Though the United States also went to war against Germany and Italy in World War II, Roosevelt never ordered German-Americans or Italian-Americans into relocation camps. Japanese-Americans living the Hawaii territory were not affected by Roosevelt’s executive order.
The 10 Japanese internment camps were located in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. While some Japanese-Americans were allowed to leave the camps after the war ended in 1945, the last internment camp did not close until about a year later.
In 1948, congress passed legislation allowing the Japanese-Americans who were relocated to the camps to collect some payment for property they lost. But not until 1988 did the government order restitution payments for victims of the camps, paying $20,000 to each survivor whose civil liberties were violated when they were forced to abandon their homes for the internment camps. About 73,000 people were eligible to receive the reparations checks.
2. The Supreme Court Upheld the Forced Internment Order
In two separate cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether Roosevelt’s executive order was legal under the U.S. Constitution. Both times, the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans, including thousands of citizens born in the U.S.
In the first case, Hirabayashi v. United States decided by the court in 1943, a University of Washington student, Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, was convicted of violating the relocation order as well as breaking a government-imposed curfew on Japanese-Americans. The student challenged the executive order on Fifth Amendment grounds, which guarantee that no one can be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
But in a unanimous decision, the court held that racial discrimination was legal in wartime, because “in time of war residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.” But the court ruled only on Hirabayashi’s conviction for breaking curfew, avoiding a ruling on the relocation order itself.
In a 1944 case, however, an American citizen named Fred Korematsu decided to challenge the relocation order. He was convicted of refusing to leave his home in San Leandro, California, and appealed all the way to the Supreme Court — which ruled 6-3 against him.
Justice Hugo Black, writing the majority opinion in Korematsu v. United States, said that while “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect,” Korematsu’s conviction and the internment of Japanese-Americans was justified as a “pressing public necessity.”
3. Actor George Takei was Imprisoned in the Camps
One of the most prominent survivors of the Japanese internment camps is Star Trek actor George Takei, best known for his role as “Mr. Sulu” on the original Trek TV series in the 1960s and subsequent movie series in the 1980s. Takei has since become a social media personality and outspoken activist for LGBT rights and other political issues.
Now 79 years old, Takei was only five when he and his family were forced out of their home in Los Angeles, California, by the U.S. military.
“I had just turned five years old, but I still remember that day,” Takei said in a 2014 interview. “We were in the living room — my brother and I — looking out the window and we saw two American soldiers marching up the driveway. We were literally ordered out of our home at gunpoint.”
He recalled his mother, “carrying the baby in one arm and a duffel bag in the other,” said Takei. “And tears were streaming down her face. It’s a picture that I’ll never be able to forget.”
Takei and his family were shipped to a camp in Arkansas where they remained throughout most of World War II, allowed to go free only when the war ended.
Actor Pat Morita, now 84 and best known as the character “Mr. Miyagi” in the Karate Kid film series, was also interned in a camp with his family during World War II.
4. Anti-Japanese Hysteria in World War II Parallels Anti-Muslim Prejudice Today
After the Pearl Harbor attack, the country saw a wave of violence and harassment aimed at Japanese-Americans.
“A superpatriot chopped down four Japanese cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington; the Tennessee State Department of Purchasing declared ‘open season on Japs, no licenses required,’ and an elderly Japanese man and wife were shot to death in their beds in El Centro, Calif.,” Time Magazine reported. “As American military losses increased in the Pacific and American morale dipped at home, rumors of Japanese-American fifth-column activity raged along the Pacific Coast.”
In fact, the anti-Japanese paranoia ran so deep that the fact that no Japanese-Americans engaged in sabotage against the United States was widely seen as evidence proving imagined Japanese threat.
“It is a sign that the blow is well organized,” famed newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann wrote at the time. “And that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect.”
Today, American Muslims have been subject to an unprecedented level of violence and harassment solely on the basis of there religion. According to FBI statistics released this week, hate crimes against Muslims spiked by 67 percent between 2014 and 2015, and reached their highest levels since 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
5. Even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was Shocked By Higbie’s Comparison
Higbie, a frequent Trump surrogate, shocked even the conservative news anchor Megyn Kelly of Fox News with his claim that Japanese internment camps form a “precedent” for forcing all Muslims to register with the government.
“We’ve done it based on race, we’ve done it based on religion, we’ve done it based on region. We’ve done it with Iran back — back a while ago. We did it during World War II with Japanese,” Higbie told Kelly on her Kelly File program Wednesday night.
“You know better than to suggest that. That’s the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl,” Kelly responded. “You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps for anything the President-elect is going to do.”
“I’m just saying there is precedent for it,” Higbie said.