The Los Angeles Times recently published two letters to the editor. Reacting to an article about the National Parks Service, the letter writers cried foul about the author, Caroline Miranda’s, description of Japanese internment camps. According to these concerned citizens, Miranda misrepresented the nature of the World War II-era program, putting forward only one (distorted) side of the story.

Far from the usual, harmless collection of reader observations, these letters were ghosts from the past, resurrecting arguments and opinions that had once seemed exiled from public debate. Japanese-Americans were potential traitors, one writer insisted, “expected to follow the wishes of their elders in Japan.” Even if they weren’t, he continued, left on the street, “they would have been subject to hostility, injury and death at the hands of other citizens whose emotions ran high.” Foremost of all, internment was how Japanese-Americans contributed to the war effort – like millions of other Americans during World War II, they had a “job” and that job was “to stay[] out of the way and not cause[] complications.”

Many LA Times readers were shocked at the paper’s decision to given internment apologists a platform for their views. A few days later, the Times’ editors issued a statement, repudiating the letters, which remain on the paper’s website.

I, for one, hope they stay there. These short, misguided epistles contain the very same arguments that were embraced by the American people and used by the U.S. government to justify the internment of 120,000 people, over seventy years ago. At a moment when American Muslims, yet another U.S. minority group, are being similarly marginalized and siloed, we must remember the kinds of narratives that fuel repression and, most importantly, the lies and bigotry upon which they are inevitably built.

The book, Allegiance, helps us do precisely this. Set during World War II and written by Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School,[1] the work of historical fiction follows a young lawyer, Cash Harrison, as he navigates the most elite American legal circles, from the U.S. Supreme Court to the Department of Justice. His journey touches upon Japanese internment in all its aspects, from the decision to evacuate the Japanese community living in the West Coast; to the internment camps themselves; to various judicial challenges brought by detainees; to the closing of the camps and efforts to send some former inmates to Japan. As we follow Cash through this tangle of human lives and legal rules, the injustices committed against countless innocent people, in the name of national security, are brought into sharp focus.

Allegiance and Japanese Internment

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, empowering the secretary of war to designate certain parts of the country as military zones “from which any or all persons may be excluded.” A month later, the military imposed a curfew on Japanese-Americans living on the Pacific coast, claiming members of the community might facilitate an enemy invasion. Shortly thereafter, the military began relocating these individuals to internment facilities.

In December 1944, the government finally began shutting down the camps – for those detained behind their walls, the nightmare, it seemed, would finally be over. A few months earlier, however, Congress had passed the Renunciation Act, encouraging interned Japanese-Americans to renounce their citizenship and allowing them to be deported to Japan. Because of confusion and fear, several thousand Japanese signed their citizenship away.

Relying on primary and secondary sources, Allegiance very accurately depicts these various stages of the interment program, as well as several critical, court cases brought by detainees, at the time. The resulting picture reveals a government that was at once riven by behind-the-scenes conflict over the constitutionality of the evacuation and internment programs, while, at the same time, unified in presenting a false narrative to the public and courts, about the necessity of those policies.

Tasked with writing the government’s briefs in Ex Parte Endo and Korematsu v. United States, two notorious Supreme Court cases dealing with the constitutionality of the internment and evacuation programs, Cash discovers these deceptions, at the heart of the government’s policies. These include a largely fabricated report from the War Department (now the Department of Defense) justifying the Japanese evacuation. The report, which is real, claimed the Japanese-American community was tightly bound to Japan by race, culture, and filial loyalty; that contraband, including dynamite and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, had been seized in raids of Japanese-American establishments; that signal lights had been seen off the West Coast; and that radio communication with Japan had been intercepted.

In both the book and reality, contemporaneous reports, from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Office of Naval Intelligence, contradicted those claims. There were, in fact, no signal lights or radio intercepts; the seized dynamite came from farms where they were used to clear tree stumps; and the ammunition was found in sporting goods stores. Notably, these reports concluded there was no widespread disloyalty problem within the Japanese-American community.

What was fueling the government’s lies, instead, was a long history of racism and suspicion toward Japanese-Americans that pre-dated World War II.

In the book, Cash tries to convince his superiors to repudiate the War Department report. But, Charles Fahy, the U.S. solicitor general tasked with arguing Endo and Korematsu before the Supreme Court, refuses. Indeed, the real Charles Fahy did the same thing, after being confronted by government lawyers who encouraged him to reject the report’s findings. In the end, Fahy openly embraced the report in his oral argument for Korematsu, as well as in Hirayabashi v. United States, a Supreme Court case challenging the curfew imposed against Japanese-Americans during the war.

Loyalty, Principles, & Professional Ethics

Allegiance is clearly meant to remind readers of the U.S. government’s historical mistakes and constitutional betrayals, during a time of war – lessons that are as important now as ever. It also raises a number of interesting questions about loyalty, principles, and professional ethics, which remain very relevant.

The “loyalty” of the Japanese-American population was central to justifying their evacuation and internment, in ways similar to how notions of “radicalization” and “extremism” have driven and continue to drive discriminatory policies against American Muslims today. Just as there was no basis then for questioning the loyalty of Japanese-Americans or, in fact, a reliable way of determining loyalty in the first place, there is no factual support now for claims that “extremism” breeds terrorism, that Muslims are somehow prone to being “radicalized,” or indeed any reliable system for identifying meaningful indicators of “radicalization” at all. Loyalty was a handy and effective ploy for marginalizing a community – with all the fear-generating benefits of an ambiguous and unverifiable marker of danger – much like the radicalization/extremism narrative is today.

Principles, who has them, who doesn’t, and who they apply to, are a persistent theme with an enduring message in the book. Allegiance’s most principled characters are often its most marginal, including members of the interned Japanese community. Among the book’s most consistently unprincipled characters, interestingly, is its army of lawyers and judges –an implicit commentary on the very unprincipled ways the law can and often does function.

In one exchange, toward the end of the book, Cash’s Jewish girlfriend, Clara, hits on this last point hard. Having just learned about the Nazi concentration camps, Clara tells Cash she feels out of place in the United States. Trying to comfort her, Cash insists the U.S. government would never do to her what Germany did to the Jews. Clara challenges his naivety: “No Cash. It will never happen to you. And you should be happy about that. It means you can afford to look for the best in people. But it could happen to me, and I have to look for the worst.”

As Clara correctly points out, Cash is secure in his rights and freedom because he is Anglo-Saxon and male. For many minority groups, however, America’s vaunted civil liberties and protections remain illusory. Calls for the registration and rounding up of Muslim immigrants and citizens in the United States are among the most recent and unapologetic manifestation of this trend.

In an article for Quartz, Yale Professor Timothy Snyder notes that “[i]t is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.” This point about professional ethics permeates Allegiance. Charles Fahy, along with many other government lawyers and officials, chose to sacrifice the truth, as well as the liberty of more than a hundred thousand people, for the sake of politics. Without the participation of Fahy and others, Japanese internment, at the very least, would have been harder to sustain – and maybe even impossible to execute.

In 2011, then-Acting Solicitor General, Neal Katyal, publicly admitted the misconduct Fahy had engaged in. A year later, Katyal spoke about the incident again, praising Edward Ennis and John Burling, two attorneys in the U.S. Solicitor General’s office who challenged the War Department’s claims and encouraged Fahy to disclose the existence of the FCC and other reports to the Court.

As Donald Trump’s administration prepares to take the reins of government, let us hope for fewer Fahys and more Ennises and Burlings – individuals who abide by their ethical obligations as lawyers and confront policies and legislation threatening the constitutional rights of immigrants and citizens alike.

Let us also remember the continuing lessons of Japanese interment – that lies are powerful and enduring and that exposing them requires relentless, unwavering dedication.

[1] I am a former student of Professor Roosevelt’s.

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