The Japanese Internment and the Betrayal of the ‘Progressives’

As libertarians know, and most of the rest of us suspect, government lies are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, and the higher up we go the bigger the deception. Most of the time, we get the truth – if we get it – from whistleblowers, or renegade journalists, but the most recent case of truth-telling comes from Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“In an extraordinary admission of misconduct, [Katyal] took to task one of his predecessors for hiding evidence and deceiving the Supreme Court in two of the major cases in its history: the World War II rulings that upheld the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans.

"Katyal said Tuesday that Charles Fahy, an appointee of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, deliberately hid from the court a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence that concluded the Japanese Americans on the West Coast did not pose a military threat. The report indicated there was no evidence Japanese Americans were disloyal, were acting as spies or were signaling enemy submarines, as some at the time had suggested.”

Fahy suppressed a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence which denied Japanese-Americans represented a security threat, and maintained that those who did were either already in custody or else known to the authorities. Fahy, on the other hand, believed there was no way to differentiate between the loyal and the disloyal, and said Japanese living in the US were motivated by “racial solidarity.” This comment clearly characterizes Fahy as an inveterate racist, a reactionary, and a Very Bad Person with nativist inclinations – except that Fahy was hardly a know-nothing type. In fact, he was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s legal liberals, a former head of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) legal department, whose reputation as a “legal craftsman” – i.e. one who stuck to the letter of the law, and avoided broader policy questions – was well-established.

After the war, when President Truman issued a presidential order desegregating the armed forces, he appointed Fahy the head of a committee to implement the desegregation process, which was being fought tooth and nail by military commanders, especially in the army. Fahy – the former enemy of Japanese “racial solidarity” – diligently pursued Truman’s desegregation order.

The liberal-lefty lawyers who worked for FDR’s Justice Department were split on the constitutionality of the internment order, and many were inclined to argue for it in court based on narrow legal arguments. Yet Fahy was part of a hard-line faction within the Roosevelt and Truman administrations that deferred to the War Department and insisted on ferociously defending the federal government’s position when the internments were challenged in court. As Solicitor General, Fahy also zealously prosecuted the federal government’s case against alleged “seditionists” whose “crimes” consisted of writing articles and pamphlets that supposedly were aimed at “causing insubordination in the armed forces” of the US in wartime.

Under Fahy’s direction, the defense of internment was argued in terms that prefigured the arguments made sixty years later by George W. Bush’s legal eagles, who maintained that the various infringements on the traditional constitutional rights enjoyed by all Americans were overridden by the President’s supreme authority as commander-in-chief. Powers given the chief executive in wartime, argued Fahy’s legal team, gave the Roosevelt administration the authority to imprison anyone, including American citizens, for any reason deemed militarily necessary. And so we see that the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, and other such unconstitutional legislation that has the Founders turning over in their graves, have ample precedent – thanks to the “progressive” legal legacy left to us by FDR.

If the government’s own lawyers were split on the internment question, then so, too, was the other side, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). When the internment order was announced, the pro-civil liberties faction of the ACLU proposed a resolution to the governing board that would have gotten the ACLU involved in court challenges based on the premise that the order was clearly in violation of the Constitution, and impermissible in a free society.

Supporters of the administration mobilized within the ACLU, and drafted a counter-resolution which granted the government the right to intern “enemy aliens,” including US citizens, in the name of “national security,” and proposed taking on only those cases in which no clear “reasonable” basis for internment could be proved. This was, in effect, the Justice Department’s position. In the end, the anti-civil libertarians – including commie Corliss Lamont, lefty loudmouth Max Lerner, and the literary critic and Stalin apologist Van Wyck Brooks – prevailed. (See Peter H. Irons’ Justice At War for the full list of ACLU hypocrites.)

Roger Baldwin, ACLU chairman, was instructed by the ACLU Board that “local committees are not free to sponsor cases in which the position taken is that the government has no constitutional right to remove citizens from military areas.” The only grounds ACLU lawyers were permitted to argue the case were that the internment order constituted “racial discrimination.” Thus began the ACLU’s abandonment of strict adherence to the Constitution and its drift toward political correctness: outright authoritarianism propelled by rampant militarism was perfectly fine by them, as long as there was no “racism” involved.

As war hysteria swept the country, the “anti-fascist” contingents of the American Left united behind the banner of “Dr. Win-the-War,” and used the newly-acquired wartime powers and prestige of the federal government to ram their radical domestic agenda down the throats of the courts and the people. As John Wilson puts it in “How World War II Saved the New Deal”:

“World War II was a godsend to American liberals. The New Deal had been dead in the water since 1937, torpedoed by its fundamental failure to effect an end to the Depression and its increasingly annoying meddling with traditional patterns of American life. A conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats blocked almost all of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s initiatives until the foreign policy crisis of 1939-41.

“That crisis renewed the President’s vigor and allowed him gradually to maneuver the U.S. into a position that made entering the war in Europe and the Pacific inevitable. He was aided immeasurably by the recklessness of the Japanese and Germans. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Since foreign policy always reflects domestic policy (and that goes for military policy, too), it should surprise nobody that the New Dealers geared up for war in New Deal ways. What happened between 1941 and 1945 was an expansion of the national state so vast as to be virtually irreversible.”

This expansion was fulsomely supported by the liberals and “progressives” of the ACLU majority, and they stood by while not only Japanese-Americans but also prominent opponents of US entry into the war were smeared, spied on, prosecuted, and – in some cases – locked up. Some even cheered rather loudly as the largely left-wing mob screamed for “isolationist” blood.

It’s interesting to note that, while even the US government has officially recognized the great injustice done to those who were interned, and apologized for its actions, the ACLU has never acknowledged its horrific betrayal of its own principles and its pernicious role – which amounted to complicity with the internment policy – in this shameful episode in our history. C’mon, ACLU-ers – face the music, and apologize!

The lessons for today are so clear as to be blinding, which is why those who most need to know this history will do everything possible to not know it or evade its implications. We are at a very similar moment in American history, with a world war – an eternal “war on terrorism” – raging across the globe, and a war on our civil liberties raging right here on the home front. A “progressive” President is defending the PATRIOT Act in court, and in Congress, as well as coming up with new and ever-more-draconian “national security” rationales and legal briefs, which – as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, at length – go beyond even what Bush administration lawyers were willing to argue. Yet where are the voices of protest among “liberal” Democrats in Congress? All we hear is the voice of Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who accused Sen. Rand Paul of “aiding the terrorists” because he threatened to hold up reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act.

The silence of the liberals, both in Congress and the media, in the face of the Obama administration’s assault on civil liberties in wartime is a disgrace. They have made their pact with the Devil in order to achieve what they regard as much more important gains: they are ready to sacrifice their (always conditional) devotion to civil liberties in order to achieve “economic equality,” i.e., preserve our faltering and near-bankrupt welfare state. If they have to endorse – or simply not protest – the depredations of the Warfare State in order to accomplish this, well then so be it.

Wartime is not a favorable time for cutting back on the power – and financial resources – of the US government. Indeed, wars have been the occasion for every Great Leap Forward in the power of the federal government to control every aspect of our lives, and militarism is playing a similar role in the current chapter of that ongoing story. As “progressives” contemplate an increased role for the federal government on the Obama administration’s initiative, their opposition to Washington’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy is dulled and even reversed.

Partisan politics also enter into the equation. During World War II, a cult of personality surrounded FDR, similar in intensity to the Obama cult that infects the Democratic electorate today – and this personality cult was yet another factor that made is possible for vaunted “liberals” and “civil libertarians” to go along with the internment plan of the administration. Certainly liberals and progressives of the time enthusiastically supported US entry into the war: again, in part, for purely partisan reasons. The same herd mentality holds sway, today, among their intellectual and political descendants.

Look at Kevin Drum, the prominent liberal blogger, made infamous by his declaration of craven fealty to this administration, and not only when it comes to foreign policy:

“If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.”

While this is clearly the voice of somebody either angling for a job, or some kind of personal favor – perhaps just an invitation to party with the Powers That Be – in my view, it also represents a widespread sentiment in the ranks of the liberal-left, one that bodes ill for the future of liberty in this country. Drum’s confession of unmitigated Leader-worship is the very mindset that made one of the most shameful episodes in American history possible: and please don’t tell me it can’t happen here. It has happened here, and – given the continuation of present trends – could very well happen again.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].