Exaggerated Security Threats and Civil Liberties

From Eric L Muller's "Hirabayashi:  The Biggest Lie of the Greatest Generation" which studies the Supreme Court decision upholding race-based civil rights restrictions (eg curfews) in WWII.

This Article presents new archival evidence of an enormous lie that Executive Branch officials presented to the Supreme Court in the Japanese American litigation of World War II, one that impugns Hirabayashi at least as much as it does Korematsu. The lie concerns what might be termed the "external" component of the national security threat in early 1942 "“ the danger that Japanese military forces posed to the West Coast of the United States.  The government's brief in Hirabayashi did not mince words about that external threat: The "principal danger" that military officials "apprehended" was "a Japanese invasion"  which "might have threatened the very integrity of our nation."  With the Japanese "at the crest of their military fortunes," the brief maintained, military officials found it "imperative" to "take adequate protective measures against a possible invasion of the West Coast."  The nighttime curfew on Japanese Americans was one such measure.

This depiction of the external Japanese threat found a sympathetic audience in the Supreme Court in Hirabayashi. Chief Justice Stone, writing for the unanimous Court, accepted that the men "charged with the responsibility of our national defense had ample ground for concluding that they must face the danger of invasion," a danger that concurring Justice Douglas insisted was "not fanciful but real." Singling out Japanese Americans for curfew was reasonable because of their "ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy."

Archival records now make clear that all of this talk of a threatened Japanese invasion was a massive distortion of the actual military situation in the eastern Pacific in early 1942. There was at that time no danger of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. The army and navy viewed any sort of Japanese invasion of California, Oregon, or Washington as impracticable. They were neither anticipating nor preparing for any such event. Indeed, during the key time period of early 1942, the Army was more concerned with scaling back the defense of the West Coast from land attack than with bolstering it.

Wow.  Exaggeration of a security threat as an excuse to curtail civil rights.  Gee, I'm sure glad that doesn't happen anymore.  HT:  Jonathon Adler


  1. T J Sawyer:

    Well, it's difficult to think so clearly when you are being shelled by Japanese submarines, attacked by Japanese bombers and your forests are under attack by Japanese incendiary balloon bombs. And, that is just the Oregon experience. See http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/exhibits/ww2/threat/bombs.htm for details.

  2. Jerry:

    "The army and navy viewed any sort of Japanese invasion of California, Oregon, or Washington as impracticable. They were neither anticipating nor preparing for any such event." Well that is reassuring. And might these be the same guys on watch at Pearl Harbor. This is one of the best examples of 20-20 hindsight I have seen in a while. When the enemy is at the gate lets quibble and dither.

  3. Anonymous:

    Sorry Jerry, but the military's assessment in 1942 of the Japanese's ability to invade the US was absolutely correct. After Midway, they lacked the carriers to protect the invasion fleet and the logistical tail all the way back to Japan. On need only look at Guadalcanal in August 1942 to see that putting men and material across the beach is the biggest challenge.

  4. Jaycee:

    I've never understood why the USA maintains such a heightened state of fear, and have long suspected that the US government "whips it up" as a control mechanism. US experiences of war have been distant, compared to (say) the French in WW1, who suffered 1.4 million men killed, or (say) the British in WW2 who were only 30-odd kilometres off the coast of occupied France and suffered a year of german bombing followed by several years of an active enemy less than an hours sail away.

    There is no way the Japanese could have launched a militarily significant force across the entire width of the Pacific to attempt a contested invasion of the populated US. They would have lost the war in "an afternoon" if they'd tried. One hundred thousand + men on troop transports would have been resting at the bottom of the ocean.

  5. Jim Collins:

    I have to agree with Jerry. 20/20 hindsight at its finest. A funny thing that someone mentioned the Battle of Midway here. If the US Military believed that there was no threat of an invasion by Japan, why did Admiral Spruance place his fleet in a position to block an attack on the West Coast by the Japanese Fleet during the Battle of Midway? Read Prange's "Miracle at Midway".

  6. dearieme:

    It's good to know that your military and naval brass assessed the threat realistically. But what was the motivation for the Executive's lie? (I don't think that "FDR was a nasty piece of work" is a satisfactory explanation. Or, at least, it's not a complete one.)

  7. Scott:

    I would add to TJ Sawyer's post that Japan also invaded Alaska with ground troops. So, being shelled and invaded, it doesn't seem to me that the US government could be faulted for assuming they might be shelled and invaded. It doesn't require malfeasance to exaggerate threats: people are always quick to believe their worst fears. Who didn't think on 9/11 that more attacks were imminent? Yes, some came, but they were fewer and weaker than everyone surmised. Does government get stronger in these situations? Yes. But it doesn't mean that they don't believe the fear too, or feel pressured to address it by people who do.

    The founders antidote to this was the second amendment: no one could ever invade the US, or if they did, hold it, with an armed populace that were decent shots. The North could barely invade the South, who they massively outnumbered and out-produced. No one has successfully invaded Switzerland or Israel either.

    The solution to other 9/11s, by the way, would be for every seat on the plane to have a taser holstered there. End of problem. No TSA necessary.

  8. CRC:

    I'm also glad that this only happens during Republican administrations so that I can confidently vote for a Democrat for President without worry.

  9. Jerry:

    It's amazing to me how so many people want to re write history and to indict every "old white guy" that was in a position of power back then. Our system of gov't (albeit imperfect) provides a means to elect our executive. The imperative to "serve and protect" is very real for those that become president. When the enemy is at the gate your motivated to take decisive action but god forbid you over react because the arm chair generals will roundly critisize you for not recognizing the impracticalities of invasion because of the "logistical tail". Give me a break!!!

  10. Anonymous:

    Jerry, by the summer of 1942, "the gate" was more than 3,000 miles west of San Francisco.

    The point is despite the military's assessment that an invasion wasn't a serious threat, the civilians went ahead with the internment.

  11. Mike:

    Glad to find out the signs on the concrete installations on the coastal hills near San Fran identifying them as watchpoints and artillery emplacements should be relabeled to indicate "Old Movie Set". Or maybe these were built in May 1942, avoiding Muller's curiously specific "early 1942" when the threat of invasion didn't exist.

    Look, restricting the Japanese-Americans' civil rights stunk. Especially, knowing how loyal they were in hindsight. But let's not move into loonie-land by pretending there was no threat of invasion or legitimate fears.

  12. Daublin:

    The point many are losing is that the president overrode his military advisors here and got it completely wrong. I agree, common sense would indicate there was some sort of threat. The military advisors, though, said no way.

    His record with economists is similar. When common sense disagreed with his highest advisors, he went with his own preconceptions.

    For what it's worth. It sure would be nice if there were military and economic experts that our presidents would actually believe. As history has gone in our country, it hasn't gone that way. The experts are deservedly bad, or the wrong "experts" are being promoted, or our presidents are untrusting douches. Probably all three.

  13. rmark:

    There was no threat of invasion on the West coast. The Japanese navy was quite capable of hit and run raids (as in Pearl Harbor), but did not have the sea lift capacity needed to mount a invasion of the mainland US. Even an invasion of Hawaii wa impractical, espescially as its defenses were quickly built up after the attack. Many coastal gun implacements predated WW2, built before bombing aircraft became truly effective - useful as harbor defense against a roaming submarine, but a poor choice against a modern fleet with aircaft carriers. IIRC, some were demobilized before the war ended.

  14. Jim Collins:

    It really doesn't matter if there was an actual threat by the Japanese to invade or there wasn't. The problem is that the people who lived on the West Coast had the perception that there WAS a threat of invasion. Google "The Battle of Los Angeles" for an example. At that time the Politician who ignored the fears and concerns of the people in their districts, didn't get re-elected.

  15. John Moore`:

    Yeah, we all know that politicians exaggerate threats for various reasons.

    You have imputed a reason for this one, but was it the correct one? After all, if the goal was to remove rights from Japanese Americans, why did they just round up the ones on the west coast? As others have commented, it seems like 20-20 hindsight to me.

    As for today, I haven't seen an exaggeration of threats at the national security level. Terrorism with WMDs remains a significant threat to the US. The 9-11 attacks, which used an unusual and relatively (1kT) low powered WMD, killed more Americans than all previous terrorist attacks put together, and greatly damaged the economy. The August 2006 plot, foiled in time, would have been at least as bad, and as a second successful attack, would perhaps have prompted much more severe threats. The continued advances in prosperity and technology, combined with the reappearance of jihadist ideology, have created a vastly more dangerous time.

    In spite of all of this, the government has been remarkably circumspect in its use of surveillance and other security means - perhaps too much so. The TSA annoyances are certainly a problem, but they are merely an extension of security measures already in place due to long existing terrorist threats.

    The big threats on civil liberties today don't come from the security apparati - they come from the green/socialist/multi-culturalist movement.

    Property rights are fundamental to liberty, but they are not even considered even by the lefties, and are routinely infringed for environmental reasons and "urban planning" (central planning, anyone?).

    Free speech isn't threatened by the War on Terror, but is under threat by "reformers" (sadly, including McCain, whose sense of honor overrode his common sense) and grievance seekers (look to Canada or Britain or many US campuses for shocking examples).

    Freedom of travel is threatened by environmentalists who want to dictate inferior modes and increased costs.

    Social architects want to tell us where to live, what to eat, who we cannot offend (and who we can offend, such as males and Christians).

  16. Some Dude ...:

    Since someone has mentioned Pearl Harbor ...

    I came across a reference to a US Admiral (I believe) who was in charge of building the carrier fleet in the late 1920s conducting a surprise air attack against US naval facilities in Panama in 1931. It was a completely successful surprise attack.

    It seems clear that the US Navy and the US military in general should have known of the potential for Pearl Harbor.

  17. Some Dude ...:

    See for example:

    USS Saratoga (CV-3).

  18. Dr. T:

    The Japanese were not crazy enough to invade our west coast. An invasion would have failed miserably, even if the troop ships and LSTs got to our shores unscathed. The Japanese placed a few men on desolate stretches of distant parts of Alaska for publicity purposes (to say they had captured American territory). They lobbed some bombs at Oregon for similar propaganda purposes.

    We imprisoned and restricted Japanese-Americans because of 'war fever' and because anti-oriental racism was common and strong. Note that we put no restrictions on German-Americans, not even those who emigrated to the U.S. as adults shortly before the war. Logic indicates that the German emigres posed a bigger threat than Japanese-Americans: Germany was the tougher opponent, German-Americans were scattered across the U.S., and German-Americans blended in with our predominant European heritage. But, they looked like 'us' and many of us were partly German, so nothing was done. This fact alone convinced me that our treatment of Japanese-Americans was racism justified by the needs of war.

  19. epobirs:

    This discussion completely ignores a major aspect of the situation that only a few people knew about. The internment was not in response to a feared invasion. That was just the public excuse. The actual problem was the seeming likelihood of sabotage by Japanese loyalists living in the US. This wasn't just some wild rascist handwringing. We were doing very well at intercepting and decrypting the Japanese military's messages. The Japanese thought they had a secure communications channel and our ability to read their mail was a huge asset in the war.

    In the early days of the war the Japanese message traffic indicate they believed a substantial contingent of saboteurs were waiting to strike. Whether this is true or not is both unknown and unknowable. An agent of Japan who was interned alongside immigrants and their children would have been insane to break cover and could easily have returned to Japan after the war or simply kept their silence for the rest of their lives. We will never know.

    The critical issue is that the Japanese believed they had such agents at their command and the small portion of the US government reading these intercepts had good reason to believe this was other than a delusion on the part of Japan. Thus the real reason for the internment. It isn't a pretty part of our history but it cannot be properly understood without all the stuff that was declassified long after the war. There was much more involved than hysteria and petty rascism.

  20. Jerry:

    Just one last thought. This whole discussion is based on archival records. Can you imagine the number of staff groups producing "studies" in the federal bureacracy back then. The number today is probably staggering. Each one consisting of hundreds, maybe thousands of pages. Do you think anyone really reads these things. At best they scan the executive summary, or in the case of things like "logistical tails" they defer to some retired colonel on their staff who is I'm sure apolitical.I will bet you can unearth some study to prove any point you want. I again assert that this all just 20-20 hindsight.
    If you're not happy with the supposed attack on our civil liberties then get out of your chair and start canvassing people to vote the villians out of office. Remember Abe Lincoln suspended habeus corpus.

  21. Ariel:

    I have to correct the comment on internment of German-Americans. Approximately 11,000 were interned during WWII. The same restrictions on travel, property, etc. that Japanese-Americans faced were also levied on German-Americans, and German nationals, who had ties to the Bund in America. German nationals with clear Nazi ties were returned to Germany. FDR started Hoover on surveiling all dissident groups in America around 36-37 and the Bund was one of those groups. The saboteur issue was known to be possible with Bund members.

    German-Americans were the largest, by far, ethnic group in America, an internment of all German-Americans would have crippled this country. In 2000, German-Americans still comprised the largest ethnic minority in the US.

  22. K:

    The people citing the outcome of Midway are correct. After Midway the Japanese weren't going to invade the mainland and the military knew it. Japanese harassing attacks remained possible in theory but not dangerous in practice.

    So the Japanese internment was not useful for military security. No doubt various influential people had differing motives for moving the program forward. Excessive caution to the point of paranoia or idiocy is hardly unknown in wartime.

    It is easy to forget that top-secret assessments of Japanese strength weren't published every day in the newspapers. The civilians and most ranks of the military lacked ways to accurately assess danger.

    Jim Collins: You might be right. If I get the time I will read a little more about the thoughts of Spruance and Nimitz before Midway. Still I think the West Coast was not a factor in positioning.

    IMO our carriers were positioned as they were because it was our only chance. They might avoid detection and still engage the Japanese. Or they might be detected and doomed. They raced to get there in time. The short range of our carrier planes gave us few options.

    Dividing your forces when facing a superior enemy was daring but it worked there by the closest of margins.

  23. Jim Collins:

    Spruance placed his carriers in a position to block the Japanese Fleet if the intelligence was wrong and they tried to attack the West Coast instead of Midway. There were several other places where he could have positioned his carriers that would have let him take advantage of using Midway for protection and support.

  24. Rich213:

    Oh "exaggerated security threats", is that like the thought among US strategists that if Japan was to attack the US it would be in the Philippine's- not Pearl Harbor. Or that the jungles around Singapore protected the British from interior attack so their coastal guns could only fire seaward. On the west coast there was a racial element to internment, but remember the NY State governor refused similar attempts at internment of Japanese-Americans. So the threat may have been as much the perceived vulnerability of the west coast, as to racial animosity. Americans had since Japan's invasion of China in 1937 been aware of Japanese military atrocities, with the limited media of those times- public perception was shaped by this. Stories of Japanese spies and fifth-columnists were everywhere. Remember after Doolittle's raid over 250,000 Chinese was killed as reprisals for aiding our air-crews. We didn't have the luxury of hindsight and with the European colonial powers being over-run in Asia- we had to prepare for the worst. Hey we had thought we could stay out of this conflict--we now had ships sinking and bodies washing ashore on the East Coast. The West Coast was vulnerable, shelling and balloon bombs however their ineffectiveness still killed Americans and caused an atomic reactor to have an emergency shutdown.