- The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law: Civil Liberties Debates from the Internment to McCarthyism and the Radical 1960s by Masumi Izumi
This ambitious and elegant study braids together stories from the 1940s (the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War 2), the 1950s (the passage of anti-subversive acts creating plans for concentration camps confining U.S. domestic dissenters as well as “aliens”), and the 1960s (the creation of protest initiatives that would lead to the repeal of the central piece of such repressive legislation). Haunting the stories is the example of the initial wartime internment and incarceration of Japanese American citizens as well as Japanese nationals in the U.S., which provided legal, political, and bureaucratic frameworks for subsequent plans for preventive detention. Moreover, later protests against any authorization of concentration camps also hearkened back to the policies of the 1940s, and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) became a leading presence in those protests.
In the initial chapter of the book, Izumi offers an arresting account of the removals and confinements of the Japanese, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S. during World War 2, a story now well-told though too little known popularly. The care with which she fills in context characterizes the book as a whole, making it ideal for undergraduate course use. The attention to detail in the several signally important court decisions allowing government policies to continue is vital because it shows how often courts ruled narrowly, not providing blanket assurance that preventive detention was constitutional. Izumi evenhandedly acknowledges that security concerns joined race in justifying repression, and that the mostly liberal actors in implementing detention policies did fret over the liberties they compromised. Such precision makes still more impactful Izumi’s insistence that the policies nevertheless amounted to a “racist purge” (40), which she counts as an example of what Etienne Balibar calls “differentialist racism” (33).
The second of the book’s sections focuses mainly on the passage of the 1950 Internal Security Act especially Title II, which made “legalizing preventive detention” (44) its goal. Izumi masterfully captures the sad drama in which liberal forces attached to the Truman Administration tried to outflank cruder anti-Communist legislation offered by conservatives only to have much of that language animate Title I of the final product while adding their own strategies for incarceration. (A similar worst-of-both-strategies result would occur in the Communist Control Act of 1954 as the differences between liberalism [End Page 70] and conservatism on these matters was small and both vied to be seen as toughest on the nation’s supposed enemies. In particular the association of left politics with specific racial and ethnic groups made the persecution of the Japanese seem a useful lens to approach the issues involved. Ultimately repression stretched to fit “virtual alien enemies” (85).
While examples from the incarcerations of the 1940s were called on by lawmakers and judges in the 1950s mostly to mount justifications of preventive detention, the shifting political climate of the 1960s brought new possibilities. With massive social movements from civil rights, to Black Power, to opposition to the war on Vietnam rising, the ability to define those opposing the U.S. state as a marginal, easily confined group of only 12,000 or so persons ebbed. But those in the social movements rightly feared being spied on and rounded up. Persistent “rumors of concentration camps” spread among dissenters and were especially well-publicized by the Black Panther Party. The rumors were only that, in the sense that the camps planned and funded in the early 1950s had not received appropriations after 1957, but the logic of surveillance producing an “index” of those deserving incarceration remained intact and menacing.
Campaigns to repeal Title II urgently enlisted activists, including younger Asian Americans, who encouraged the older leadership of JACL to participate. When this call was answered the long connections to the 1940s led to opportunities to recall the persecution...