About 1941 and Executive Order 9066

My kid had a discussion in her school history class about the internment of Japanese Americans. This is a great opportunity to think about the rules for reading that I talked about in podcast episode 1. Is your goal to judge or to understand?

It would be very easy to judge FDR badly in this matter. In fact, FDR is one of my least favorite presidents. But it wouldn’t be fair to him to give a brief and shallow judgment in this. You weren’t there. Why did he make the decision? Is it irrational? This doesn’t mean that you have to like the decision, but you need, if you are honest, to try to understand the decision.

Imagine: It’s Dec 8, 1941–Japan has just attacked US territory. They have unknown capabilities, you don’t know where their fleet is, ships have been attacked, transmissions from the west coast have been intercepted, and you have to make a decision. Will there be further attacks? Is there any way to prevent them?

Apparently the Japanese had a plan to bombard San Francisco, which Yamamoto called off because they were running out of fuel.

Pretend you don’t know what you now know. Pretend you have to act. You can’t sit in a classroom and discuss it. You have to take action. If you act wrongly, you lose the west coast. There’s also a large population of Japanese on the west coast–could some of them be enemy agents?

Note that I am not defending the decision. I am trying to understand the decision. These are not the same thing. It doesn’t really matter if I defend the decision or not. I don’t have to act in the past, I have to act in the future. My understanding of the motives behind Executive Order 9066 doesn’t change the past. How could it? But it might change my actions in the future. This is the point of history, according to Thucydides.

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