- George Takeilegendary actor and gay rights activist. He is best known for playing Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek. Takei’s Broadway show Allegiance screened in cinemas across the United States on February 19, the Day of Remembrance. It is about the internment of Japanese Americans, inspired by the true story of Takei and his family’s experience.
Seventy-five years ago yesterday, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent into internment camps. This included nearly 70,000 American citizens. Over the weekend, “Day of Remembrance” events were held across the country to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans and legal residents. Many people are asking if history can repeat itself. In 2015, Trump defended his proposal for a total and complete ban on Muslims entering the United States and compared it to the actions of FDR. We speak to the legendary actor and activist George Takei, who grew up in an internment camp.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Seventy-five years ago yesterday, on February 19th, 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, that forced more than 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent into internment camps. This included nearly 70,000 who were American citizens.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan. As commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Over the weekend, Day of Remembrance events were held across the country to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Americans. Many people are asking if history can repeat itself. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump explicitly called for a Muslim registry. And as president, he has attempted to ban refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations. In an interview with ABC in 2015, Trump defended his proposal for a total and complete ban on Muslims entering the United States and compared it to the actions of FDR.
DONALD TRUMP: What I’m doing is no different than what FDR—FDR’s solution for Germans, Italians, Japanese, you know, many years ago.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re for internment camps?
DONALD TRUMP: This is a president who was highly respected by all. He did the same thing. If you look at what he was doing, it was far worse. I mean, he was talking about the Germans because we’re at war. We are now at war.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, our next guest says one of the darkest chapters in American history has begun to repeat itself. We’re joined by George Takei, the legendary actor and gay rights activist, who grew up in an internment camp. He is best known for playing Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek. Takei’s Broadway show Allegiance screened in cinemas across the United States on Sunday, the Day of Remembrance. It is about the internment of Japanese Americans, inspired by the true story of Takei and his family’s experience.
George Takei, welcome to Democracy Now!
GEORGE TAKEI: Good to be here.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’ve had you on the show before, but could you talk about your own family’s experience and what you went through as a young child as a result of the internment policies that FDR brought into effect?
GEORGE TAKEI: Well, as a matter of fact, yesterday, which we, as you said, consider the Day of Remembrance, I remembered my childhood imprisonment at the home of the man who put us behind those barbed wire fences, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park. I spoke on my memories there. And I spoke about that morning, when my parents got me up very early on that morning, together with my brother, a year younger, and my baby sister, still an infant, dressed us hurriedly. And my brother and I were told to wait in the living room while they did some packing back in the bedroom. And so, the two of us were just gazing out the front living room window, and we saw two soldiers marching up our driveway carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on them. They stomped up the front porch.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this was where? In?
GEORGE TAKEI: This was in Los Angeles.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Los Angeles, mm-hmm.
GEORGE TAKEI: On Gardner Street, a two-bedroom house. And they began pounding at the front door with their fists. It was a terrifying sound. My father came out, answered the door. And literally at gunpoint, we were ordered out of our home. My father gave my brother and me little packages to carry, and we followed him out onto the driveway and waited for our mother to come out. And when she came out, she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge duffel bag in the other, and tears were streaming down her face. And this I told to a packed house audience at the Roosevelt Library on the thousand-plus-acre estate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was a strange feeling.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your family was eventually interned where?
GEORGE TAKEI: Well, we were first taken to the horse stables at Santa Anita race track. We were taken there in a truck with other families that had been rounded up. And there, they herded us over to the stable area, and each family was assigned a horse stall, still pungent with the stink of horse manure, to sleep in. For my parents, it was a degrading, humiliating experience to take their three children and arrange the cots for us to sleep in. I was a 5-year-old kid then, and for me, the perspective was totally different. I thought it was kind of fun to sleep where the horses sleep. So, my childhood experiences were quite different from my parents’ pain and anguish and the humiliation and the degradation and enragement that they went through for over four years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I seem to recall it was not only the—obviously, the liberal president, Roosevelt, who backed this policy, but also wasn’t Earl Warren, who was then the attorney general, the famous later Supreme Court justice—he was also very much stoking anti-Japanese phobia throughout California, wasn’t he?
GEORGE TAKEI: Earl Warren was an ambitious man. He wanted to run for governor. And he saw that the single most popular political issue in California at that time was the “lock up the Japanese” movement. And I’m using the long word for Japanese; it was an ugly three-letter word. And he made an astonishing statement as the attorney general, the top lawyer of the state. He said, “We have no reports of spying or sabotage or fifth column activities by Japanese Americans, and that is ominous,” the fact that there was no report. He said the Japanese are “inscrutable.” You can’t tell what they’re thinking behind that placid face. And so it would be prudent to lock them up, before they do anything. So, for this attorney general, the absence of evidence was the evidence. And he fed into the hysteria, the war hysteria of that time, and reached all the way to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so how long was your family interned?
GEORGE TAKEI: For over four years. We were taken from the horse stables to the swamps of Arkansas, and we were imprisoned there—barbed wire fence, sentry towers, guns pointed at us—for about a year. And then, you know, initially, after Pearl Harbor, young Japanese Americans rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the military. This act of patriotism was answered with a slap on the face. They were denied military service and categorized as enemy aliens. We were neither. We weren’t the enemy, and we weren’t aliens. We were born, raised, educated in the United States, mostly on the West Coast. And so, with that outrage, we were put into these barbed wired prison camps.
But a year after imprisonment, after they completely took everything away from us, they realized there is a wartime manpower shortage. And here are these young people that they categorized as enemy aliens. How to justify drafting them? So they came down with, of all things, a loyalty questionnaire. And it was put together in the most sloppy, ignorant way. The most egregious question was question 28. It was one sentence with two conflicting ideas. In essence, it asked, “Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the emperor of Japan?”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this issue of loyalty, obviously, is now front and center, in terms of some of the Trump administration policies. And I wanted—in November, a Trump PAC spokesperson defended the proposed Muslim registry by citing the Japanese internment camps.
GEORGE TAKEI: Japanese-American, Japanese-American.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Japanese-American, yes. This is Carl Higbie of Great America PAC speaking with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly.
CARL HIGBIE: We did it during World War II with Japanese, which, you know, call it what you will—
MEGYN KELLY: Come on. You’re not—
CARL HIGBIE: Maybe wrong, but—
MEGYN KELLY: You’re not proposing we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope.
CARL HIGBIE: No, no, no. I’m not proposing that at all, Megyn.
MEGYN KELLY: You know better than to suggest that.
CARL HIGBIE: But what I am saying is that we need to protect America first.
MEGYN KELLY: I mean, that’s the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl.
CARL HIGBIE: Right, but it’s—I’m just saying, there is precedent for it. And I’m not saying I agree with it. But in this case, I absolutely believe that a regional-based—
MEGYN KELLY: You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps as precedent for anything the president-elect is going to do.
CARL HIGBIE: Look, the president needs to protect America first. And if that means having people that are not protected under our Constitution have some sort of registry, so we can understand—until we can identify the true threat and where it’s coming from, I support it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Carl Higbie of the Great America PAC, a pro-Trump PAC. The correlation between some of the—what happened then, and, as you’re saying, this was against many Japanese Americans, and—but of what’s happening now with Trump and the Muslim ban?
GEORGE TAKEI: The very fact that he brought that up to justify whatever plans that they have for Muslim people is—shows that he’s not learned the lesson of the internment of Japanese Americans, because if he’s really learned that lesson, if he has studied that, he would know that the lesson is we must never do that again. Ronald Reagan apologized for it in 1988 and pledged a $20,000 token redress for that—$20,000, which totaled up to $1.6 billion. This man, Higbie, is totally ignorant of that. We must not do it again. And the fact that he brought it up shows his ignorance.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But there were—there were some people who were targeted for internment who resisted. Could you talk about the Korematsu case and what that meant and how the courts reacted at that time?
GEORGE TAKEI: Well, they did challenge it after they were imprisoned, and not just Korematsu, but Gordon Hirabayashi and an attorney named Min Yasui. They challenged it all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the middle of the war, they were denied justice. They failed. But after the war, in the '70s, they challenged it again, the finding of the Supreme Court. They went all the way up to the federal court, and the federal judge found that there was a fault in the original ruling. But they covered up those words by calling it by its Latin name, coram nobis, fault in the original ruling. And the government didn't appeal that to the Supreme Court, so it ended there. But it was a fault in the Supreme Court’s original ruling, and it should never happen again.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then it took an act of Congress later on, in terms of reparations for the Japanese Americans?
GEORGE TAKEI: Well, that was when Reagan apologized. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act. And there was this $20,000 token redress paid. They went in the order of the age of the recipient, and I didn’t get mine until 1991. And it was—the letter of apology was signed by George H.W. Bush, with “George H.W. Bush” on the $20,000 check.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And talk about your decision—I mean, you’ve been very much of an activist much of your life, but your stance now in terms of what’s going on with the Trump administration and why you feel it’s so important to speak up now?
GEORGE TAKEI: Well, on so many issues, not just the Muslim travel ban, but issue after issue has been a failure. But this president is delusional. He just made that statement last week that his administration is operating like a finely tuned machine. He doesn’t realize the disaster that his administration is, the failure of the attack in Yemen and the series of failures that he’s—he is a danger. You know, the real terrorist is Donald Trump. Donald Trump is the terrorist president of the United States. And his rating is going down, down, down, and he still talks about the fantastic support that he’s been getting. We are going through an incredible time in American history.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to thank you, George Takei, legendary actor and activist. Thank you for joining us.
And when we come back, Robert Weissman of Public Citizen on corporate Trump.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud,” James Brown with Clyde Stubblefield on drums. Stubblefield passed away Saturday. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Juan González.