The internment of the Japanese Americans of Washington, Oregon and California will never happen again. But our constitutional rights are...

The internment of the Japanese Americans of Washington, Oregon and California will never happen again. But our constitutional rights are always at risk when we believe we are under threat of attack, which is why the internment remains a live issue.

In 1942 the federal government interned 112,000 ethnic Japanese, most of them U.S. citizens and most of them for the duration of World War II. The ostensible reason was that they could not be trusted. Most historians say it was done from hysteria and racial fear. That is also the view I heard from my Seattle family, and the view that makes the most sense to me.

Former Seattle Times columnist Michelle Malkin argued otherwise in “In Defense of Internment” (Regnery, 2004). Her argument that it was militarily justified won her a lot of publicity and some support, to the frustration of several historians. One of them, Greg Robinson, assistant professor of history at the University of Quebec at Montreal, offered me a piece of rebutting evidence.

It was a letter written by John McCloy, FDR’s assistant secretary of war and a key player in the internment. Robinson had found the letter while researching his book, “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” (Harvard, 2001). Robinson hadn’t seen much of value in that letter, but reading it again, he said, “It hit me.”

The letter, dated July 23, 1942, is to Robert Patterson, undersecretary of war, and is found in Patterson’s papers. At the bottom of a memo about food supplies is a handwritten note:

These people are not ‘internees’ — they are under no suspicion for the most part and were moved largely because we felt we could not control our own white citizens in California.

In the first part of that statement, Robinson says, McCloy is admitting “that military necessity was not the primary reason for mass evacuation of Japanese Americans.” Robinson discounts the second part because there is little evidence that Japanese Americans needed to be put in camps in order to be protected.

I see another meaning in the words, “we could not control our own white citizens.” McCloy may have been saying the government could not control its white citizens’ political demands.

The sense of alarm ran deep. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, people were told the West Coast was undefended.

A map in The Seattle Times showed likely invasion beaches at Grays Harbor, with big black arrows sweeping toward Seattle and Portland. Japan had no capability of launching an invasion across the Pacific, but the article gave the impression that maybe it did. Another article told of Japanese Americans arrested in Seattle for attempting to sell gasoline tanks to Japan; the tanks, it said, would hold enough fuel for bombers to fly all the way from Tokyo to Seattle and back. Japan didn’t have bombers that could fly that far, but the article gave the impression that maybe it did.

Editorially, The Seattle Times was neutral on the internment (though its news coverage does not feel neutral). But the Los Angeles Times was beating the drums for it. The entire Pacific Coast congressional delegation was for it. The mayor of Seattle told a congressional committee the people here were for it.

The Constitution forbids the denial of due process of law to a race, a national group or, for that matter, to any person. In 1942, people ignored that, as did their president. Robinson says in his book that FDR, who signed the internment order, was “not visibly troubled by the violation of the internees’ civil rights.”

The president was, however, doing what most people wanted. When people are fearful of attack, they do not respond with fairness and law. Group feeling takes over. That is what the internment showed, and why it is worth remembering.

Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is