The Winter Olympic games have ended, and now the real geopolitical games have begun with the U.S. and its allies trying hard not to go down the treacherous slopes of war.
And so we ask, will Ukraine become the new Uyghurs?
You’ll recall the Uyghur Muslim minority–silenced, reeducated and repressed by China. That’s why the U.S., Australia, and others staged a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. Human rights matters.
Now the games are over and Russia’s sole focus is on Ukraine. All or part. It seems happy with small bites. Already, Russia has sent troops into separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Ukraine of genocide against pro-Russians there, according to NBC News. Of course, there is no genocide; that’s just a gaslighting pretext to begin. But what? An actual invasion? Or just this incremental “invasion creep”?
Presidents can solve this if they keep talking to each other. So far, Joe Biden has done a commendable job keeping diplomacy an option. But for how long?
This is complicated, as I’ll discuss later in this piece, but let me first address the other Presidents Day weekend coincidences. One identified the worst president from an Asian American perspective. The other represented what could be the best.
First, the worst.
I know many people love President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for pulling the U.S. out of the Great Depression. But that’s overshadowed by one stroke of the pen that put Asian Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps.
On Feb. 19, FDR signed Executive Order 9066. That was 80 years ago this past Saturday.
Despite two intelligence reports indicating the Japanese Americans on the west coast represented no threat, FDR had more than 120,000 Asians of Japanese descent forcibly rounded up and incarcerated in camps.
Seventy percent were American citizens. Real Americans treated like foreigners.
It’s the reason Asian Americans of Chinese and Filipino descent on the west coast made up signs and buttons that said, “I’m an American.”
They wanted everyone to know. They were American. Same team. That’s how xenophobic our country was then. We’re almost as bad now, 80 years later.
If you forgot about the signing of E.O. 9066, take some time now. Think about how Fred T. Korematsu stood up to the order and refused to go. He brought his case in 1944 to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost. The government argued “military necessity” and won.
But in 1983, new documents were discovered that showed the government realized it wasn’t forthcoming about the Japanese American threat to national security. One document stated: “We are telling lies to the Supreme Court. We have an obligation to tell the truth.”
The suppressed information was enough for some young Japanese American attorneys to re-open the case and overturn Korematsu’s conviction in a federal district court in San Francisco.
But when the government declined to appeal, it left Korematsu’s lawyers unable to go back to the high court.
“We were stuck at the district level,” lead attorney Dale Minami told me. “But we did undercut the factual and legal basis for what the Supreme Court did.”
Yes, but it means “military necessity” could still be raised by a president bent on autocracy and not democracy. We are one bad president away.
So who is the best president from an Asian American perspective? If you saw CNN’s documentary, “LBJ: Triumph and Tragedy,” you would have to conclude it was the 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Most people forget how Johnson became president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The two were very different. Kennedy, the affable Harvard elitist. Johnson, JFK’s vice president, was the Texas Hill country good old boy, but with a difference. He had been a school teacher to Mexican migrants in Cotulla, Texas. He saw poverty and racism there and developed a sense of empathy.
One of the most striking comments in the documentary came from Martin Luther King’s lawyer, Clarence Jones.
“We saw the assassination of Kennedy as a God-given opportunity for us in civil rights,” said Jones. “Now we got a white man from Texas, and if anybody can deal with the segregationists, it’s most likely to be Lyndon Johnson. And we had to take advantage of that opportunity for us in civil rights.”
The relationship between LBJ and MLK is revealed in phone conversations and in actions. When Johnson won re-election by a landslide, he knew he had power to use and with King’s help, he used it to create a “Great Society.”
Johnson’s agenda included all the landmarks: the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Medicare. Fair housing. For immigrants and Asian Americans, the 1965 Immigration Act opened the door and ended racist quotas. And those are just the highlights. LBJ got around filibusters and Southern Dixiecrats. The landslide gave him the mandate to get things done.
And now for the albatross. Vietnam.
The documentary reveals that Johnson was not nearly as hawkish as we would think. He anguished over body counts. He was pressured by General William Westmoreland to increase ground troops to 100,000 and more. LBJ held off, then relented. And then the body counts grew. The “Big Lie” in the Johnson administration was how the U.S. was winning the war, though it wasn’t.
Not in Vietnam. And not in the U.S., where the protests over the war tore apart the country. It was made worse in 1967 when MLK saw the disproportionate number of Blacks being killed in the war, and merged civil rights with the antiwar movement.
Oddly enough, an Asian American plays a role in LBJ’s demise. Johnson announced he was not running again in 1968 and was halting the bombing of North Vietnam and open to peace talks. That’s when Anna Chennault went to work for Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon. Chennault, born Chen Xiangmei in Beijing, was a Republican married to a Texan, General Claire Chennault, leader of the “Flying Tigers.” She used her influence to convince the North Vietnamese to hold off peace talks because there would be a better deal in a Nixon administration. Nixon won the presidency. But there wasn’t a better deal later for either side.
Johnson was convinced he could have had peace in 1968. But Vietnam did him in. Johnson was just 64 when he died. But we got five years of LBJ, and the best of what he did provides a framework for a “Great Society.” The documentary gives you the gist of Johnson, enough to appreciate him and balance the image of Johnson the hawk.
And so now we find another American presidency tested by war. And the biggest thing Biden has going for him is that few people seem to care.
Not with Covid and the economics of inflation happening simultaneously.
The real problem is how the previous U.S. president treated Putin.
Remember Helsinki 2018–the Trump-Putin Summit? President Trump had U.S. intelligence reports that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
Trump’s response: “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
That’s what gaslighters-in-chief do for each other.
It’s embarrassing, because Trump’s bromance enabled Putin to keep up his bullying ways. And now to stop Putin, the U.S. is going to have to be a lot more forceful if it’s going to convince Putin to knock it off in Ukraine.
And if they don’t, autocrats everywhere are watching how strong the U.S. is or isn’t. Any sanctions chosen must have consequences or they’ll be endured and ignored. Remember, this is in lieu of bloodshed, what pain can be meted out to make Putin say uncle.
The world will be watching. If the allied response can be interpreted as weakness, Ukraine could be the first of many countries or islands that may not be able to withstand a bullying autocrat.
It puts Biden and the allies in a bind. They want a measured approach. But will that be enough?
And that’s why you should care.
At least care enough to notice how the last administration has changed our domestic politics. We had a Republican president in the U.S. who wanted so bad to be a fellow autocrat like Putin. But Trump liked them all. He stated his love for Kim Jong-Un. Trump was jealous of Xi being president for life. Trump is out of office, but he’s still taking the GOP in that autocratic direction.
The problem is America isn’t part of the autocracy club. America is the leader in the democracy club.
We may have differences of opinion in this country. But in what it means to be an American, we all should be united. Our belief in freedom brings us together as a nation, and in solidarity with another sovereign nation about to be invaded.
How to express that forcefully, yet peacefully, with a minimum of bloodshed, is our present challenge.
I will talk about this on my web talk show on “Emil Amok’s Takeout” @2p Pacific Livestreamed on YouTube, on Facebook, and on Twitter See recordings on www.amok.com