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The Pulse: Former internee George Takei engages Trump's rhetoric

Reacting recently to Donald Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich observed that there's a straight line between the businessman's presidential campaign rhetoric on immigration and an ugly chapter in American history.

George Takei , of "Star Trek" fame, is a former Japanese American internee. AP
George Takei , of "Star Trek" fame, is a former Japanese American internee. APRead more

Reacting recently to Donald Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich observed that there's a straight line between the businessman's presidential campaign rhetoric on immigration and an ugly chapter in American history.

"Say we're going to pick 10- or 11 million people up and just shove them out of here," Kasich told me. "You remember back in World War II, when they imprisoned Japanese and what a dark spot, a dark stain, it was on our history? The idea that we're just going to deport all these people - first of all, it's not going to happen, and it's just not right."

Which sadly suggests that George Takei's timing couldn't be any better. Star Trek's beloved Mr. Sulu sees history repeating as he stars in a new, semiautobiographical Broadway musical about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Allegiance, which co-stars Tony winner Lea Salonga and is playing at the Longacre Theatre, tells the story of a family's fight to stay connected to its heritage after this ugly period in U.S. history. Takei's family was removed in 1942 at gunpoint from its home on Garnet Street in Los Angeles and taken to a relocation camp in Arkansas when he was 5. The ordeal did not end until he was 81/2.

"To characterize all immigrants coming from south of the border with that broad brush as criminals and rapists is the same thing that happened to us," Takei said in reference to Trump.

When I referenced the "internment of the Japanese," Takei was quick to correct me.

"Japanese Americans," he said with emphasis.

"My mother was born in Sacramento. My father was a San Franciscan," he told me. "They met and married in Los Angeles, and his kids - me the oldest - were born in Los Angeles. American citizens were rounded up simply because we happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor.

"We were American citizens, and there were no charges, and yet because of our appearance, because of our race, we were considered a threat to national security.

"And the interesting thing is, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, young Japanese Americans rushed to their hometown recruitment centers to volunteer to fight for this country, an act of patriotism. They were not only denied military service but categorized as enemy nonaliens.

"Enemy? When you're doing a patriotic act? And as nonaliens? What is that? That's a citizen defined in the negative. They even took the word citizen away from us."

Germans and Italians, Takei notes, were spared the indignity because their looks did not allow for such easy differentiation.

"The attorney general of California at that time, who knew the Constitution, obviously, who knew the law, became an outspoken leader of the 'get rid of the Japs' movement. And he made an amazing statement," Takei said.

He is referencing Earl Warren, the future California governor and chief justice of the United States. In 1942, Attorney General Warren was instrumental in establishing the relocation centers. Said Warren at the time, "When we are dealing with the Caucasian race, we have methods that will test [their] loyalty." But "when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field."

In 1944, by a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court upheld FDR's Executive Order 9066 in the Korematsu case. (Nine years later, Warren would be appointed chief justice.) Like Takei, Fred Korematsu was a Japanese American from California, and one of 120,000 affected by Order 9066. Korematsu refused to comply with the internment order, citing his Fifth Amendment rights.

When I reminded Takei that today's debate concerns individuals who, unlike his family, gained admittance illegally, he said he nevertheless sees parallels.

"When we were incarcerated it was fear, ignorance, and lack of political leadership," he said. "And it's the same thing today. They're playing on the fear, and racism, and political leadership failing the ideals of our democracy.

"It was the most shameful chapter in American history. I remember the barbed-wire fence and the century towers. But they were part of a landscape for me.

"It became routine for me to line up three times a day to eat lousy food in a noisy mess hall. It became routine to go with my father to bathe in a mass shower. And it became normal for me to go to school in a black tar-paper barrack and begin the school day, ironically now, with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag."

Takei credits his father for instilling in him an appreciation of democracy despite the seizure of the family business and home. The two had long talks when Takei was a teenager having trouble reconciling what he was reading in civics books with personal experience. "He told me that our democracy is a people's democracy, and it can be as great as the people can be," he recalled. "But it's also as fallible as people are."

One Sunday afternoon after the war, Takei's father took him to a downtown headquarters for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, where he met "all these passionate people who cherished the best ideals - all men are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights." It was a turning point for the man who now, at age 78, while enjoying enormous popularity in social media, is finally bringing his story to Broadway and his message to the 2016 presidential field.

"I tell [candidates] what my father told me . . . we must not surrender to that fallibility, greed, or fear, or ignorance, or racism," Takei said. "Let's go for the best of who we are as Americans. Actively engage in the democratic process to uphold those ideals to make America better, even better than it is today."

Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.