Our Changing Consensus about the Internment of Japanese Americans

The consensus about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans has changed considerably. That would be no exaggeration. Although the “internment,” as it has been customarily called, was endorsed across the board at the time, it has been disavowed with similar unity since then. The transition from approval to apology has been neither automatic nor guaranteed. (For background on this shameful episode of our shared past, I wrote an earlier essay describing the prejudices that prevailed.)

Japanese Americans found themselves with few friends after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941. It was the 9/11 of the period. The religious order of Quakers, as pacifists, offered them comfort. Colorado Governor Ralph Carr was condemned for defending the “Japs,” his career consigned to oblivion, his life threatened.

During the global conflict, Japanese Americans dissented. Hundreds of “J-A” men and women served in the American armed forces, despite their families being held as prisoners, guarded by soldiers wearing the same uniform. They did so after the war department discharged virtually everyone of Japanese descent from the military, only to reverse course, trying to enlist “enemy aliens." Japanese Americans had had a tradition of patriotic sacrifice, including during what had been referred to as "the Great War." Among the poignant photographs of the era is a Japanese American veteran reporting for internment wearing his old uniform. The segregated units that were formed, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion, became the most decorated in history, for their size and duration. Their heroics were a vital factor in establishing that Japanese Americans could not be doubted for their allegiance.

A group of Japanese American draft resisters, too, showed how they had embraced democratic values. They stood up and spoke out for equality. The “No-No Boys" acquired the title because they refused to answer two questions on the mandatory loyalty test, insisting they were being singled out unlike other citizens. The leading questions implied they were servants of Japan. They promised they would do their duty, if their families were restored their rights. They were sentenced to hard time in the federal penitentiary.

Even after Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the surrender of the Emperor, as Manzanar and Tule Lake closed, Japanese Americans struggled. More than one Japanese American family was reluctant to leave, uncertain where they would go.

Our government had an express program of dispersal. Officials wanted to pre-empt Japanese Americans from clustering together, with critical mass. They encouraged resettlement in the Midwest, away from the former centers of community in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.

Everyone yearned for “normalcy.” The internment entered into that commonplace abyss of collective forgetting. 

Japanese Americans themselves by and large sought to assimilate. As most people probably would, attempting to put back together lives destroyed by racial suspicion, they avoided anything reminiscent of “camp” with its quaint euphemism. In some instances, they were able to return to their land, only to find homes that were legally lost to them or ransacked beyond recovery; a few lucky families had neighbors who had safeguarded their possessions.

Yet the civil rights movement of the 1960s transformed everything. Japanese American youngsters belonged to a “Yellow Power” collective, with Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans, that flourished during the Summer of Love (1967) in San Francisco. 

“redress” campaign was started. It met with skepticism from many, who regarded it as futile, and hostility from a few, such as Japanese American Senator S.I. Hayakawa.

Thanks to the perseverance of activists, many of whom presented to the world as ordinary and scarcely likely to be rabble-rousers, the whole matter was referred to a blue-ribbon Commission of the Wartime Relocation and Incarceration of Civilians (CWRIC). In 1982, following extensive hearings, the bi-partisan body released a massive report. It concluded that there had been no military necessity for the internment, and, what is more, that the policymakers had been aware all along. They took pains to explain that they were not making an ad hoc judgment with the proverbial benefit of hindsight.

According to the CWRIC, the incarceration had been implemented because of racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and lack of political leadership. The archives showed that the Justice Department had had internal concerns about the accuracy of what was being said about Japanese Americans, even as generalizations. The lawyers in fact had printed a set of briefs to the Supreme Court that signaled as much. But higher-ups at the last minute ordered what might be called a cover-up.

They destroyed all the copies but one, of the original documents that hinted at the problem. The memoranda directing the dodge were preserved. A husband-and-wife team, Jack and Eiko Herzig, came across the papers in their thorough canvassing of the record.

On that basis, the criminal convictions of the three men who challenged the internment — Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui — were vacated two generations later by the federal courts. A rare writ of coram nobis was relied upon by their team of lawyers, many of whom were third-generation Japanese Americans (“sansei”) who had had to cajole their parents into even discussing the elders' memories. The judges were persuaded that the wartime prosecutors had not disclosed all of the evidence to their predecessors, indicating there was not a legitimate foundation for the decisions.

The internment was just about discredited. During the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976, President Gerald Ford rescinded Executive Order 9066, which had been the go-ahead for the military plans to assemble and then imprison Japanese Americans.

Congress eventually acted. In 1988, they passed a Civil Liberties Act. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation which paid reparations of $20,000 to each person who had been locked up, all of them innocent, an amount estimated to be pennies on the dollar for the cumulative economic losses suffered, without even accounting for the deprivation of freedom. An education fund was established. It disbursed grants for projects, artistic and academic, intended to prevent any recurrence of the internment. (With a team, I received money to produce a textbook.)

Then in 1998, Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The White House website that memorializes the occasion says that he and “many other leaders” show that civil rights are “not just a page in history books for students to remember the wrongs of the past, but a learning opportunity for all of us on how we should treat our neighbors and fellow citizens moving forward."

Finally in 2011, the Solicitor General of the United States issued a “confession of error.” As the attorney advocating for the nation, Neal Katyal wrote the following admission. He said it was “unlikely that the Supreme Court would have ruled the same way had the Solicitor General [then] exhibited complete candor."

He continued:

Yet those decisions still stand today as a reminder of the mistakes of that era. Today, our Office takes this history as an important reminder that the “special credence” the Solicitor General enjoys before the Supreme Court requires great responsibility and a duty of absolute candor in our representations to the Court.  Only then can we fulfill our responsibility to defend the United States and its Constitution, and to protect the rights of all Americans. 

For its part, the Supreme Court has refrained from citing the Korematsu precedent as if it were controlling. The omission would be odd if the case remained “good.”

Nonetheless there always have been deniers of the severity of confinement. Demagogues said that Japanese Americans were being placed into custody for their own benefit (against vigilantes), never mind that the guns were pointed at them and not outsiders. Haters even had the gall to claim that Japanese Americans were living it up in luxury while others faced hardship, with malicious falsehoods that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was moved personally to refute.

Ideology aside, the facts favored Japanese Americans — and still do. The sensational fantasies about Asians coming ashore to conquer California turn out to be symbolic, figurative, metaphorical. The shocking reality, likely no less abhorrent, is that Asian Americans belong to demographic trends headed toward a “majority minority” society. 

During World War II, the Native Sons of the Golden West, which, as their name announces openly, was a nativist organization, applied their energy to a new cause. Japanese, with other Asians, already had been excluded, with limited exceptions. The Native Sons filed suit in San Francisco to strip native-born Japanese Americans (whom, if they were universal in their membership they should have welcomed) of the right to vote. They lost. 

In recent years, when Japanese Americans have gathered for a “Day of Remembrance,” they have invited Muslims to join them. That is what it means to be principled.

This essay is two of three on the Japanese American internment, all published at Huffington Post.

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