It Can Happen Here: The 75th Anniversary Of The Japanese Internment: Part III

11/20/2017 06:14 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2017
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In this, the third and final part of this series, I will explore the reactions to Executive Order 9066 in the 75 years since this dark episode in American history. The first two parts of this series can be found here and here.

On December 17, 1944, the Roosevelt administration announced that it would end the internment and release the internees. There had been a lengthy struggle within the administration about when to end the internment. In December 1943, Attorney General Francis Biddle strenuously argued for the immediate release of all loyal Japanese-Americans. In May 1944, Secretary of War Henry Stimson made clear to Roosevelt that the internment could be ended “without danger to defense considerations.”

Nonetheless, the President chose to postpone the decision, explaining that “the whole problem, for the sake of internal quiet, should be handled gradually.” In plain truth, Roosevelt did not want to release the internees until after the 1944 presidential election, because he feared that such a decision might upset voters on the West Coast.

In the years immediately after World War II, attitudes about the Japanese internment began to shift. In the Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, Congress authorized compensation for specific property losses suffered by the internees. Several factors spurred the enactment of this legislation, including a growing sense of guilt, and international condemnation of the internment.

The process for obtaining compensation was agonizingly slow, however. By 1958, only 26,000 internees had received any compensation. Moreover, as one critic acidly observed, the goal of the program was not to offer reparations for the moral, constitutional, reputational, and economic wrongs done to Japanese-Americans, but to compensate them for lost “pots and pans.”

Many participants in the Japanese internment have reflected on the roles they played. Some knew at the time that internment was unconstitutional and immoral. In April 1942, Milton Eisenhower, the brother of Dwight Eisenhower and the national director of the War Relocation Administration, which was responsible for running the detention camps, lamented that “when this war is over . . . we, as Americans, are going to regret the . . . injustices” we have done. Two months later, he resigned his position.

Attorney General Francis Biddle, who had vigorously and consistently opposed internment, continued to deplore the government’s action. In 1962, he wrote that internment had “subjected Americans to the shame of being classed as enemies of their native country without any evidence indicating disloyalty.” He observed that, unlike citizens of German and Italian descent, Japanese-Americans had been treated as “untouchables, a group who could not be trusted and had to be imprisoned only because they were of Japanese descent.”

In 1974, former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had played a pivotal role in the Japanese internment as California’s attorney general, conceded that Japanese internment was “not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens,” and in later years he admitted privately that he regretted his own actions in the matter.

Moreover, over the years, the Court’s decisions in Hirabayashi and Korematsu became constitutional pariahs. Indeed, the Supreme Court has never cited either decision with approval of its result.

The immorality of the internment has continued to reverberate. As part of the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, President Gerald Ford issued a Presidential Proclamation in which he acknowledged that we must recognize “our national mistakes as well as our national achievements.” “February 19th,” he noted, “is the anniversary of a sad day in American history,” for it was “on that date in 1942 . . . that Executive Order 9066 was issued.” Ford observed that “[w]e now know what we should have known then” – that the evacuation and internment of loyal Japanese American citizens was “wrong.”

In 1983, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which Congress had created to review the implementation of Executive Order 9066, unanimously concluded that the factors that shaped the internment decision “were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” not military necessity.

That same year, Fred Korematsu and Gordon Hirabayashi filed petitions to have their convictions set aside for “manifest injustice.” A year later, federal judge Marilyn Patel granted Korematsu’s petition. Patel found that in its presentation of evidence to the federal courts in the course of Korematsu’s prosecution and appeal, including in the Supreme Court, the government had knowingly and intentionally failed to disclose critical information that directly contradicted key statements on which the government had asked the courts to rely. Judge Patel observed that the Supreme Court’s decision in Korematsu “stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees.”

Three years later, a federal court of appeals vacated Gordon Hirabayashi’s conviction. In an opinion by Judge Mary Schroeder, the court found serious deceit in the United States’ presentation of its case to the Supreme Court. Judge Schroeder found that the original version of General DeWitt’s final report, which was designed to justify the military orders, did not “purport to rest on any military exigency, but instead declared that because of traits peculiar to citizens of Japanese ancestry it would be impossible to separate the loyal from the disloyal.”

When officials of the War Department received DeWitt’s report in early 1942, they ordered him to excise the racist overtones and to add statements of military necessity. Copies of the original report were burned. When officials of the Justice Department were preparing to argue the Hirabayashi case in the Supreme Court, they sought all materials relevant to General DeWitt’s decision making. The War Department did not disclose to the Justice Department the original version of the report.

Judge Schroeder found that, given the importance the justices attached to the government’s claims of military necessity in Hirabayashi and Korematsu, “the reasoning of the Supreme Court would probably have been profoundly affected” had it been advised “of the suppression of evidence” that would have “established the . . . real reason for the exclusion order.”

In the last year of his presidency, Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which officially declared the Japanese internment a “grave injustice,” explained that the program of exclusion and internment had been “motivated largely by racial prejudice,” and offered an official presidential apology and reparations to each of the Japanese-American internees who had suffered discrimination, deprivation of liberty, loss of property, and personal humiliation at the hands of the U.S. government.

I’d like to close with one final note about Fred Korematsu. For the rest of his life, Korematsu continued to challenge what he saw as the abuse of government authority, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the United States can bestow upon a civilian.

In the fall of 2003, to my astonishment, Fred Korematsu contacted me. The Supreme Court was about to hear the case of Rasul v. Bush. Rasul and others had been captured during the United States invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack on the United States. Rasul claimed that he was not a member of the Taliban, but was with them at the time of his capture because he was being held by them as a prisoner. The government designated Rasul an “enemy combatant,” however, and shipped him off to the military base in Guantanamo Bay. The Bush administration denied Rasul access to counsel, the right to a trial, and any knowledge of the charges against him. A group of independent lawyers then brought suit in federal court claiming that this procedure violated Rasul’s rights.

When the case made its way to the Supreme Court, Fred Korematsu reached out to me, because I had recently published a book on civil liberties in wartime. He asked me to write an amicus brief to the Court in his name. It was, as you might expect, a great honor for me to have done so. Fred Korematsu died a few months after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Rasul, holding that the United States government had violated his right to petition the federal courts for a writ of habeas corpus.

I would like to think that Fred Korematsu’s name on my amicus brief served powerfully to remind the Justices of the Court’s past failures, and inspired them not to make the same mistake again.

But it is essential to remember that if we let our guard down and if we do not fervently protect the rights of others, it can happen here. . . .

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