REGRETTABLY, some Americans still believe that the internment of Japanese American citizens and resident aliens during World War II was justified. In fact, the forced relocation of loyal and innocent citizens solely because of their ethnic background was a civil liberties and human catastrophe and remains a blot on the national honor. The history of this painful episode was documented by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians last February.
The commission has now offered its recommendations on what Americans owe their fellow citizens who were victims of the internment policy. Some of its proposals will be easy for Congress to adopt. A joint resolution of apology should be passed to supplement the formal acknowledgment of this grave injustice made by President Ford. Persons convicted of violating curfew and relocation laws imposed on Japanese Americans should be pardoned. Special help should be given to former internees who apply for restitution of federal positions or benefits lost 40 years ago.
The commission's more controversial recommendation is that $1.5 billion be appropriated to grant $20,000 to each surviving person relocated because of the wartime policy and to create a fund for education and welfare purposes. Some kind of fund probably makes sense. It could be used to sponsor research and public education activities so that the internment would be remembered, understood and never repeated. It could also provide special assistance to elderly survivors and educational aid to their descendants, though here we question whether such money should be spent "for the general welfare of the Japanese American community"--that is, for people who were not themselves directly victimized--as the commission suggests.
The recommended individual payments of $20,000 to each survivor, amounting to a total of $1.2 billion, are another matter. Few people will feel comfortable being drawn into a discussion of a specific dollar amount. But the proposal for individual reparations raises unavoidable questions of comparative moral obligation and equity. Other ethnic groups--blacks and American Indians--have been injured by deliberate government policy. It is not irrelevant that the government has already paid $37 million to the internees for provable real and personal property losses.
As the commission acknowledges, "No amount of money can fully compensate the excluded people for their losses and suffering. . . . Some find such an attempt in itself a means of minimizing the enormity of these events in a constitutional republic. History cannot be undone; anything we do now must inevitably be an expression of regret and an affirmation of our better values as a nation, not an accounting which balances or erases the events of the war."
The payment of reparations in any amount to injured individuals is less important than an acknowledgment of the wrong and an apology to those who suffered as a result of it.