A JAPANESE-AMERICAN named Fred Korematsu, after being rejected by the Army because of an ulcer, volunteered after Pearl Harbor to serve his country as a welder in a war plant. Instead, he and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans and Japanese resident aliens on the West Coast were driven from their homes and forced under military supervision into distant "relocation" camps, where the majority lived out the war. The would-be welder sued, but the Supreme Court upheld the military in 1944 in Korematsu v. U.S., although dissenting justice Robert H. Jackson described Korematsu's "crime" as solely the act of "being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where he lived all his life." Today, we recalled the locations of the major internment camps used -- Manzanar, Tule Lake, Minidoka, Topaz, Gila River, Poston. Heart Mountain, Granada, Jerome and Rohwer -- only as desolate monuments to this nation's lingering sense of shame.
Yesterday, a federal commission began its hearings into the Japanese-American interment experience, the worst instance in modern American history of an entire group being stripped overnight of its civil liberties as a result of calculated government policies. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, created by Congress last year, must determine (first) how and why the actions of military and political leaders, both in Washington and on the West Coast, caused the uprooting of the entire Japanese-American community when even the attorney general and the FBI director did not consider most internees a national security threat. Next, the commission has the difficult task of determining what financial compensation, if any, should be recommended for those who suffered internment. But its members recognize also that they must consider what steps might be taken to ensure that -- in some future national emergency -- another whole group of Americans do not find themselves in collective jeopardy because of their race, ethnic background or national origins.
At the time, the much larger "enemy" communities of German-Americans and Italian-Americans largely escaped harassment while the Japanese-Americans -- clustered on the West Coast -- bore the brunt, of their fearful neighbors' post-Pearl Harbor mixture of racial antagonism, economic envy and genuine hysteria over a possible Japanese invasion. As for distinguishing between the overwhelming number of loyal citizens and resident aliens and the small handful who might be working for or willing to work for imperial Japan, officials such as Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, West Coast military commander (who urged rounding up and interning the whole community) saw no problem: "A Jap is a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not." In February 1942, President Roosevelt signed the infamous executive order 9066 authorizing internment, and the roundup began.
Of the 120,000 who then lost their homes, farms, businesses and most other worldly possessions, two-thirds led a spartan existence during the war in closely guarded confinement at concentration camps in the western interior. But over 33,000 Japanese-Americans served in the armed forces, including the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, reportedly the most highly decorated U.S. fighting unit of the entire war.
The military irrelevance of the detention process soon became obvious. Unlike the wholesale internment that occurred on the mainland, in Hawaii (far closer to the actual theater of war) only about one percent of the Japanese population was detained. In the Aleutian islands, by contrast, about 1,000 Aleut-Americans -- whose treatment the commission also intends to study -- were placed in squalid camps for the entire war.
Few attempts have been made since World War II to compensate Japanese-Americans financially, and even the most extensive of these -- the Japanese Evaculation Claims Act of 1948 -- led to payments of only 10 cents on the dollar based on 1941 assessments of lost property. Whether Congress should spend billions now in a belated full-scale effort at genuine restitution is considered the most troublesome issue confronting the commission. Some congressmen and Japanese-American spokesmen have argued in favor of "reparations" for all the former internees, with each person receiving a stipend that -- in some of the plans -- would reach $25,000. This is extravagant and wrong. Even if across-the-board "reparation" funds were available, it is to cheapen the moral issue and to degrade the victims to suppose there is some kind of monetary buyoff for the affront. A proper approach would involve compensating only for the actual property losses suffered. But whatever the settlement there is merit alone in the 16 days of public hearings planned by the commission to study that dreadful time when most of us incarcerated some of us solely for reasons of race and national ancestry.