READERS WHO FOLLOWED Fred Barbash's series in this paper on Japanese internment camps during World War II may have thought they were prepared for the report issued by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians issued last week. But the study, which was the result of two years' work involving thousands of documents and the testimony of 750 witnesses, is a powerful indictment of a shameful wartime policy. The history of civil liberties violations and the documentation of that episode presented in the report should jolt every American.
It is perhaps understandable that this country was gripped by war hysteria during the months following Pearl Harbor. It was not unreasonable to fear an invasion of the West Coast when Hawaii had been bombed so easily and some of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska were taken by the enemy. But under the guise of military necessity and national security a terrible decision was made and endorsed. Unfortunately, Japanese Americans--unlike their German and Italian counterparts--were easy scapegoats, for they were so readily physically identifiable. On the West Coast, all of them, whole families, aliens and third-generation American citizens, were rounded up and put into isolated camps with the enthusiastic support of their fellow citizens and the leaders of our government. No charges were brought. No hearings were held. No one was judged individually. They were interned for almost three years.
Perhaps the most stunning charge made in the report is that concerning President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Responsible government officials, including even J. Edgar Hoover, say the members of the commission, realized by mid-1943 that the internment was unjustified and unfai. Recommendations were made to return citizens of Japanese ancestry to their homes, but these proposals were rejected for political reasons, and their release was delayed until after the elections of November 1944. The list of important, liberal government leaders who supported or justified the internment policy is surprising and will be, for years to come, a matter of controversy.
What should be done to compensate Japanese American citizens who suffered during this time? Two, who were children in the camps, now sit in Congress. Others have recovered and thrived, but surely the scars of such unjust treatment by their own government remain. Some received money damages for property losses that could be proved. But what compensation can there be for loss of respect, education, opportunities and three years of one's life? The commission did not address the question of compensation in this report, but it will be the subject of a final document later this year. Formulating that recommendation will be a task even more difficult than the one accomplished with the publication of this powerful and moving history of a shameful time.