Those were unhappy days in our land. I was a young New Deal lawyer working in the Office for Emergency Management and the Lend Lease Administration, when the Pearl Harbor attack came. It is hard now, 45 years later, to reconstruct the panic that set in immediately after that attack. But I do not think it overstates the situation to suggest that December 1941 was the only time in the last 150 years when the American people actually believed their shores were not immune from enemy atack. Frightened people do frightful things.
I suppose it does not do much good to try to explain historical decisions many years after the event, but I did try this in an essay on civil liberties for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council in 1969.
"Undoubtedly the cruelest inroad on civil freedom during World War II," I wrote, "was the exclusion of the entire population of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast and the detention of most of them in relocation camps. This incredible tragedy resulted, I believe, more from the rigidity of honorable men within the administration who failed to recognize the need for some post-Pearl Harbor action to offset Pacific Coast fright of near hysterical proportions (as, for example, the temporary nighttime curfew suggested by some) than from the weakness or venality of the administration in the face of tremendous military and political pressures."
That was the best I could do then to explain how this tragedy could have happened, and it is the best I can do now.
But I should recount, I suppose, my own minor role in this tragedy. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Mr. Benjamin V. Cohen summoned Oscar Cox, the general counsel of the Office for Emergency Management and the Lend Lease Administration, and myself to Mr. Cohen's office. He foresaw at once that the forces of panic unleashed by the Japanese attack would almost certainly result in concentration camps unless some measures were taken to stem the panic. While others were demanding internment, on the one hand, or no action whatever, on the other, Mr. Cohen, with whatever assistance he could derive from Cox and myself, tried to forge a consensus around ways and means of avoiding internment, such as curfews, limiting access to military installations and the like. Sadly, every proposal he made was met with opposition from both camps, and the resulting cruel internment is what brings us here today.
We did not take our defeat lightly even then. I recall entering Mr. Cohen's office one evening in early 1942 to be greeted with a newspaper article containing a picture of a little Japanese boy on a train headed for an internment camp leaning out the window waving an American flag. Mr. Cohen had tears in his eyes, and I guess I wasn't too far behind.
There are few today who would say that the internment was necessary, or who would deny its tragic consequences. Disclosure after disclosure has shown there was not the slightest military justification for internment, and that the Japanese within our borders were not only loyal but patriotic. The Italian campaign of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team ranks in valor with our finest hours from Valley Forge to the 1944 landings in France and the Philippines.
Nothing can ever adequately compensate the Japanese Americans for the wrongs done them, not even the present legislation, not even the proposed $20,000 payment, not even a larger figure. The dislocation of their lives, the branding as dangerous to their country, the cruel insult of captivity -- all this is beyond monetary recompense. But what this bill can do is make it possible for this nation once again to hold its head high in remorse and thus in decency. We can demonstrate that a great nation can recognize and give recompense for the severest blow it ever inflicted upon the civil liberties of its people and thus give new vitality to its commitment to civil freedom. Future generations of Americans will recall this action, not only as good for the national soul but as a stabilizing force if similar panic once again should confront our nation.
I also believe that the billion dollars this payment will cost is as sound an investment in favorable world opinion and thus in genuine national security as can be made. For the price of a single Navy cruiser we can demonstrate that democracy works and that to the extent possible it can and will rectify its most grievous mistakes. We will be making a commitment to the world through deeds as well as words that no such injustice will ever cloud our nation again.