Ronald Reagan and Redress for Japanese-American Internment, 1983-88.


Blood that has soaked into the sand of a beach is all one color. America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on a way, an ideal.(1) Captain Ronald Reagan, December 1945 In 1984, shortly before his landslide reelection victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale, President Ronald Reagan was faced with an intense lobbying effort by Japanese Americans and their allies in Congress. At issue was the moral, legal, and economic redress of the forced evacuation, relocation, and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. To most Americans in the 1980s, Franklin Roosevelt's internment decision of forty years earlier was considered "an American tragedy."(2) For nearly five years, President Reagan opposed redress legislation, reversing his position only after the political pressure reached a fever pitch during the waning days of his second term and at the height of the Bush-Dukakis presidential campaign. This article examines Reagan's reasoning in the matter, the worthiness of the redress legislation itself, and the significance of Reagan's reversal.

Be it through the written word, documentary films, or both, most Americans are familiar, or should be, with the sad tale of wartime Japanese-American internment. The postwar Japanese-American effort to win redress, and its high point of the 1980s, is not that well known.(3) Without question, the internment story continues to stimulate a variety of emotions. They vary from rage and revenge to withdrawal and escapism. The campaign to win redress from the U.S. federal government was not immune from these conflicting emotions. Indeed, the "you owe me" argument was difficult to organize into a unified coalition that hoped to win on all fronts (moral, political, legal, and economic).

Given these emotions and struggles, the most hopeful venue for those who desired any form of redress was always the courts. Divorced (theoretically) from the political battles that beset a legislature, the courts held out, to some, the promise of a binding, no-nonsense resolution. Hence, the legal challenge came first. When that fight brought mixed results, the political agitation phase of the redress effort truly began. This political venue was particularly obvious in the area of congressional influence and clout. From Japanese-American Congressmen (such as the California Democrats Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui) to sympathetic African-American Congressmen such as Mervyn Dymally (D) (who represented one of Los Angeles's largest Japanese-American populations in the 1980s), the Japanese-American community could count on tireless congressional allies. Yet, how enforceable was the redress legislation that they proposed? President Reagan had his doubts. He also saw conflicts with the then very delicate U.S.-Japan relationship. In the name of national security, he could never fully explain to Congress or his Japanese-American critics what those conflicts were.

Thanks to the 1996-97 declassification of documents at the Ronald Reagan Library, the redress battle can now be thoroughly analyzed.(4) Without a doubt, the cause for redress was a well-intentioned one and, in its legal form alone, quite overdue. Stripped of emotion, the legal case for redress was rooted in a fundamental American principle: the victims of injury and injustice deserve compensation that is meaningful and proportional to their suffering. More than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were forced from their homes in 1942 and herded at gunpoint into barbed-wire compounds that were located in deserts and swamps. They were all either American citizens or resident aliens who had been lawfully admitted but were barred from citizenship by discriminatory laws. Not one had been charged with a crime, given the right to counsel, or provided a chance to establish his or her loyalty to the United States. These victims of wartime hysteria spent an average of 900 days in captivity, held as retribution for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. To all but a few of their fellow citizens, Americans of Japanese ancestry were faceless and nameless. The military official who recommended their internment, General John L. DeWitt, put a common prejudice into ugly words: "A Jap's a Jap." American birth and citizenship could not dilute the "racial strains" that united all members of this "enemy race," DeWitt claimed. He even adopted the worst features of the politics of America's wartime adversaries: "There isn't such a thing as a loyal Japanese and it's just impossible to determine their loyalty by investigation."(5) Stripped of their names and faces and subject to injustice and indignity, DeWitt's internees (or "wards," as he preferred) were reduced to simple wartime stereotypes.

One of those "wards," Fred Korematsu, entered the legal history books in a landmark case that challenged internment and during the internment era itself. Korematsu's defeat in this case would serve as the foundation for the postwar legal redress effort, but only after Korematsu decided to resume the effort after years of trying to forget it. In short, Korematsu had challenged the military curfew and exclusion orders that preceded the internment program. Along with Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru "Min" Yasui, Korematsu was convicted of a criminal offense and had pressed his case all the way to the Supreme Court (which upheld his conviction in 1944). The year before, in affirming the convictions of Hirabayashi and Yasui, the Court adopted the FDR administration's thesis of "racial disloyalty." The Court also accepted without inquiry the government's claim that "military necessity" required the challenged curfew and the orders to protect the West Coast against sabotage and espionage.(6)

These decisions did not sit well with some in the American legal profession. In late 1945, less than one year after Korematsu's conviction, Eugene Rostow of the Yale Law School, for instance, lambasted the Supreme Court's actions. The Court, he said, had caved in to racial stereotypes and bowed to military arguments. Consequently, the justices had "abdicated their responsibilities." Rostow insisted that "the basic issues should be presented to the Supreme Court again, in an effort to obtain a reversal of these wartime cases."(7) It would take forty years.

Throughout these four decades, the Supreme Court successfully attacked racial segregation in public schools, the civil rights movement championed and won many battles for racial equality, and Congress responded with acts to protect everything from voting privilege to equal employment. Finally Japanese Americans awakened from what has been called their "silent years" and, during the 1970s, advocated the creation of a congressionally mandated commission that would seek the proper path to redress. As the 1970s champion of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate "open government," the always candid President Jimmy Carter said he welcomed the Japanese-American cause. Near the end of his term and while fighting a losing battle for his political life against the advancing campaign of former California Governor Ronald Reagan, Carter established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). But it would be the Reagan administration that inherited its work and recommendations, and that fact, in itself, would soon be a problem for the redress cause. President Reagan told his cabinet that he had little use for "left-over Carterisms like the CWRIC," for his Reagan Revolution was supposed to be an obvious alternative to Carter's so-called liberalism.(8) Between late 1980 and 1983, the CWRIC held hearings in which 750 witnesses appeared, including internment camp survivors and their former wardens. One of those witnesses, for example, was FDR's former Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, who under intense examination by Judge William Marutani, the only commissioner of Japanese ancestry and himself a camp survivor, shouted that the internment had been justified because of the "Jap sneak attack on Pearl Harbor." Nevertheless, beyond the drama of public testimony, the CWRIC's greatest endeavor involved the difficult task of examining old War Department, FBI, and military records in reference to internment. Largely based on this research, the CWRIC made its recommendations to the Reagan administration on the eve of the 1984 election.

First, the commissioners agreed without dissent that Japanese Americans had been victims of the "misconduct of justice," stimulated by "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, McCloy, and the entire American government system were indicted in the commission's final report. Whereas some members of Congress offered encouragement to the commission's work, the federal courts still suggested the best course of redress. The reason behind this suggestion involved the CWRIC's 1981 discovery that Justice Department officials, during the days of the original Korematsu case, had deliberately suppressed evidence, lied to Korematsu case investigators, and intentionally misled the Court about alleged Japanese-American security threats.

The damning documentation of this conduct stretched across the case records of 1943 and 1944. This evidence had been unavailable to critics, such as Yale's Rostow, at the end of the war, ensuring that the case would not be reopened anytime soon. Consequently, the aging Fred Korematsu, along with codefendents Min Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi, revived their case thanks to a team of volunteer lawyers (most of whom were Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Korematsu grandchildren and relatives). In late 1983, legal petitions were filed in the same locations as the case of forty years earlier (i.e., San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle). The government's own records refuted the Pentagon's military necessity argument for internment, including the charge that Japanese Americans...

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