When Reagan Righted FDR's Wrong
February 19 is a date, to borrow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s iconic phrase, which will live in infamy. FDR used that wording to describe Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Just 74 days later, however, Roosevelt ceded some of the moral high ground with Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced relocation of persons of Japanese descent living on the West Coast into wartime internment camps.
Most of the men, women, and children covered by Roosevelt’s edict were naturalized or American-born citizens. The stated rationale for incarcerating them in rural prison camps was espionage -- or, even more cynically -- their own safety. The true causes were wartime hysteria, racism, and pent-up jealousy over the commercial and agricultural success of Japanese immigrants (issei) and their descendants, the nisei (second-generation) and sansei (third-generation).
And so, from Washington state to Arizona, 120,000 innocent people were rounded up under this order. The hypocrisy of the entire program was underscored by the fact that in the Hawaiian Islands, where Japanese spies were living in the population, no mass roundup occurred: There were simply too many Japanese-Americans there to do anything about it.
I’ve written about this shameful chapter in American history previously. But nations, like human beings, have the ability to atone for their transgressions. Although it took more than four decades, that is precisely what the United States of America ultimately did. Again, it was a U.S. president who reflected the nation’s ethos -- this time its hopes, not its fears.
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Every one of the Japanese-American citizens and Japanese residents rounded up in 1942 had a story of woe. Many sold their homes, shops, and farms at fire-sale prices; others were taken out of school and workplaces; some bade tearful goodbyes to friends, neighbors, and, in some cases, loved ones. For most, the feelings of betrayal never went away.
Among many young men in the Japanese community, both in Hawaii and on the mainland, the first impulse was to enlist in the military. Here, too, they were thwarted. Honolulu-born pre-med student Daniel Inouye got around this prohibition by serving as a medical volunteer. In 1943, when the ban was lifted, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the all-nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
This unit initially had trouble cohering: The culture shock between the free-wheeling Hawaiian-born “Buddha-heads” and the nervous men from the mainland whose families were still incarcerated was difficult to overcome. Rigorous training brought the soldiers together, however, and after George C. Marshall personally inspected the 442nd it was dispatched to the battlefields of Europe.
The regiment’s motto was “Go for Broke!” and in Italy, France, and Germany they lived up to it. Of the 14,000 men who served under its banner, 680 were confirmed killed in action, with another 67 missing, and many more wounded. The unit -- 4,500 at full strength and constantly being reinforced -- was one of the most decorated in the war. It was awarded a total of 9,486 Purple Hearts. Dan Inouye, not yet 20 years old when he went into combat, lost his right arm in battle, but remained in the military until 1947, retiring from the U.S. Army -- but not American public life -- as a captain. After Hawaii gained statehood, he became its first member of Congress. Two years later, he became a U.S. senator.
Sacramento-born Robert Takeo Matsui, a third-generation sansei, was 6 months old when his family was ordered into the camps. Fifty years later, he’d still get tears in his eyes and a catch in his voice when recalling what it meant to his mother to be treated like a criminal during World War II. Worse than a criminal, really: No one sent to the relocation camps was ever given a trial.
Matsui grew up, went to UC-Berkeley, then law school, entered politics as a Sacramento city councilman. Elected to Congress in a special election in 1978, he is remembered as a quiet but determined man of utter and consistent decency.
Bob Matsui died 14 years ago at age 63. Soon thereafter, his wife, Doris, ran in another special election, and serves in Congress to this day. She, too, was a child of the relocation camps -- literally -- having been born in southwestern Arizona’s Poston War Relocation Center, the largest of the internment camps.
It may seem incongruous, but there were many uplifting stories from the internment camps besides babies being born. My favorite involves two Boy Scouts who were 11 years old when they became fast friends in the camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.
One was an internee from San Jose, Calif., named Norman Y. Mineta. The other a lanky white kid from nearby Cody named Alan Simpson. The nisei scoutmasters, trying to keep things as normal as possible for their young charges, decided to host a jamboree and invited the nearby troop. The kids from Cody balked, but their scoutmaster insisted.
Once inside the barbed-wire gates, they intermingled, as boys will do. For reasons neither of them could ever quite explain, young Norm Mineta and young Al Simpson hit it off immediately. Their alliance was rekindled in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. Simpson arrived as a Republican senator from Wyoming. Mineta was already here, one of the stars of the fabled “Watergate” class of House Democrats elected in 1974.
Together, with help from Inouye, Matsui, and many others, the two men worked for a decade on passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It compensated the survivors of the internment camps with $20,000 in a tax-free payment -- hardly enough -- along with an official apology.
It was signed into law on Aug. 10, 1988 by President Reagan, who made a point of mentioning the tribulations of Norm Mineta and his family. As Mineta watched solemnly from the audience, the president described how the Minetas were taken from their homes in San Jose, sent by train to Santa Anita Racetrack, where they showered in the paddock, and then were shipped to Heart Mountain where the entire family lived in a one-room shack.
“The legislation that I am about to sign provides for a restitution payment to each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese-Americans of the 120,000 who were relocated or detained,” Reagan said. “Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
The president also paid homage to the famed all-nisei regiment, focusing on the central injustice: “The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation,” he noted. “Yet back at home, the soldiers' families were being denied the very freedom for which so many of the soldiers themselves were laying down their lives.”
Here, Reagan wasn’t just reading something drafted by his speechwriters. The 77-year-old president knew more about this than anyone on the White House staff. He knew about some of that ugly wartime prejudice because he was there. Reagan recalled the saga of Kazuo Masuda, a decorated veteran of the 442nd who was killed in Italy. While the 25-year-old Sgt. Masuda was giving his life for his country, his family was held behind the barbed wire at a relocation camp in Arizona. Even after the war, his sister Mary was threatened when she returned to her Southern California farm. An Orange County cemetery refused to inter Sgt. Masuda’s remains.
This did not go well down with the U.S. Army brass. An incensed Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell went personally to Orange County, where he publicly pinned Kazuo Masuda’s Distinguished Service Cross on his sister’s lapel. Other dignitaries attended the ceremony, too, including Robert Young, Will Rogers Jr. and a 34-year-old film star who’d served stateside during the war as a U.S. Army captain.
“Blood that has soaked into the sands of a beach is all one color,” the actor said that day. “America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race, but on an ideal. Not in spite of that, but because of, our polyglot background, we have all the strength in the world. That is the American way.”
The actor, of course, was Ronald Reagan. His remarks were not just an overt rebuke of racism, they were also a subtle reproach of Franklin Roosevelt, a president he had long admired. Reagan never mentioned Roosevelt in this context, then or later. But on that day in 1988, he did mention Kaz Masuda while recalling his own remarks made four decades earlier. “And yes,” Reagan said, “the ideal of liberty and justice for all -- that is still the American way.”