It’s Friday, February 19, a date which will live in White House infamy. I’m borrowing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous phrase about December 7, 1941, in reference to an infamous action taken two months later by FDR — on this day in 1942.
Executive Order 9066 authorized 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 the edict were naturalized or American-born citizens.
The rationale cited in Executive Order 9066 was espionage, but the true causes were wartime hysteria, overt racism, and latent jealousy over the commercial and agricultural success of Japanese immigrants (issei) and their descendants, the nisei (second-generation) and sansei (third-generation).
From Washington state to Arizona, some 120,000 innocent people were rounded up under this order. I’ve written about this shameful chapter in American history previously. But with a presidential campaign taking place, and a leading candidate talking openly about barring Muslims from coming to this country, it seems more relevant than ever.
* * *
Donald Trump isn’t inventing the threat from ISIS, or from other foreign terrorist groups, or from murderous Muslim radicals living here in the United States. The San Bernardino couple who lived and worked among peaceful Southern Californians before slaughtering them at a Christmas party were a second-generation Pakistani Muslim and his immigrant bride.
What they did and how they did it — and the fact that this immigrant bride was a new mother — was a frightening new front in this war we are fighting, a conflict George W. Bush inexactly labeled the “War on Terror,” and which Barack Obama seems reluctant to name at all.
But how this nation responded two months after Pearl Harbor provides a valuable history lesson. Was the government being vigilant? Or hysterical? In this instance, the verdict has been officially rendered, although it took 46 years.
That judgment came in the form of legislation called the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The law, signed by President Reagan on August 10 that year, compensated all those still living who had been interned in the “relocation” camps with $20,000 and an apology from their government.
“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.”
Reagan paid special notice in his signing statement to Norman Y. Mineta, then a member of California’s congressional delegation, one of the prime movers of the Japanese-American redress legislation.
Reagan read aloud Mineta’s own recollection of being rounded up with his family in San Jose, California, at age 10.
“My own family was sent first to Santa Anita Racetrack,” Mineta had written. “We showered in the horse paddocks. Some families lived in converted stables, others in hastily thrown together barracks. We were then moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where our entire family lived in one small room of a rude tar paper barrack.”
The president also paid homage to the famed Nisei regiment, focusing on the central injustice of its formation:
“The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up entirely of Japanese-Americans, served with immense distinction to defend this nation, their nation,” Reagan 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.”
Among those soldiers was Daniel Inouye, the long-serving Democratic senator from Hawaii. Inouye, who lost an arm to a grenade while fighting in Italy, was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his valor. On the day the redress measure was enacted into law, Inouye maintained that although it was long overdue, it still should make Americans proud.
“Very few nations are strong enough to admit they’re wrong,” he said. “America is strong enough, and we did so.”
Inouye passed away a little more than three years ago. But my old friend Norm Mineta is still with us, and with an over-heated presidential election in full swing, I’ll give him the last word this morning.
“What happened in the past remains in the past,” Mineta said at a 2011 dedication of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center in Wyoming. “But it’s not about the past. It’s about the future, because history always has the ability to repeat itself.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.