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

Article excerpt

   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. …