Front page news in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times with the headline: “U.S. official cites misconduct in Japanese American internment cases.”
If you haven’t read this news article yet (the story was also reported on by The Rafu Shimpo), the lead graph reads: “Acting Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal, in an extraordinary admission of misconduct, took to task one of his predecessors for hiding evidence and deceiving the Supreme Court in two of the major cases in its history: the World War II rulings that upheld the detention of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans.”
This was a significant story that deserved to be on the front page of a major American newspaper. Kudos to the L.A. Times editors who recognized this and made that decision.
The takeaway from the article is that Neal Katyal, as a representative of the Justice Department, admitted that one of his WWII-era predecessors — Charles Fahy — misled the U.S. Supreme Court by omission of findings by the Office of Naval Intelligence that West Coast Japanese Americans (and legal permanent residents of Japanese ancestry who were at the time denied the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens) were not a military threat.
Why is this important? There were four cases that reached the Supreme Court challenging the umbrella of various aspects to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. One was Ex parte Mitsuye Endo, who filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus demanding she (and, by extension, other incarcerated Japanese Americans) be released from U.S. concentration camps. She eventually won her case upon appeal.
The three others cases, however, weren’t at the time so fortunate. The legal challenges brought by Gordon Hirabayashi, Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui all failed. It was, as they say, a different time. It is very possible that even if Fahy had admitted the findings of the Office of Naval Intelligence (not to mention the similar conclusions of his DOJ colleague, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover) to the Supreme Court, there would have been no change in the court’s decisions.
After all, as the 1983 report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians so concisely concluded, what led to and resulted in E.O. 9066 was “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Japanese Americans looked like the people of one of the nations the U.S. was at war with and that was that.
As John Dower pointed out in his 1986 book “War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War,” while our fight against Germany and Italy in WWII was about ideology, our war with the other Axis power, Japan, was more about race.
We have to remember that this was a time before Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. “Asiatics” in America who weren’t born on U.S. soil were denied the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens, nor could they own land. Laws enforcing racial segregation and anti-miscegenation ruled the nation. There were powerful agricultural interests that opportunistically used the declaration of war against Japan to remove competition from Japanese American farmers.
America talked a good game when it came to civil and constitutional rights, but we didn’t always uphold the words engraved into the Supreme Court’s building, quoted by Katyal: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
Years later, however, thanks to investigative research by law professor Peter Irons, the three cases were revived using the legal procedure writ of error coram nobis.
Yasui died in 1986 and unlike his fellow coram nobis plaintiffs didn’t live to see the three cases (one of which involved him) progress to the point where Korematsu’s original conviction was voided, Hirabayashi’s overturned and his own vacated.
As mentioned, kudos to the L.A. Times for running the story. Oddly, however, as of this writing, a search of the New York Times website makes no mention of this story. That leads me to write the following, mainly that in my adult life as a journalist, the legal saga of Japanese Americans during and after WWII is the most fascinating and significant story I’ve covered and followed.
It’s safe to say that nearly every immigrant group to these shores has “paid its dues” to gain membership to Club America. But how many aggrieved parties have been singularly targeted by the federal government and then, playing by the rules, “fought city hall” and been vindicated? It’s one of the greatest American stories in our history, yet also one of the most underappreciated and misunderstood.
There are still many who have no idea of what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII, and at the same time, among those with some knowledge, believe that the United States “paid reparations to the Japanese” — not American citizens of Japanese ancestry — a distinction that even some well-educated people can’t seem to grasp.
Even among many Asian Americans who arrived on these shores after the immigration reforms of the 1960s, I’d be willing to bet that most have no idea that they owe much to Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans who eased the way to them being able to start new lives here.
It’s also perplexing to me that this story, important as it is, hasn’t been given more attention in Hollywood. Other than telefilm “Farewell to Manzanar” (which is, inexplicably, unavailable commercially) and the flawed feature film “Come See the Paradise,” there’s been virtually no explicit acknowledgement of this aspect to American history. It’s a tough sell of a story.
Kudos are also due to Neal Katyal. As the acting solicitor general, he had little to lose since he is evidently being passed over for the post in favor of Deputy White House Counsel Donald Verrilli Jr. Still, he did something he did not have to do. What an auspicious way to end 2011’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It’s heartening to know that given time, our system eventually tries to correct mistakes from the past.
As for Fahy, he died in 1979. I have to wonder what he would have thought of everything that happened in the years after his death: the CWRIC hearings, President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, President Clinton’s awarding to Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and, in 2000, 20 Medals of Honor to members of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team and, in 2011, this admission by one of his successors. Would he have realized the error of his ways? We’ll never know.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2011 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)
Editor’s note: The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial on this subject, titled “The Truth About WWII Internment,” on May 27. Read it here: