Monday, January 17, 2011
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to arrest Americans of Japanese descent and force them into prison camps.
Practically overnight, 120,000 people on the West Coast - men, women, old people and little children - were ripped from their homes and sent to hellholes in the middle of nowhere.
They froze during the winter and broiled during the summer. And always there were men on gun towers with their machine guns pointed inward, ready to shoot anyone who tried to escape.
The government justified this on military necessity, claiming that these Americans couldn't be trusted not to help the enemy.
Of course, this was completely bogus. And the best proof is that the roundups were mostly confined to Japanese Americans on the mainland. Almost none of those living in Hawaii were interned, and for a simple reason: There were just too many them. They comprised a whopping 1/3 of Hawaii's population.
So with all those people running around scott-free in Hawaii, how many of them committed espionage or sabotage during the war? A big fat zero.
To the contrary, more than 15,000 Japanese Americans volunteered to fight for Uncle Sam. They formed the 442end Regimental Combat Team, which went on to earn more medals than any other unit in American history. But their families continued to languish in the camps.
But one man stood up against the internments. His name was Fred Korematsu, and he used a particularly American weapon: He took the government to court.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction for resisting internment. But 40 years later a UC San Diego professor uncovered a secret memo written in 1941 by none other than J. Edgar Hoover, who said there never was any danger from Japanese Americans.
Based on this revelation, Korematsu's conviction was overturned in 1983. During the trial the government offered him a pardon if he'd drop the case, but he turned them down.
"He always felt it was the government who should seek a pardon from him," his wife, Katherine, explained.
And history has vindicated him. In 1988 President Reagan signed a law that officially apologized for the detentions and gave each living survivor $20,000 in token reparations. In 1988 President Clinton awarded Korematsu a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fred Korematsu died in 2005, but not before he had the pleasure of seeing several schools throughout the state named after him.
Last fall, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a law officially recognizing Korematsu's birthday, Jan. 30, as Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution. It's the first day in history named after an Asian American.
The inaugural Fred Korematsu Day celebration will take place Jan. 30 at UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium. Rev. Jesse Jackson will be the keynote speaker. Tickets can be purchased at tickets.berkeley.edu/
This isn't ancient history. Though Korematsu's criminal conviction was overturned, the 1944 Supreme Court decision is still on the books, ready to be dusted off and used against some other minority group someday.
And there are plenty of people out there - including some in positions of power - who would love to do the same thing to Muslims or Mexican Americans.
Philosopher George Santayana was right: Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.