“A Mistake”: Roosevelt, Reagan, and the American Apology

By Kaleena Fraga

Governments often recognize wrongdoing, but rarely issue an official apology. When U.S. President Barack Obama puts arm around Japanese PM Abe after they laid wreaths in front of cenotaph as the atomic bomb dome is background at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, JapanPresident Barack Obama visited Japan in 2016, he expressed sympathy for the victims of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but stopped short of officially apologizing for the United States’ actions. Japanese leaders similarly visited Pearl Harbor, but did not apologize for the attack that drew the United States into WWII.

Apologies are political tools, and are used sparingly. In its history, the United States has only apologized for five things, including the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Although these camps are largely referred to as “internment camps” the Japanese American community prefers “concentration camps” and, indeed, that’s what Franklin Roosevelt called them at the time.

After Pearl Harbor, public sentiment had turned hostile toward Japanese Americans, most of whom lived on the West Coast. Despite a lack of hard evidence that Japanese Americans were a threat, one West Coast commander insisted that didn’t mean that they couldn’t become a threat. This new hostility grew from an already established animosity toward Japanese Americans, who many white citizens felt were taking their jobs and threatening a cultural shift.

Top politicians in California, the entire military leadership, and nearly Roosevelt’s entire Cabinet insisted that the president must act. Roosevelt accepted the “military necessity” of action, and signed Executive Order 9066, which would forcibly remove all people of Japanese descent (anyone with 1/16 or more Japanese ancestry) from any region that the government designated as a military zone. This included California, the western half of Washington state and Oregon, and the southern part of Arizona. It would effect more than one hundred thousand people, many of them children. During the war 10 people would be accused of spying for Japan–none of whom were Japanese-Americans. According to one story, there was an act of sabotage perpetrated by a Japanese American farmer. When he was told to leave his farm to be relocated, he asked for an extension to farm his strawberries. When this request was denied, he destroyed his field. Strawberries, the government said, were necessary to the war effort, so the farmer was arrested for sabotage.

eleanor roosevelt in AZ
ER visiting a camp in Arizona

There was one person in FDR’s inner circle who fought the decision. Eleanor Roosevelt praised Japanese Americans as patriots, and later visited a concentration camp in Arizona. After the war she wrote that “emotions ran too high, too many people wanted to wreak vengeance on Oriental looking people. There was no time to investigate families or adhere strictly to the American rule that a man was innocent until he is proved guilty.”  Her husband later expressed regret as well, but there’s little evidence that he took Eleanor’s concerns seriously at the time.

Few did. In a Gallup poll in 1942, only 35% of respondents thought that Japanese-Americans should be allowed to return to their homes on the West Coast after the war. The only West Coast newspaper to oppose internment came from the little community of Bainbridge Island, Washington, one of the first touched by Order 9066. The papers’ co-editors, Walt and Mildred Woodward, wrote that they hoped the Order “will not mean the removal of American-Japanese citizens…they have the right of every citizen: to be held innocent and loyal until proven guilty.”

John Tateishi, who was three when his family was relocated, later led the push for a formal apology from the United States government. He spent eight years lobbying for such an apology, noting that such a demand was polarizing even within the Japanese-American community. “We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country,” Tateishi said.  “There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.”

In 1980, Congress established a commission on the camps. It ultimately decided that the Order was a “grave injustice” motivated by “racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failurereagan NYT of political leadership.” Eight years later, Reagan signed a bill to send each surviving internee $20,000 and an apology from the American government. Reagan, who initially opposed the apology as “left-over Carterism” grew to support it. However an attorney working with Japanese American families to overturn wartime evacuation order violations suggested that that “the President would not have signed the bill absent some political imperative,” and that he was courting Japanese-American voters.

A spokesman for the Japanese American Citizens League said that while money ”could not begin to compensate a person for his or her lost freedom, property, livelihood or for the stigma of disloyalty,” it proved the sincerity of the government’s apology.

At the signing of the bill, Reagan himself noted:

“It’s not for us today to pass judgement upon those who may have made mistakes while engaged in that great struggle. Yet we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake.

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.”

One thought on ““A Mistake”: Roosevelt, Reagan, and the American Apology”

  1. Excellent writing, as usual; the Bainbridge Island small memorial at the waterfront where the Japanese were taken to board boats is very moving; on Eleanor Roosevelt, I recently learned that during WWII she insisted (and it was done) that the Army barracks throughout the Country be painted to make the housed soldiers feel better.

    Liked by 1 person

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