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Dr. Robert Sims

Dr. Robert Sims is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Boise State University. He gave this speech at the "Civil Liberties Symposium II: Presidential Powers In Wartime" at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, June 2007. This symposium was held in conjunction with the 2007 Pilgrimage to Camp Minidoka organized by the Friends of Minidoka, a group that supports the Minidoka Internment National Monument.

[Image: Dr. Bob Simms]

I was thinking that the runway would have been a better route up with my bad knees but I thought that was too dramatic so I'll just - I'll do it this way. It's really great to be here. I think of all the effort that so many of you have put into this - not just this specific event but all of the things that were prelude to where we are today and that includes those of you, those scholars and participants in the organizations like the JCL who have kept this idea alive and bring us to this point today. It's extremely important.

I'm going to begin with what may seem a rather curious way to start but I want to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Many of you, certainly those not from Idaho, may not know that Idaho has a claim - particularly Pocatello - has a claim on Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, but you may also not know that he spent a lot of time in Idaho. Although born in Chicago, Burroughs spent part of his youth and a good portion of his young adulthood in Idaho, and although he's best known for his Tarzan series, Burroughs was also the author of fantasy literature or early science fiction. His titles, for instance, include A Princess of Mars, At The Earth's Core, The Eternal Savage, The Monster Man, Pirates Of Venice and The Land That Time Forgot.

Now my reason for mentioning him in the context of this event is that he also wrote a fantasy titled Minidoka. Like many of his works - indeed most of them - this is a work of expansive imagination, a work about people, things, places, events that just really could not exist or happen. About people persecuted by their gods, gods who sent plagues and fevers and then more fevers. His story is actually set in this region of Idaho and is quite simply unbelievable. There is another story we call Minidoka about a people persecuted and upon whom were visited great calamities. Like Burroughs' story, this one can be read with great incredulity and a suspicion that these things could never have happened. If a visitor from another time and place looked at this country, studied its basic documents, its values, it would truly seem impossible that what happened could actually have been.

And yet in 1942 about 120,000 people were removed from their homes and sent to distant isolated and harsh places in an action by our government that the Attorney General of the United States at the time characterized as unnecessarily cruel. One of those places was a site about eighteen miles northeast of here, the Minidoka Relocation Center. This happened in the context of war time and war fever often translates into xenophobia. That fever peaked on February 19, 1942 when President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and over the next few months almost 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were ordered to leave their homes in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Alaska and two-thirds of those individuals were American citizens. No charges were brought against them, there were no hearings.

Initially they didn't know where they were going, how long they would be detained, what conditions they would face or what fate might await them. First sent to temporary detention camps set up in converted race tracks and fair grounds, they lived in crowded, often unsanitary conditions with barbed wire fences and armed guard towers surrounding the compounds. From there they were transported to one of ten permanent camps, including Minidoka, where they remained for many - most remained for three years. It was a story line worthy of the most extreme of Burroughs fantasies.

The Minidoka camp was opened in August 1942 and ultimately housed thirteen thousand Nikkei, mostly from the Seattle and Portland areas. The camp was filled up at the rate of about five hundred a day in the heat of summer, the first group arriving on a day of one hundred twelve degrees, brought by train from western Washington and Portland.

Those first inhabitants at Minidoka arrived to find a camp still under construction. There was no hot running water and the sewage system had not been installed. The initial reaction to this harsh landscape by many was one of discouragement. Upon arriving one internee wrote, "When we first arrived here we almost cried and thought that this was a land that God had forgotten. The vast expanse of nothing but sagebrush and dust, a landscape so alien to our eyes and a desolate woe-be-gone feeling of being so far removed from home and fireside bogged us down mentally as well as physically."

And underneath this reaction to the physical reaction which was characterized by the extreme heat in the summer, extreme cold in the winter and always the dust, there was a feeling of being abandoned by this country. How Nikkei conducted themselves in this tragic situation is testimony to their inner strengths and courage. One must remember that it was more than just the physical hardship and deprivation that they endured. It was also the rejection and the loss of liberty from their own country - the country with which the Issei had cast their lot and in which the Nissei had been born. As one writer put it in talking about this, he said, there was the hurt of the thing and the way he expressed that seems to me to capture the essence of it.

Yet in spite of their treatment at the hands of their government, Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States and many demonstrated that loyalty by volunteering for military service. They were segregated into an all Japanese American combat unit and fought in France and Italy and some with the military intelligence service in the Pacific. The story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team is one of the great historic stories of World War II.

Well, why did this happen? Why were the constitutional rights and civil liberties of these people so easily disregarded? Many things contributed to this, obviously. Fear of possible Japanese sabotage and espionage was rampant, and an outraged public felt an understandable desire to lash out at those who had attacked the nation - but for many that target expanded to those of the same nationality here in the United States. But these anti-Japanese feelings did not appear just over night. The imprisonment of Japanese Americans was in many respects merely an extension of more than a century of racial prejudice against the "yellow peril." Laws passed in the early 1900s denied immigrants from Japan the right to become naturalized citizens, to own land and to marry outside their race. In 1924 immigration from Japan was halted altogether. Idaho had its own episodes of expression of xenophobia with an anti-Japanese land law in 1923 and an anti-miscegenation law prohibiting Japanese from marrying Caucasians passed in 1922.

In the action implementing the intent of Executive Order 9066, where was the concern about keeping faith with the Constitution? Only a few raised questions. Attorney General Biddle who called the action ill-advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel was one of very few voices. J. Edgar Hoover opposed it as well and even Secretary of War Henry Stimson had grave doubts about the constitutionality of a plan based on the racial characteristics of a particular minority group. In his diary he wrote that he doubted the military necessity of such an action and that the removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast would "make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system".

One of our keynote speakers to follow I think will deal with this issue in the role of Franklin Roosevelt and there is very little I can add to his scholarly contributions in that area but I do have a few comments on the question. Robert Jackson, who had served as Roosevelt's attorney general before being appointed to the Supreme Court once observed that Roosevelt was "a strong skeptic of legal reasoning" and despite his reputation was not a "strong champion of civil rights". Jackson's successor as Attorney General Francis Biddle, whom I mentioned earlier, speculated about why Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. He wrote in his memoir that he did not think "the constitutional difficulty plagued him" and he went on to say this which is a mantra for our time, "the constitution has never greatly bothered any war time president".

Opposition to this action was very limited. There were very few public officials, among them Senators Sheridan Downey of California and Mayor Harry Cain of Tacoma who opposed it. And even most civil liberties groups kept relatively quiet, presumably in the interest of national unity. In the years immediately after World War II attitudes about the Japanese incarceration began to shift and over time many participants in that action have reflected on the roles they played. Some even had misgivings at the time that it was unconstitutional and immoral. In April of 1942 Milton Eisenhower who was the National Director of the War Relocation Authority - the civilian agency responsible for running the camps - lamented that " when this war is over we as Americans are going to regret the injustices we have done."

Throughout the 1950s most of the legal discriminations against Japanese Americans were lifted including the bans on Japanese immigration and naturalization. One by one, state laws against alien Japanese owning or leasing land were also set aside as was Idaho's law in 1955. In 1959 Idaho lifted the racial intermarriage ban as well and six years later in 1965 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

The immorality and unconstitutionality of the internment have continued to reverberate. In 1970 the first legislative plan for redress for those imprisoned in the camps was initiated by the Seattle Evacuation Redress Committee under the sponsorship of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. As part of the celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1976, President Gerald Ford issued Presidential Proclamation 4417 in which he acknowledged that we must recognize our national mistakes as well as our national achievements. February 19 he noted is the anniversary of a sad day in American history and observed that we know now what we should have known then - that the evacuation and internment of loyal Japanese Americans was wrong.

Four years later the Commission on War Time Relocation and Internment of Civilians was established to review the implementation of Executive Order 9066. The Commission was made up of former members of Congress and the Supreme Court and the cabinet as well as distinguished private citizens. It heard testimony from more than seven hundred witnesses. It reviewed hundreds of documents that previously had been unavailable. And in 1983 the Commission concluded that the factors that had shaped the internment decision were "race prejudiced, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership and not as had been claimed, military necessity." It recommended that Congress pass a joint resolution to be signed by the President which recognizes that a grave injustice was done and offer the apologies of the nation for the acts of exclusion, removal and detention.

The same year Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Min Yasui filed petitions for writs of Corum Nobis to have their convictions set aside for manifest injustice and the following year Federal Judge Marilyn Patel granted Korematsu's petition and found that the government had knowingly and intentionally failed to disclose critical information that contradicted the government's claims. She declared that the Supreme Court's decision in Korematsu "stands as a constant caution in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability. And it stands as a caution that in times of international hostility the judiciary must be prepared to exercise its authority to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused." And in 1987 the Federal Court of Appeals granted Gordon Hirabayashi's petition and vacated his conviction. Min Yasui's case was in the process of moving in the same direction but he died before its final resolution. In the last year of his presidency, Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which officially declared the internment as a grave injustice.

In a recent book, Jeffery Stone, the former dean of the University Of Chicago Law School, commented that in times of war fever we are likely to lose our perspective and needlessly sacrifice fundamental liberties, particularly the fundamental liberties of those we already fear and despise. In World War II the President, the Congress and the Supreme Court all failed in their responsibility to preserve and protect the Constitution and the public sat silently by or worse, cheered them on. He then goes on in the book to pose the question, How do we get it right in the future? And if all of this is so patently clear how do we get it right? Part of the answer he offers is that a critical determinant of how a nation responds to the stresses of war time is the attitude of the public. Citizens in a self-governing society are responsible for their own actions and the actions of their government. They cannot expect government officials to act calmly and judiciously without regard to their own response. In 1944 the eminent jurist Learned Hand wrote, "I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes. Believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there no constitution, no law, no court can save it."

Well, in the discussion over these issues Minidoka has played a continuing role. For many years after the camp closed, most associated with that experience seemed intent on letting the memories die. By the mid 1970s interest was quickening nationally to revisit the decision imprisoning Japanese Americans including those milestones I just referred to. By that time only a limited number of acres of the original camp site remained in Federal hands and then through the work of very enterprising and dedicated members of the Pocatello/Blackfoot JACL [Japanese American Citizens League], working with the staff of Senator Frank Church the site was named a National Historic Site. Interest in Minidoka grew throughout the '80s as the Commission continued its work and issued its findings.

The public awareness over the Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Yasui cases also heightened interest and in 1990 through the work of Idaho's Centennial Commission the Intermountain District Council of JACL and once again the Pocatello/Blackfoot JACL, additional memorializing was done at the site. It was named an Idaho Centennial Site and some of the very fine plaques you see there now were placed at that time.

And then as Neal mentioned earlier the most significant event of all is the naming of Minidoka as a National Monument in 2001 by President Clinton. The Presidential Proclamation called the site a unique and irreplaceable historic resource which protects historic structures and objects that provide opportunities for public education and interpretation of an important chapter in American history - the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

So we have President Ford's Proclamation of Apology, the findings of the Commission, the rendering of decisions in the Yasui, Korematsu, Hirabayashi cases, the passage of the Civil Liberties Act, the establishment of a National Monument. What else is there to do? It seems that that should be enough. Unfortunately the answer is that it's not enough. And we need only look at the public reaction to the naming of the site as a National Monument to see that it is not enough.

In 2001 when the camp was designated as a National Monument it became painfully clear. Much of the early public reaction as evidenced in the newspapers was negative - ranging from a rather benign view that it would be better just not to talk about those things to a repetition of the arguments used in 1941 and 1942 supporting the decision. This language from one letter to the editor makes the point and when the letter ran the newspaper editors put this caption on it: Concentration Camps were Justified. And the letter contained this statement, "It is unrealistic to think that racism was a factor in the government's decision to relocate West Coast Japanese Americans to camp. Only extremely naïve people would not suspect that there were Japanese secret agents among them since Japan had been planning to bomb Pearl Harbor for years." A lot of disconnects in there but I think you get the idea. Unwittingly perhaps the editorial writer and some of the writers of letters to the editor at that time actually helped underscore the need for Minidoka as a National Monument and for its historic and educational mission. There was clearly a need for public education on the subject.

In his proclamation, President Clinton echoed the sentiment embodied in the last words of the plaque that had been placed there in 1979 when it was named a Historic Site. "May these camps serve to remind us what can happen when other factors supersede the constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens and aliens living in this country." After the designation the Park Service then had the task of assuming control of the site and the development of the general management plan which Neal has talked about and I had the good fortune to be a small part of that process as a member of the planning team. It was an interesting process. It ranged over many years and as Neal said, one of the issues that kept coming up were issues the issues relating to civil liberties and constitutional rights and we find that embodied in bold relief in the plan. It is a venue for engaging in a dialogue concerning that violation.

Other language from the plan refers to the National Monument offering a unique setting to reflect on the incarceration experience and the relationship of this experience to contemporary and future political and social events. Early in the life of the monument a non-profit organization was formed now headed by Jim Osomono, who spoke to you earlier, whose purpose is to support the Park Service in the management of its site. And a significant part of the mission relates to the education of the general public about the history of Japanese American internment, particularly as it relates to civil liberties and current parallels and we're working with the Park Service and CSI [College of Southern Idaho] to accomplish these goals which brings us to this forum.

Well ahead of the development of educational opportunities on the site the sponsors of this forum have felt it was important to get the work going as soon as possible. This is our second effort and we're still trying to get it right. We understand that the task is formidable but we believe that it is critical that citizens understand and internalize the values of civil liberties and why we must protect them. They must understand that in war time, even well meaning individuals can be swept along by the mentality of the mob and the current day McCarthys of the media whose rants appeal to the worst rather than the best in the American people.

In every war there is always a struggle in achieving a balance between security and liberty and much of the responsibility for that rests directly in the President's office. Our record as a nation shows that liberty has always come out on the short end of that. In order to achieve a proper balance we need strong political leaders with a sense of right and wrong, judges who can stand up to public pressures and the press, members of the bar and academics who help us see the issues clearly, a Congress safeguarding the separation of powers and most of all an informed and tolerant public who will value not only their own liberties but the liberties of others as well. And I hope we can accomplish some of that in these two days. Thank you very much.

Funding provided in part by the generous support of WETA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.