On October 16, I attended a meeting of the Committee for the Republic at which “Defender of Liberty Awards” where presented to Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo for their bravery and perseverance in defending freedom in America. These Americans of Japanese ancestry had undertaken to legally challenge their internment in concentration camps during World War II ordered by Franklin D Roosevelt four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They generally lost their legal challenges, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. If you are not familiar with this shocking atrocity (or even if you are), I urge you to watch these short videos and weep at the depths to which racism has driven some of us in the past: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0z8EHjVoN-o https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MXF2302fr8
These atrocities were not the first, nor unfortunately the last, abandonment of our principles in the name of security in times of heightened fear (think of the so called “Patriot Act” following 9/11 and President Trump’s failed efforts to ban travelers from six Muslim countries more recently). While these reactions are manifestations of racism and cowardice, it is to our credit that we (generally) ultimately acknowledge our periodic abandonments of our love of freedom and justice under the law for barbaric acts that we think will make us safer. https://wcoats.blog/2016/10/20/terrorism-security-vs-privacy/
The Defender of Liberty Awards to Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, and Mitsuye Endo were accepted on their behalf by their surviving children who shared with us their experiences. Several of them learned what their parents had done in school as they never mentioned or discussed the shame and hardship of their three years of internment in despicable facilities. Growing up in California I had one Japanese classmate in grammar school. When I learned that FDR had put him and his family in a concentration camp for several years, I overcame my shock and shame to ask him about it, but he would not discuss it. It reminds me a bit of the typical reaction of rape victims.
While a cowardly public silently acquiesced to the rounding up and the imprisonment of their Japanese American neighbors, an underlying motive was the desire of some farmers to eliminate the competition of Japanese American farmers. From Wikipedia: “The deportation and incarceration were popular among many white farmers who resented the Japanese American farmers. ‘White American farmers admitted that their self-interest required removal of the Japanese.’ These individuals saw internment as a convenient means of uprooting their Japanese-American competitors. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942:
‘We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over… If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.’” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans
Quoting again from Wikipedia: “In 1980, under mounting pressure from the Japanese American Citizens League and redress organizations, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine whether the decision to put Japanese Americans into concentration camps had been justified by the government. He appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to investigate the camps. The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and concluded that the incarceration had been the product of racism. It recommended that the government pay reparations to the internees. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government and authorized a payment of $20,000 (equivalent to $42,000 in 2018) to each camp survivor. The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The U.S. government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion (equivalent to $3,390,000,000 in 2018) in reparations to 82,219 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.”
At the Committee for the Republic ceremony the amazingly talented Bruce Fein recited from memory the following:
Athens had Socrates.
King Henry VIII had Sir Thomas More.
And we have the Mount Rushmore of moral courage to honor this evening: Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayahsi, Minoru Yasui, And Mitsuye Endo. They are largely unknown American heroes and heroines of World War II. It can be said without exaggeration, seldom in the annals of liberty have so many owed so much to so few.
What is more American than fidelity to Thomas Jefferson’s injunction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to god? Our defender of liberty award recipients resisted the racist tyranny of president Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order 9066 issued unilaterally without congress on February 19, 1942, a date that should live in infamy. Provoked by racism in the west coast battleground states, EO 9066 summarily dispatched 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans because of their ancestry alone into internment camps. Remember their names. For they are first cousins of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen, Nazi concentration camps, not extermination camps like Auschwitz. Roosevelt’s camps were ten: Manzanar (CA), Poston (AZ), Gila River (AZ), Topaz (UT), Granada (CO), Heart Mountain (WY), Minidoka (ID), Tule Lake (CA), Jerome, (AR), and Rohwer (AR).
Risking ostracism or worse, our four award winners challenged the constitutionality of president Roosevelt’s racism. The president and his mandarin class colleagues echoed the Orwellian bugle of general John Dewitt 80 days after pearl harbor: “the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” I am reminded of Mark Anthony’s mocking funeral oration in Julius Caesar: but president Roosevelt was an honorable man, so were his assistants all honorable men.
Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Endo took their cases to the United States Supreme Court with mixed success. The high court sustained FDR’s executive order based on knowing lies about military necessity made by the Department of Justice. Dissenting justice Robert Jackson presciently warned that the court’s decision in Korematsu v. United states would lie around like a loaded weapon ready for use by a future Caligula, Claudius, or Nero in the White House who claimed an urgent need.
But the four did not surrender. They continued to fight over long decades for vindication and defense of the constitution both for the living and those yet to be born. In triumph, our defender of liberty award honorees brandished the lofty principles of the greatest generation—the constitution’s architects—against its traitors. Korematsu and Hirayabahsi had their convictions overturned in coram nobis proceedings. The civil liberties act of 1988 denounced the racism and unconstitutionality of EO 9066. And the United States Supreme Court overruled Korematsu in Trump v. Hawaii.
Defending liberty is always unfinished work. Tyranny knows only offense—like a football team with Tom Brady playing all positions. We cannot escape our moral responsibility as American citizens to equal or better the instruction of American patriots Korematsu, Hirabayashi, Yausi, and Endo. It is for us, the living, to ensure that their courage was not in vain. It is unthinkable that we fail to try. Gordon Hirabayashi was right at the young age of 24: “it is our obligation to show forth our light in times of darkness, nay, our privilege.”
When you awaken each morning, be haunted by Edward Gibbons’ epitaph on Athens:
“in the end, more than freedom, they wanted security. They wanted a comfortable life, and they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility then Athens ceased to be free and was never free again.”
It is altogether fitting that my closing lines will be delivered at this time and place [the Metropolitan Club] within shouting distance of the white house to thunder like a hammer on an anvil. In the eyes of the United States constitution, there is only one race, it is American; there is only one religion, it is American; there is only one ancestry, it is American; there is only one gender, it is American; there is only one sexual orientation, it is American.
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
Walking out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government we got: “A Republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.” I am worried.