Is there any way we can make up for what we did to our fellow Americans during World War II? Even if we reimbursed them for their financial losses—their homes and businesses—how do you put a monetary value on family heirlooms? More importantly, how can we make reparations for taking away freedom and dignity?
Still, America has a responsibility to do what it can. Several years after the war ended, those affected by the forced move were given the opportunity to file claims for damage to or loss of property, with a $2,500 limit. The Federal Reserve Bank estimated the losses at approximately $400 million, but less than a tenth of that was paid out as a result of the claims process.* Even those claiming less than the $2,500 limit received only a fraction of what they asked for.
In 1981, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The Commission held 20 days of hearings all around the country and heard more than 750 witnesses. It concluded that Executive Order 9066 and the subsequent events were not justified by military necessity but resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” It recommended that the United States issue an apology and make payments of $20,000 to each of the survivors. This was still a miniscule sum compared to the actual losses, but the Commission may have been concerned about the affect that larger amounts would have on the U.S. Treasury.**
Congress accepted these recommendations in what became the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which President Reagan signed into law on August 10, 1988. The formal letters of apology came from President Bush and accompanied the payments that began in October 1990 but were made—as recommended—only to those who still survived.
To me, the apology is worth more than the money. But there is a better way to show that we are sorry for what America did to its Japanese citizens and permanent residents.
It’s easy to say that we would never do the same thing today. But wouldn’t we? Human nature doesn’t change, and living in a country that extols freedom and diversity doesn’t make us immune. In my opinion, the best reaction to our past is to know it, to realize that what happened to the Japanese Americans could occur again (although probably to a different group), and to work hard to keep it from happening.
Because complacency ensures that it will.
* My resources agreed on the Federal Reserve Board estimate and the $2,500 limit, but they were not consistent as to the amount that was actually paid. I have used the higher amount of “less than $40 million,” but it might have been significantly less.
** Based on the CPI Inflation Calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $400 million in 1942 dollars would have been $2.4 billion in 1982 dollars. By 1990, when the payments began, that amount had risen to $3.2 billion.
The photograph at the head of this post was taken at Manzanar War Relocation Center on July 3, 1943. If you look closely, you can see a dust storm in the background. Dorothea Lange took the picture as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.