When I saw the headline “U.S. official cites deceit in WWII internments” in this past Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, I knew what the article was going to say even before reading it.
Sure enough, the article referred to how the FDR administration deliberately hid from the Supreme Court an Office of Naval Intelligence report which concluded that the Japanese Americans on West coast did not pose a military threat. This is not new information to become public. What was remarkable about Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal’s May 24th announcement, though, was that this was the first time the Justice Department formally acknowledged this misconduct by FDR’s Solicitor General, Charles Fahy.
As the U.S. government’s top courtroom attorney, Fahy defended Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the curfew, roundup, evacuation, and detention of Japanese Americans. Fahy told the Court that the government and military agreed upon the “military necessity” of such actions, even though two of the government’s civil lawyers had told Fahy that to not tell the high court of the ONI report exonerating Japanese Americans would constitute “suppression of evidence.”
My father contended all his life that the war gave Roosevelt, California politicians, and leading business people the “cover” to do what they wanted to do all along, which was to eliminate, or at least reduce, the economic threat that they feared from Japanese Americans, especially in agriculture. By 1940, the Japanese Americans in California were prominent in the production and distribution of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. In Los Angeles on August 8, 1981 before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (created by an act of Congress I helped pass), my father testified about the internment’s economic impact on his family’s farming business.
One line from my father’s testimony is included in the Commission report: “My family’s greatest economic loss was loss of standing crops. . . .We had several acres of celery just about ready for harvest. . . .Several weeks after our evacuation, the price of celery jumped up to about $5 or $6 a crate.” What was omitted in this quote is the rest of their story: that at the time they had to evacuate, no one would buy their celery, so it was rendered worthless, only to have scavengers make a killing on what they were forced to leave behind.
It was remarkable to see my dad wield a hammer. Every nail went in, flat and square, with one clean blow, machine-like. Watching him once, I marveled, “How can you do that, Dad?,” he said, “Well, when you’ve built a million crates from the time you are little, you can hammer pretty well. And when you have to make a lot of them, you can’t afford to hit the nail twice.” I guess I’d never thought before that moment where they got all those vegetable crates – duh, someone had to build them.
Someone in the family also had to design and get printed their family vegetable labels. Apparently they had a whole series with tomatoes, strawberries, and so forth, but the only one my dad had left was of their celery, àpropos of his Commission testimony. The “H. Kamei” actually is not my dad, Hiroshi Kamei, but his older brother who adopted the American name of “Henry.”
I think like me, my dad would have taken notice of this acknowledgement, but while not to diminish its importance, would have felt that it’s anti-climatic after all these years. The big moment of victory came with the redress bill signing in 1984. Still, it’s nice when you’re shown to have been right all along.