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“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” This hoary chestnut, attributed to George Santayana, has been invoked so often that its meaning has been all but lost through repetition. Yet like many clich�s, it contains a bedrock element of truth that is ignored at some peril. So, with Santayana’s words in mind, perhaps the time is right to play tourist in your own country and head to Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of American History on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets, N.W. Tucked into the southeast corner of the third floor of the Smithsonian museum, adjacent to the weathered wooden hull of the Revolutionary War gunboat Philadelphia, is an exhibit entitled “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the United States Constitution.” A part of the museum since 1987, “A More Perfect Union” deserves to be revisited with fresh eyes. The exhibit uses photographs, artifacts, historical documents, newspaper clippings and videotaped interviews to chronicle the plight of the almost 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent who, during the opening months of World War II, were removed from their homes and relocated to detention camps built by the federal government in remote locales of the western United States. Two-thirds of the interned were American citizens, and all were thrust into the camps without evidence of any guilt and without benefit of formal accusations or trials. While the situation of the hundreds of people detained in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is hardly analogous to the hardships suffered by the Issei (Japanese who settled in the United States) and the Nisei (their children), the exhibit sounds a warning that the presumption of guilt and the withholding of constitutional rights is a step down a slippery slope that once led this nation to unjustly imprison an entire population. “The forced removal of these Japanese Americans illustrates the ease with which constitutional safeguards of individual freedom and liberty can be ignored when racial prejudice, economic jealousies, and political pressure act together in a time of national crisis,” a placard in the exhibit reminds us. “When the fragile protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are violated, the result is not simply a case of injustice, abstractly defined. The result is very real human suffering.” On Feb. 19, 1942, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9,066. The order stated that “[t]he successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national defense material, national defense premises, and national defense utilities.” To that end, it authorized the secretary of war and military commanders “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restriction the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” The language of the order gave no indication that a specific racial or ethnic group would be targeted. Its strictures seemed to refer to all citizens. Yet the order was applied solely to Japanese-Americans, who spent up to four years behind barbed wire. In March 1942, Gen. John L. DeWitt, military commander of the Western Defense Command, partitioned the West Coast into military sectors from which citizens could be excluded under the executive order. The Wartime Civil Control Administration was established to organize the mass evacuations. Japanese-Americans were required first to report to local assembly centers. They could take with them only those items they could carry, often leaving behind homes, cars and other possessions. Japanese-American business owners were seldom given enough time to sell their concerns for a fair price. Property losses for those interned have been estimated to total more than a billion dollars. After processing at the assembly centers, they were dispatched to the 10 permanent camps, or relocation centers, to be found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming and operated under the auspices of the War Relocation Authority. “We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls,” FDR’s Interior Secretary Harold Ickes admitted some years later in The Washington Evening Star, “but they were concentration camps nonetheless.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “A More Perfect Union” is its portrayal of life inside the so-called relocation centers. All the centers operated farms and administrative facilities, which provided jobs for many of the residents. Employment was found for doctors, dentists and other professionals. All labored for wages below market value. Children attended schools, and the interned organized dances, art classes and other social functions. Meanwhile, four cases filed by detainees opposing their wartime treatment wended their way through the court system. In these cases, the Supreme Court chose to focus narrowly on specifics and not to consider larger constitutional issues of relocation. Citing national security, the Court refused to block Order No. 9,066 and the programs it spawned. In 1976, then-President Gerald Ford formally apologized for the policies that led to the internments. Perhaps this shameful episode is now forgiven, but it should not be forgotten.

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