Even in the greatest of democracies, in times of peril democratic institutions sometimes fail and succumb to the hysteria of the time. An important reminder, with the impending Trump administration, since today is the 72nd anniversary of the Supreme Court’s infamous Korematsu decision upholding the detention of Japanese-Americans.
The Supreme Court Upholds Japanese Internment
In May 1942, , Fred Korematsu was arrested for refusing to leave his San Leandro, California home to be sent to an internment camp. Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of the Executive Order authorizing the act and, in one of its most notorious decisions, the Supreme Court upheld Korematsu’s conviction 6-3 on this day in 1944.
Justice Murphy’s dissent stressed that
Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed a proclamation formally terminating Executive Order 9066 and apologizing for internment, remarking “We now know what we should have known then — not only was that evacuation wrong but Japanese-Americans were and are loyal Americans.”
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed a commisison to investigate the internment, which found that the decision to intern those of Japanese ancenstry occurred because of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to provide $20,000 in reparation to surviving detainees. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush, speaking on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor stated “the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
In the 1980s, researchers discovered that the Justice Department had deliberately suppressed evidence from the FBI and military intelligence that Japanese-Americans posed no security risks. Based on this evidence, a federal judge vacated Korematsu’s conviction in 1983.
While the Supreme Court decision has never been reversed, in 2011 the Justice Department filed a formal “admission of error” stemming from the suppression of evidence negating the precedential value of the Supreme Court decision.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 2005.
Bloody Sunday Compensation
On this day in 1974, the British government offered £42,000 in compensation to relatives of those killed in January 1972 when British paramilitary forces opened fire on a peaceful demonstration and killed 13 in what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” As with Korematsu, it would take years before the British government formally admitted wrongdoing.
In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair created a commission of inquiry. Its report was released in 2010 and concluded British paramilitary forced had “caused the deaths of 13 people . . . none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Upon release the report, Prime Miniser David Cameron addressed the House of Commons:
Mr Speaker, I am deeply patriotic. I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world. And I have seen for myself the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which we ask our soldiers to serve. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.