Memorial to a tragic mistake

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This 14-foot sculpture of a pair of cranes held by barbed wire by artist Nina A. Akamu is the central feature of the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of National Japanese American Memorial Foundation)

Something unexpected happened last week as I walked toward Union Station in Washington, D.C.

Suddenly, off to my left, there was a pool of water with several large rocks in the middle. I almost passed by, thinking, “That’s pretty.” But I noticed a path leading to something behind the pool. Turns out it was a remarkable memorial to a major mistake the United States made during World War II.

As we celebrated our country’s birthday and the freedoms this nation offers, a great nation also acknowledges mistakes.

I had never seen any publicity or mention of the Japanese-American Memorial — also known as the Japanese-American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II. It sits quietly on Louisiana Avenue Northwest at D Street, a few minutes from the U.S. Capitol and Union Station. The memorial has a twin purpose. It honors:

  • More than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps with little advance notice, and no trial, during the war.
  • The Japanese-Americans who fought for the U.S. in the war, winning many awards for their valor.

The memorial makes its points powerfully and quietly in both word and sculpture. At the center of the memorial, which takes a few minutes to view, there’s a sculpture with two cranes wrapped in barbed wire.

A few feet away, the words of former President Ronald Reagan are inscribed in stone. When he signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the president acknowledged, “Here we admit a wrong. Here we affirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

We’re not there yet, but this memorial is an important reminder of what can happen at a time of great stress (think for example, of the so-far unsuccessful efforts to resolve cases of those at the Guantanamo prison).

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1988 law called the executive order a “grave injustice.” The law also provided financial compensation to families whose members were sent to camps, often in desert areas.

As a history teacher, I talked with young people about Executive Order 9066, which former President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed, sending thousands of Japanese-Americans to “internment” camps. It was a hysterical action that generally was not repeated against German-Americans. The noted nature photographer Ansel Adams took many pictures of detained Japanese Americans. The Library of Congress makes them available online at http://1.usa.gov/10Hu3xe.

Washington, D.C., has many monuments to heroism. That’s in part what this memorial recognizes. But it also points to a major mistake this country made.
As visitors leave the memorial, the words of the late U.S. Congressman and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii are presented. Inouye, who served this country as an Army captain during World War II, wrote “The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org

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