The various movements for civil rights and ethnic pride during the 1960s and 1970s breathed new life into efforts within the Japanese American community to seek justice for wartime incarceration. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), which had worked on behalf of the community since the 1920s, was one of several groups that stood at the forefront of such efforts. In the late 1960s, JACL leaders organized a successful campaign to repeal Title II of the Internal Security Act, the federal law which authorized mass detention of suspected subversives without trial. Community activism and JACL lobbying efforts also led to Executive Order 9066 being officially rescinded by President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Building on this success, the JACL formed a Redress Committee to advocate for a program of federal compensation. To be sure, their efforts were not new as various proposals for compensation had circulated in the Japanese American Community for years. By 1979, however, congress proved a bit more receptive to the idea. In Washington, committee leaders met with Representatives Norman Mineta and Robert Matsui of California and Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii. If the movements for civil rights and social justice of the previous decade didn't alter the political landscape in congress toward such a proposal, having four representatives of Japanese descent certainly did. Instead of reparations, the four congressmen advanced the idea of creating a federal commission to investigate the causes and consequences of wartime incarceration. As they saw it, a federal commission would be an important first step in the long march toward redress. With the JACL committee in agreeance, Senators Inouye and Matsunaga introduced Senate Bill 1647 to establish the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law.
Creating Public Understanding
For the next two years, the newly created CWRIC conducted one of the most in-depth examinations of Japanese wartime internment to date. Scores of personal papers, government documents, and other archival sources were collected by the bipartisan commission, as was nearly every scholarly publication on the topic. More importantly, the commission conducted 20 days of oral testimony in cities across the U.S., from Boston to Los Angeles. Of the 750 witnesses that spoke before the commission, more than 500 former detainees testified. For many, it was the first time they had ever discussed their wartime experience in front of their children, let alone in public. The emotional accounts, as recounted in media outlets throughout the country, not only galvanized support for redress within the Japanese American community, but among large segments of the American public.
Not everyone, however, sympathized with the former internees. In fact, there were those who denied the injustices of wartime internment. Lillian Baker, a revisionist author and activist from Southern California, stood as a case in point. An outspoken critic of Japanese American redress, Baker founded the Anaheim-based group, Americans For Historical Accuracy, in 1976 to oppose the growing movements for reparations. She claimed the camps were "a military necessity" filled with "enemy aliens loyal to the Emperor of Japan." At the same time, she maintained that many in the camps were there "voluntarily," that there were "no machine guns in the guard towers," and the barbed wire fences "were to keep the cattle out, not the people in." She also insisted that the famed pictures taken by Dorothea Lange at California's Manzanar camp were "doctored." During her testimony in front of the CWRIC in Los Angeles, over 200 Japanese Americans walked out in silent protest amid what a JACL newsletter at the time described as her "hysterical diatribes against evacuees." Her testimony aside, Baker is perhaps best remembered for the police escort she received out of the hearing after trying to incite an altercation with former internee and World War II veteran, James Kawanami, during his testimony. Kawanami served as president of the Southern California 442nd Veterans Association. The 442nd ranked as one of the most decorated units in World War II, and was composed entirely of Japanese American soldiers, many of whom were freed from the camps to serve in the war effort.
The arguments of critics like Lillian Baker held little sway with the Republicans and Democrats on the CWRIC. In 1983, the Commission published its report, titled, Personal Justice Denied, which conceded the injustices suffered by those of Japanese ancestry during the war. According to the Commission, such actions by the government did not result from a "military necessity" but from "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." In the end, the report recommended a three-prong plan of redress: a presidential apology; the establishment of a foundation to educate the public; and a $20,000 payment to each surviving detainee.