Congressman defends WWII internment, stirs outcry
Japanese Americans needed to be protected, and President Roosevelt was right to consider the security risks posed by some of them in the decision to place thousands of U.S. citizens in internment campus during World War II, a U.S. representative said last week. North Carolina Rep. Howard Coble tried to justify President Roosevelt’s decision, saying national security was at stake. “Some probably were intent on doing harm to us, just as some of these Arab-Americans are probably intent on doing harm to us,” he said during a radio call-in show last week. Hawai`i Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case today condemned the remarks.
While taking calls on-air at Greensboro radio station WKZL, Coble asserted that internment was in the best interests of the internees.
“We were at war,” he said, according to a widely circulated Associated Press account. “They were an endangered species. For many of these Japanese-Americans, it wasn’t safe for them to be on the street.”
Coble, who previously opposed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that provided redress for the internment, made the statements two weeks before the 50th anniversary of Roosevelt’s internment order, Executive Order 9066, signed Feb. 19, 1942.
Reps. Abercrombie and Case issued a joint statement saying “it is clear that Americans need to be reminded of the historical facts.”
“These comments touch on one of the darkest chapters in American history. They show a profound misunderstanding of the internment and its impact on Japanese Americans,” the statement read. “[Yet] despite mass incarceration, suspicion and official hostility, the record of loyalty compiled by Japanese Americans was impressive by any standard.”
It continues: “We can not change the past, but we are determined not to repeat it. If we are to preserve the principles of the Constitution and equal justice for all, we must acknowledge the occasions when our nation fell short of those ideals.”
In a Friday statement, Hawai`i Democratic Party Chairwoman Lorraine Akiba wrote, “It’s offensive and inexcusable that one of the darkest episodes in American history would be cited approvingly by a Republican member of Congress, particularly one whom the Leadership has appointed to head a sensitive homeland security panel.”
Akiba called on Gov. Lingle, as “a Bush Republican,” to take a stand against Coble’s statements, especially considering the hundreds of Hawai`i residents who were interned in the camps during World War II.
And in a Letter to the Editor published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin yesterday, Waipahu resident Yoshie Ishiguro Tanabe criticized Coble for suggesting that Japanese Americans were interned for their own protection.
“We were put in those camps because people like him believed that some among us were saboteurs,” Tanabe wrote. “They were wrong then and those who believe that today have not studied American history.”
Gov. Lingle and Hawai`i Sen. Daniel Inouye were unavailable for comment.
Today the Associated Press reported that Coble issued a statement to clarify his remarks, saying he only wanted to show that President Roosevelt had acted in what he believed at the time to be the best interests of national security.
“Today we can certainly look back and see the damage that was caused because of this decision,” Coble said. “We all now know that this was in fact the wrong decision and an action that should never be repeated.”
“I regret that many Japanese and Arab-Americans found my choice of words offensive because that was certainly not my intent,” he added.
In response, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) who had lived in an internment camp as a child said Coble “still missed the point.”
“He may have appeared to apologize for offending people with his words, but what’s offensive is he doesn’t get it,” Honda told the Associated Press. “He doesn’t understand why it was wrong for (President) Roosevelt to do it then.”
Although earning little coverage in the local media, Coble’s remarks have stirred an outcry among Japanese American groups nationwide.
The Washington, D.C.-based Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) condemned Coble’s statement, and called on the Republican leadership in the U.S. House to remove him from his Homeland Security post.
“It is astonishing that yet another political leader would publicly embrace the racist policies of the 1940s, and we are flabbergasted that a man who supports racial profiling and ethnic scapegoating chairs the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security,” said JACL Executive Director John Tateishi, in reference to earlier comments by Mississipi Sen. Trent Lott apparently endorsing segregation.
The National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC) also called for Coble’s resignation.
“Now, more than ever, our country and our Constitution face challenges both international and domestic,” said NAPALC Executive Director Karen Narasaki. “Coble’s dangerous view of history and cavalier attitude toward discrimination based on race and ethnicity raises serious issues about whether he is the right person to lead such an important subcommittee.”
On Coble’s assertion that Japanese Americans were interned to be kept safe from other Americans, Narasaki noted: “The guards in the guard tower had their guns pointed in at the internees. They were not there to protect them.”
Coble also earned the ire of fellow congress members, such as Rep. David Wu (D.-Ore.), who heads the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. “If we do not accurately portray the past, we risk repeating it,” Wu said in a statement, noting next week’s anniversary of Executive Order 9066.
“At a time when we should be reflecting on a historic wrong, Congressman Coble has stood history on its head,” Wu said. “Japanese American, Arab American or otherwise, there is nothing to justify interning Americans because of their ancestry.”
In the wake of Coble’s statements, Wu has joined with Rep. Honda to introduce legislation that would recognize Feb. 19 as a “national day of remembrance” for Japanese Americans and other Americans who were subject to internment camps.
Reps. Abercrombie and Case have pledged their support.
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988
Sen. Inouye was the first Japanese American elected to Congress, and shepherded much of the legislation relating to Japanese American internment, including the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, an official government apology that provided for direct restitution and the funding of public information programs.
“Fear and prejudice obstructed our commitment to uphold the constitutional rights of our people, and as a result, thousands of lives were disrupted immeasurably,” Inouye said at the time. “A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry, who were excluded, removed and detained by the U.S. Government without benefit of individual review.”
Inouye had said action was needed “to deter an event as reprehensible as the internment experience from happening again, as silence on the issue has the danger of appearing as tacit acceptance.”
In August 1998, Coble opposed the legislation on the floor of the U.S. House.
While saying he was uncomfortable rising in opposition to the bill “because some will accuse me of being insensitive and uncaring,” Coble nonetheless said at the time that it was unfair for Congress to be second-guessing the actions of President Roosevelt and his cabinet.
“In a time of war when a country is threatened for its very survival, as this country was after Pearl Harbor in 1942, many things happen and many lives are disrupted for no logical reason,” Coble had said. “Many travesties of justice occur during a time of war.”
Coble had conceded that war hysteria and racial prejudice probably played a part, but said the issues “were intertwined with a threatened national security.”
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