Yes, the Internment of Japanese-Americans Was Wrong--And Schools Should Teach that

Roundup: Talking About History

Danny Westneat, in the Seattle Times (Sept. 8, 2004):

Count me as a new fan of Bainbridge Island Principal Jo Vander Stoep.

Recently some parents contended it is "propaganda" to teach sixth-graders that the internment of Japanese Americans was a mistake. But Vander Stoep held firm that Sakai Intermediate School would teach that the internment was a bad move. And then the 25-year veteran of public schools said this: "There are some things that we can say aren't debatable anymore."

That's quite a sweeping statement. Coming from an educator, some will say it reeks of close-mindedness.

But I salute her. In one sentence she voiced an important principle: that not all ideas are equal. It's a notion that seems increasingly lost in a society more smitten with spin than fact-based argument.

Take the World War II internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans that began in 1942. For some reason we are arguing, 62 years later, about whether rounding up and incarcerating people of one race was a good idea.

The debate was prompted, in part, by former Seattle Times editorial writer Michelle Malkin, who wrote a book defending the internment. Her thesis is that some Japanese Americans were spies and so the racial profiling was justified.

That's provocative stuff. But it's so counter to any historical scholarship that it amazes me we're even discussing it.

Don't take it from me. Last week, 39 historians and researchers, including faculty from Harvard, Stanford and the University of Washington, said Malkin's work is "distorted," "historically inaccurate" and "presents a version of history that is contradicted by several decades of scholarly research."

Even if you discount these 39 historians, and also ignore the moral implications of jailing innocent people, it still is indisputable in hindsight that the internment was a failure and a colossal waste of money. There just isn't any evidence it fulfilled its stated purpose, which was to catch spies and prevent acts of espionage.

That's what they are teaching the sixth-graders on Bainbridge Island that the internment uprooted the lives of American citizens and failed to achieve its security goals.

What's more, students explore how echoes of the internment can be found in the current war on terror, what with some people being jailed without being charged or having access to a lawyer.

Isn't this what the teaching of history is for? It's not to give equal time to all ideas, regardless of merit. It's to describe the past accurately, and then analyze it to learn why it happened and what it means today....

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James Mark Olsen - 1/18/2005

User comment on article: Why the Japanese Internment Still Matters

Submitted by CAPT James M. Olsen, January 02, 2005 at 19:57

Daniel Pipes article, Why the Japanese Internment still matters, 28 December, resonates with us here on Bainbridge Island, Washington, a "blue-blue" affluent enclave west of Seattle, which is the epicenter of the Japanese Internment creation myth. Our local liberal island community has dangerously embraced the revisionist history of WWII Japanese internment credo by developing their piece-de-resistance new 6th grade public school curriculum being taught to 12-year old students that interment was one of the great mistakes of history and World War II. Mind you the relocation camps had no deaths and were by world standards very hospitable accommodations during a war where 100 million went to the cold hard earth as casualties of real mistakes. Also conveniently ignored is any nod to the fact that of the 14 million American soldiers and sailors deployed in World War II for as long as 5 years, 439,000 never returned and countless were injured.

The local Bainbridge Island school board president, Bruce Weiland, when asked weeks ago about his controversial internment curriculum in a LA Times article and again on air with National Public Radio, defiantly exhorted that he would no sooner question his internment curriculum than to defend slavery. The 20-session program presented last year and again planned for this year is set to coincide with Internment Remembrance Day (Feb 19). The crux of the program is that internment was solely the result of unmitigated racism against the Japanese and an a gross example American leadership and citizenry deranged by greed and war hysteria.

My wife and I and other parents and taxpayers challenged the curriculum February 2004 because it was anti-American propaganda and lacked any context about a world at war in 1941. What resulted was a firestorm of local and regional coverage. Rather than teach real history, Bainbridge school district desperately wants to keep alive this revisionist internment history in order to teach our 12 year olds to "feel" what the Japanese felt in FDR's barbed wire concentration camps. When challenged that the camps were not concentration camps and that Japanese Americans residing in the relocations camps could relocate at will provided they stay away from restricted military strategic coastal locations, I am derided as a racist for adding real history to their enshrined myth.

The Bainbridge Island school administration and local Japanese-American leaders have refused to balance their controversial curriculum course with any inconvenient or uncomfortable facts establishing WWII historical context such as the fact the German concentration resulted in 6 million murdered Europeans or the appalling death rates in Japanese run POW camps or Japanese savagery in occupied cities such as Nanking, China with 300,000 civilians butchered in 1937.

It is very important real history on Japanese internment be emphasized or our school districts through special propaganda programs such as our Leaving our Island Japanese internment program or textbook selection will distort history to the point that our students will believe the school administration nonsense that American presidents fighting for liberty and freedom should be derided as racist idiots. The emboldened school administration, not content with distorting WWII history, included other false facts that say the Japanese internment mistake is happening Post 9-11 with purported civil liberties excesses of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and President Bush to the Arabs. Beware of how history is shaped and taught at all levels, but especially to our future leaders.

CAPT James M. Olsen
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110