Joe Nathan Column: A memorial to a mistake

Joe Nathan column – Something unexpected happened as I was walking last week toward the Union train station in Washington, D.C.

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

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 then I noticed a path leading to something behind the pool. Turns out it was a remarkable memorial to a major mistake that the U.S. made in World War II.

As we approach July 4, we celebrate our country’s birthday and the freedom it offers. A great nation also acknowledges mistakes.

I’d 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 just a few minutes from the U.S. Capitol, as well as Union Station.

The Japanese American Memorial – also known as the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II – sits, quietly on Louisiana Avenue Northwest, at D Street, just a few minutes from the U.S. Capitol and Union Station. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

The Japanese American Memorial – also known as the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II – sits quietly on Louisiana Avenue Northwest at D Street, just a few minutes from the U.S. Capitol and Union Station. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

The memorial has a twin purpose. It honors:

–More than 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated with little advance notice, and no trial, during the war.

–The Japanese Americans who fought for the United States in the war, winning many awards for their valor.

In both word and sculpture, the memorial makes its points powerfully, but quietly. At the center of the memorial, which takes just 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 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

Washington, DC has many monuments to heroism. That’s in part what this memorial recognizes. But it also points to a major mistake that this country made.

As visitors leave the memorial, the words of the late U.S. Congressman and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye 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,

  • Peter Smyth

    Excellent post. One thing I have found interesting is that Order 9066 only targeted Japanese Americans. Yet as WWII began, there was a great deal of pro-German, even pro-Nazi feeing in this country. Even Charles Lindberg. I have never heard there was any pro-Japanese feeing, even among the Japanese Americans.

  • Robert H. Scarlett


    Thanks for this reminder. It is sad and troubling to witness how easily we Americans will trade our U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights for “security”. Despite the lofty aspirations expressed by President Ronald Reagan and Senator Inouye at that time, we have “allowed” these injustices to occur, time-and-time again.

    This last election year in Minnesota, we managed to stave-off another assault on “equal justice” (the Voter ID and the Gay Marriage ammendments). We should be proud of that.

    Unless our “educational sytem” and our larger community can, somehow, intervene in the teaching of fear and hate – that occurs in many families and many communities, we will continue to be overtaken by hysteria and rush to deprive others of their human rights in order to enhance our own sense of security.

    Meanwhile, we are cutting back on history and social studies, as I understand it; and, consequently, even more likely to produce new generations of ignorant mobs – prone to fear and hysteria.

    Knowing you, I suspect you have thought a lot about this challenge.

    Again, thanks for stimulating this moment of reflection,


  • Tom King

    Touching column today, Joe. How sad that our fear-driven bigotry in the ’40’s led to this internment. Some of the same happened to our citizens of German descent back in WW1, but never to this extent.

    In her fine book, “No Ordinary Time”, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells how Roosevelt, who was revered by many Americans for saving us from The Great Depression, was unable to show the same leadership in this treatment of the Issei, or US citizens of Japanese descent.

    Neither he nor Congress allow emigrating Jews trying to escape from HItler’s persecution to come here.Worse, at the time, there was little outcry at these injustices.

    Fear and mistrust only lead to more bigotry. The difficulty with Political Correctness is that it keeps changing and often not for the better. As a free people we must embrace greater social justice for all.

    Joe, thanks for a fine column and a teaching lesson for us all.

  • alice from San Francisco

    Nicely done Joe…

  • Tom

    A sad period in our history — how we treated Japanese-Americans during this time period.
    Thanks– I was unaware of this memorial in my hometown.

  • Billie Donegan

    Thanks, Joe, for reminding us that part of what we celebrate tomorrow is a history of Americans who speak up at injustice and that, as a country, we must always remain a work in progress. Happy July 4th!

  • Arty Dorman

    Thanks for sharing this. This is a tragic episode in our history. It is good that there is a permanent structure to help us remember, We can think of it as a memorial to a mistake, but also to the humility required to face our mistakes. Mistakes – big and small – should be remembered to help us do better in the future. The reverberations in Guantanamo are clear.

  • Greg Halbert

    Earl Warren later Chief Justice of the United States was California Attorney General, in 1942 elected its governor and a strong out-spoken proponent of Japanese relocation. Great liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was a member of the 6-3 court majority upholding the Japanese exclusion order. Great article Mr. Nathan about what is generally regarded as the second worst opinion of the United States Supreme Court. Note that no German-American individuals in eastern United States cities were interned.

  • Darren Beck

    Powerful piece. When I taught/teach History I prefer hitting students with the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. They need to understand this is what is meant by failure to learn it means an almost certain guarantee to repeat it (loose paraphrasing).

    Growing up in Yuba City, CA my dad took us to Bob Fukimitsu for haircuts. He started out in the Yuba City Bowling Alley. One day when I was about 14, I had come home ranting about how native Americans had been treated. It triggered in him a need to clue me in on the fact that other groups have received that treatment as well. Then he told me about Bob’s family. They had been removed from property in the area (Sutter and Colusa counties are prime agricultural properties). His family was relocated to Tule Lake in northern California. They had extended family relocated in the south to Manzanar.

    Sadly, or gratefully, I never heard Bob (nor his brother Joe who also cut hair with him) badmouth this country. They had been treated as the enemy. They were robbed of property and dignity. They got their dignity back as they became successful in their families and businesses. They never got their property back.

    This brought back mixed emotions. I feel Bob Fukimitsu had a great influence on my life–dad made us get haircuts regularly as a kid. But I was never able to tell him how bad I felt the government had done that to his and other families. Well-worded as usual Joe and thanks for not allowing an ugly chapter in our history be swept away as if it never happened.

  • Deidre Kellogg

    Great article, Joe! Shared!

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