After Pearl Harbor, while Japanese Americans were confined in “relocation camps” in the U.S., their sons and brothers and cousins risked their lives for their country on the battlefields of World War II. The heroism of the 100th Battalion/442d Regimental Combat Team abroad — and not the Supreme Court decisions in Korematsu and Endo — eventually freed Japanese Americans from the camps at home.
From Just Americans, Chapter 9 — CASUALTIES: ‘Let Them Loose’
Despite the attention paid to the Supreme Court decisions at the time and increasingly during the following decades, it was not lawsuits that won the freedom of the Japanese Americans on the mainland. Nor was it public protest, the effectiveness of which is easy to overestimate from the perspective of the Civil Rights movement two decades later. The demonstrations at Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, and elsewhere had done little besides provoke nativist fears and lend spurious justification for the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans.
The real key to unlocking the gates of the camps was political and military, not constitutional. More than a month before the Court handed down its decisions in Korematsu and Endo, Franklin D. Roosevelt had won an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States. Election Day was November 7, 1944, the same day The New York Times ran the wire story on the rescue of the Lost Battalion, and the same day Joe Nishimoto single-handedly broke the three-day stalemate on the hill overlooking La Houssière. Three days later, on November 10, with key Congressional seats in California safely in the hands of the Democrats, Roosevelt finally met with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Attorney General Frances Biddle, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson to discuss the fate of the Japanese Americans.
For months the President had ignored Ickes, who had favored closing the camps from the moment the Interior Department took charge of them earlier that year. Now, at the first Cabinet meeting following the elections, Roosevelt was finally prepared to address the recommendation that Maj. Gen. Bonesteel of the Western Defense Command had made three months earlier, in August, to Stimson and Chief of Staff George C. Marshall — that Americans of Japanese ancestry on the mainland be released “from internment.”
After more than two-and-half years, “we all agreed that it was time to let them loose,” Stimson noted after the meeting — in candid language that was meant not for the public but only for officials within the Administration. Although the Korematsu and Endo cases were still pending, Stimson did not mention constitutional concerns.
The first consideration he cited was military: “The war necessity no longer exists for keeping them interned.” As swiftly and arbitrarily as it had been invoked, “military necessity” was now being revoked — even though the Supreme Court had not yet spoken on the matter.
On the most cynical reading, this was the President’s bow to military and political reality. Assured of an unprecedented fourth term, Roosevelt now had little to worry about a nativist backlash against Democrats on the West Coast. The tide had long since turned in the Pacific, and any fear of a Japanese invasion, which had not even been a remote possibility since the Battle of Midway in 1942, two and a half years earlier, could be completely discounted. Almost exactly at the same time the 442d was entering the Vosges, General Douglas MacArthur had returned, as he had promised, to the Philippines.
Around the same time, Eisenhower had bet Montgomery five pounds that the war in Europe would be over before Christmas. (Neither of them had anticipated the Battle of the Bulge.) And the 6th Army Group, following the rescue of the Lost Battalion, was only miles away from the German border.
From a more generous perspective, Roosevelt’s decision was a belated though still unspoken acknowledgment of the injustice that he, more than anyone else, had personally brought about by signing Executive Order 9066.
The “second point” Stimson cited in favor of closing the “relocation camps” belatedly but explicitly recognized an achievement that undermined the whole illogic of “military necessity” and the repugnant notion that “a Jap’s a Jap.” Stimson simply acknowledged the Japanese Americans’ “good record as soldiers.”
So in the end, it was the Japanese Americans in uniform whose heroism had shamed their own government into doing the right thing. After fighting their way up the slopes of the Vosges, the 100th/442d had unarguably occupied the moral high ground. It was the liberators of Bruyères, Belmont, and Biffontaine who finally opened the gates of Manzanar and Poston. It was not demonstrations in the camps (which had only strengthened the government’s case that Japanese Americans were disloyal) or arguments in the courts (which had not only failed to overturn the notion of “military necessity” but had actually enshrined it as precedent), but bullets on the battleground that won the fight for civil rights. As it was for the “colored troops” Frederick Douglass recruited for the Union Army during the Civil War, the “true course” to Japanese Americans’ “freedom and citizenship was over the battlefield.” The rescuers of the Lost Battalion were the saviors of Rohwer.
Despite Eisenhower’s decisions in November, which squandered the successes in the Vosges, the casualties on “Suicide Hill” had helped put an end to the sacrifices on Heart Mountain. The victory on the home front had been won in combat abroad.