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Repairing History

March 27, 1988

Whenever a Communist nation rights some old wrong, when China rehabilitates Confucius or the Soviet Union comes clean about another victim of Stalin's purges, Americans tend to feel morally superior. That can't happen here, we say. Our general assumption is that, in a land where due process rules, injustices are quickly corrected, convictions are overturned and the historical record is set straight.

And yet there is still at least one glaring lapse, one case in which our laws and our leaders failed us and civil liberties were violated on a massive scale. That, of course, was the World War II internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Historians since have established that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was stampeded into issuing Executive Order 9066 and into setting up detention camps by wartime hysteria and a War Department that concocted "proof" of the Japanese-Americans' treachery. A national commission concluded five years ago that there was no military justification for the evacuation of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast, no evidence that any of these loyal Americans ever committed a crime against the United States. But there still has been no official redress for the Japanese-Americans, no adequate compensation for either their material losses during relocation or the trauma that they suffered while living for years behind barbed wire.

This week, however, the U.S. Senate has an opportunity to make amends. It will take up a bill, already approved by the House, that calls for a formal national apology and a token payment of $20,000 to each of the 66,000 surviving internees. Its passage was once assumed, since the bill has 75 Senate sponsors. But now Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is threatening to amend the bill by scaling down the compensation to as little as $1,000 and by leaving open the question of whether the internment was justified. Because of opposition from the Office of Management and Budget to the program's $1.2-billion price tag, President Reagan's signature is very much in doubt, too.

Critics of redress complain that one generation shouldn't pay for a wrong committed by an earlier one, that a 1948 claims system that reimbursed some internees for a small fraction of their financial losses was enough. But those arguments miss the point: This redress legislation is designed not only to compensate Japanese-Americans whose civil liberties were trampled but also to set American history straight--and, for that, $1.2 billion is a small price to pay.

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