Sunday, February 19, 2012

February 19, 1942

President Obama and Australian PM Gillard
at memorial in Darwin for the USS Peary
On February 19, 1942, the United States was reeling from the realization that it has entered its second world war in the same century. Japan's attacks on the American possessions of Pearl Harbor, the Philippines Islands, Midway, Wake Island, and Guam were followed by fall of the British, French, and Dutch colonies in Asia. Bad news increased by the day.

That day, Japan began its assault on Australia. It was the first of 63 air attacks that Darwin and Western Australia endured between 1942 and 1943. The bombs that fell on February 19, 1942, officially killed 243 Australians, although many believe the figure is higher. The USS Peary, in Darwin's harbor that day, was sunk and 88 of its crew killed.

Remarkably, this year's anniversary will also be the first time it is recognized as a national day of observance, joining Anzac Day and Remembrance Day as a date when Australians can pause to remember those who lost their lives, many without acknowledgment.

In the United States, fear overtook the nation. Spies were believed to be hiding everywhere.  Japanese, German, and Italian immigrant communities were targeted for revenge. They were viewed with prejudice and suspicion.

So on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that allowed authorized military commanders to designate "military areas" at their discretion, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." The aim was to remove from both the West and East Coast potential threats to "national security." The order allowed the U.S. Government to forcibly remove approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to camps in remote parts of the country as well as 11,000 German-Americans and  418 Italian-Americans from the East Coast.

In the end, Japan never invaded Australia. The war in Asia lingered as it was secondary to the one in Europe. Spies were arrested and espionage did taper off, but at a great cost of American civil liberties, rule of law, and due process.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which had been sponsored in the House by Representative Norman Mineta and in the Senate by Senator Alan K. Simpson to provide redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee, totaling $1.2 billion dollars. On September 27, 1992, the Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992, appropriating an additional $400 million to ensure all remaining internees received their $20,000 redress payments, was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, who also issued another formal apology from the U.S. government. In 2009, President George W. Bush signed into law $38 million to preserve and restore 10 of the camps where Japanese-Americans were interned.

No apologies have been offered to the German and Italian Americans.

Today, the Japanese American National Museum launched a Remembrance Project, a website where people can pay tribute to those affected by internment and read stories others have posted.

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