Joe Nathan: A Memorial to a Mistake

by Joe Nathan

Something unexpected happened as I was walking recently toward the Union train station in Washington, D.C. 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 memorial has a dual 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).

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.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the 1988 law called the Executive Order 9066 that sent the Japanese to internment camps, a “grave injustice.” The 1988 law also provided financial compensation to families whose members were sent to camps, often in desert areas in several western states.

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 the United States 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 public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at [email protected]

07 3, 2013
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