to the Editor
Regarding the VFW,
the JACL and the Draft Resisters
by Takasumi Kojima
The letter by VFW
leader Loren Ishii (An Open Letter to the Draft Resisters, Their
Supporters and the National JACL Leadership, March 16) is rather
mean-spirited, and threatening, when the apology and reconciliation event
is being planned for May 11, in San Francisco. Much of his letter contains
errors, such as the claim of rewrite of history in favorable light;
or the apology for actions by leaders of the JACL during WWII. He goes on
to say the veterans group of 4,500 plus Nisei opposes the apology.
As far as the rewrite
of history, Ishii does not know the actual history of the turbulent times
as it developed and is explained by many current historians.
In the past year, there
has been an explosion of interest in the quest for the historical
relationship between the veterans group, the JACL and the draft resisters.
This renewed interest has generated a fierce debate among the Nikkei,
partly about who were the resisters, partly about what evidence should be
used in determining the relationship.
Virtually all of the
articles that have been published in these debates have been written by
participants in order to advance their own proposals. It would not be easy
to find any writer who did not set some value on his thoughts. For
instance, Ishii, the veteran and JACLers from Sacramento have argued that
their portraits of the draft resisters are preferable to alternative
The draft resisters are
described as enemies of the Nikkei who committed a crime of cosmic treason
and lise majeste against their country. Every negative judgment, threat,
or description can then be taken out of context and read monolithically as
descriptive of the draft resister. By this method, one gains an
unbelievable tale of evil to be characteristic of the draft resister as
implied by Ishiis letter.
For more than 57 years
the draft resisters have been the object of prejudice, hatred, persecution
and social ostracism. The origin of this aversion is without doubt
mean-spirit such as displayed by Ishiis letter.
In opposition writers
have argued that recent historical studies have implicated the JACL
involvement. In each of these letters there are so many participants, of
many different sorts, saying so many different things, that for ordinary
Nikkei who are not experts in history or been in the camps, but who are
interested in following the debates, it can all be a little confusing.
There has been a
conspicuous silence about the morality of draft resistance, and there has
been no sustained examination of the vexed ethical issues which the draft
resisters had to address when faced with prison terms.We emerge with very
little awareness of the mechanism exerted by the JACL in order to combat
the draft resisters movement, and no firm understanding of the way in
which the doctrine of collective responsibility, a trait of the pioneering
Issei, plagued the potential draft resister with doubt and moral confusion
over the human cost of defiance.
The JACL leadership
devised an elaborate and ingenious series of precautionary measures
against protest. Collective responsibility was a major weapon, often
deceptive weapon, in the JACLs war against draft resisters in the
concentration camps. Collective and family responsibility sapped the moral
strength and incapacitated the draft resistance movement.
War brought immense
suffering to the Nikkei, not just the veterans and the JACLers. Because
most Nikkei are understandably sympathetic to the draft resisters cause,
they have drawn a veil of silence over some of the questionable means that
the veterans and JACL employed to silence the resisters. Because it was
self-evident that draft resisters were fighting for a just cause there has
been a reluctance to confront embarrassing and potentially
damaging questions about the JACLs method of opposition. There
is a need for a more open and intellectually honest examination of
JACLs method of denying civil rights protest and the veterans
reluctance to act as civilized society.
Hence there is a need
for a reappraisal of the dominant image of pro-American JACL, and to call
into question some of the most deeply cherished assumptions which underpin
our perception of the goodness of the JACL and the VFW leaders.
The question of whether draft resistance was worthwhile will remain a contentious, unresolved issue because of the incommensurability of the factors being weighed. Some Nikkei believe that any sacrifice was worthwhile to protect the civil rights, however slightly. Others would take a more relative view, but would find themselves in some impossible conundrum.
Resistance did not, and
could not, win the release of the Nikkei from the concentration camps, by
itself. Honest draft resisters who did their bit for
the civil rights effort had enough modesty to recognize this. The
cumulative weight of this should not be ignored nor denigrated, nor should
the enormous bravery of draft resisters be minimized, or their reputation
The struggle against
draft resistance was not just a civil rights conflict, but a battle of
ideas, and a struggle for elementary human dignity and decency. At its
best the spirit of draft resisters were a fight for civil rights
principles; to fight for a vision of humanity and the future which valued
every single Nikkei life.
reconciliation is in the making. It is our great hope. But it will not be
achieved unless it takes account of the draft resistance history: a Nikkei
without draft resisters history would be a sad orphan, for today is born
of yesterday, and tomorrow rises from the ill-fated past. A past that must
not paralyze the present but help it to be different in its loyalty and
new in its progress.
The future must rely on
those Nikkei legacies which, since our internment, have made the Nikkei
world of exceptional richness and extraordinary creativity in both its
unity and diversity.
Updated: May 7, 2002