Conscience and the Constitution

Letter to the Editor
Nichi Bei Times, March 23, 2002 

Regarding the VFW, the JACL and the Draft Resisters 

by Takasumi Kojima 

Dear Editor: 

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 evidence. 

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 Ishii’s 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 Ishii’s 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 resister’s 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 JACL’s 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 JACL’s method of opposition. There is a need for a more open and intellectually honest examination of JACL’s 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 tarnished. 

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. 

The Nikkei 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. 

Takasumi Kojima
Berkeley, Calif.

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Updated: May 7, 2002