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Japanese-American internment -- 'a grave injustice'

Japanese-Americans, charged with espionage and sabotage in World War II, were victims of race prejudice, war hysteria, and the Roosevelt administration's lack of political courage.

This is the conclusion of a blue-ribbon, nine-member Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which presented a 467-page report to Congress Thursday.

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''The commission has found that the record does not permit the conclusions that there was any military justification for the mass exclusion and detention of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and their resident-alien parents,'' the report says. It declares ''there were no documented cases of sabotage, espionage, or fifth-column activity by Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.'' It adds, ''there was a widespread - but false - belief that the attack on Pearl Harbor had been aided by sabotage and fifth-column activities.'' The commission declares that ''a grave injustice was done.''

President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson come in for strong criticism in the report. At the time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ''believed there was no sound basis for mass exclusion,'' it says. On the other hand, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, in command of Army forces on the West Coast, argued that ethnicity determined loyalty, and Roosevelt, with constitutional authority as president, put through the harsh ''Order 9066,'' leading to what some call one of the most disgraceful ethnic episodes in US history.

The commission has set off a debate over the role of President Roosevelt in the internment program. One commission member is former Supreme Court Justice Arthur J. Goldberg. When asked if President Lincoln took similar constitutional liberties in the Civil War, Mr. Goldberg said Lincoln was restrained, in part, by the Supreme Court. Historians Samuel Morison and Henry Steele Commager have argued that Lincoln ''was more or less a dictator from the standpoint of American constitutional law . . . and even the safety of the Republic cannot justify certain acts committed under his authority.''

Chairman Joan Z. Bernstein stressed that Japanese military units fought bravely in Europe. ''Widespread ignorance about Japanese-Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan,'' her summary said.

''General DeWitt continued to support the exclusion [from the West Coast] with every tactic available until he left the Western defense command in the fall of 1943. . . . Throughout 1943 and 1944 there continued to be virulent and widespread opposition in the West Coast press, among West Coast politicians, and interest groups to the return of Japanese-Americans to the West Coast.'' These views prevailed ''for at least the last six months of that period, immediately before the presidential election of 1944, [and] the decision to continue the exclusion was that of President Roosevelt.''

The report's conclusions are unanimous. Accompanying them is a statement by Rep. Dan Lungren (R) of California, vice-chairman of the commission, hinting that Congress may consider ''remedies'' for the injustice committed 40 years ago. The main purpose of the commission, he added, is not to consider ''reparations,'' but to set the facts straight.

The commission's second purpose was to review the evacuation of Aleuts from islands off of Alaska which were attacked by Japan. The commission concludes ''evacuation was a rational response to the danger presented.'' On the other hand, the camps to which the Aleuts were sent were ''deplorable.'' Health and sanitary conditions were ''particularly bad,'' says the report. Some 10 percent of those evacuated died.

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