A Memorial to a Mistake / Joe Nathan’s Column


"Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II" in Washington D.C.
“Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II” in Washington D.C.


Something unexpected happened as I was walking last week toward 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 Ave NW, at D Street, just a few minutes from the US Capitol, as well as Union Station.

The memorial has a twin 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 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).

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

As a history teacher, I talked with young people about Executive Order 9066, which 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.  The noted nature photographer Ansel Adams took many pictures of detained Japanese Americans.  The Library of Congress makes them available here: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/anseladams/.

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 Senator Daniel K Inouye are presented.  Inouye, who served this country 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 Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, please comment below.