From the Archive

[link to this page]

Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.


August 2008 - An Extraordinary Ordinary Citizen: Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig

Cake celebrating the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (from denshopd-p10-00009)
"Everything proved that the government had unconstitutionally taken away the rights of Japanese Americans, deprived them of liberty, all those wonderful things the Constitution gives to us."
   -- Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig

As Japanese Americans observe the 20th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, we celebrate the many community volunteers, grass roots activists, civic organizations, civil rights lawyers, elected leaders, and friends of all backgrounds who took separate paths that ultimately merged in the passage of that historic redress legislation. One ordinary yet truly extraordinary citizen who contributed tremendously to the final success of the redress movement is Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig. A self-taught and self-motivated researcher, she discovered irrefutable proof that the government suppressed and destroyed evidence in order to justify incarcerating Japanese Americans without due process of law.

Aiko was seventeen years old in spring 1942 when the Army herded West Coast Japanese Americans off to the detention camps. An impetuous teenager, she eloped with her Nisei sweetheart when the "evacuation" orders came so that they wouldn't be separated. She became a young mother at Manzanar and vividly recalls the difficulties of caring for a baby in the harsh camp conditions. Her infant daughter frequently entered the camp's primitive hospital because she was allergic to powdered milk but was denied the nourishment she needed; canned liquid milk was reserved for soldiers.

Speaking of the terrible living conditions in camp, Aiko notes, "These things, the lack of privacy, the shortage of water, the lack of running water, the inability to make your own food when you wanted to, and, of course, primarily, the loss of liberty, these were major, major denials that we suffered. And I think it's something we take so much for granted as free Americans, we take our life too much for granted."

Like other Nisei, after the war Aiko did not dwell on the injustice of the camps but instead focused on survival. Then in the 1960s, she experienced a political awakening:

Many years after the camps, we were very, very busy trying to rebuild our lives. So we didn't think too much about the past, we tried to put it behind us. Then came along the Civil Rights movement. Our children, many became involved in the Civil Rights movement and started to ask about their own parents' past, about the camp life, which many Nisei parents never talked about. I was living in New York City at the time. I read a book written by Michi Weglyn, called Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. I met Michi Weglyn, inspired by her book, and inspired also by a group of other Nisei women with whom I became affiliated in an organization called Asian Americans for Action. Very progressive group. I had never been involved in anything with political connotation. This triple-A group, they were very, very influential in my life, turned my head around, made me start to think about minorities, about injustice, about inequality. And it was an eye-opening experience for me to think about the camp experience and what it meant to me personally, what it meant to our families, what it meant to our community.

Aiko and her husband Jack Herzig, who had been a counter-intelligence officer in occupation Japan, began researching government records of the forced removal and detention. Poring over documents in the National Archives, they reconstructed the behind-the-scenes decisions and debate over the handling of Japanese Americans. Aiko's research taught her that the Justice Department and War Department sharply differed over the necessity and legality of forcing all people of Japanese descent into prison camps. She uncovered FCC and FBI reports that refuted the public report by General John DeWitt, the officer responsible for the mass removal, who insisted that Japanese Americans had committed sabotage after Pearl Harbor. She unearthed memos in which U.S. Attorney Edward Ennis also denounced DeWitt's false claims of military necessity, the very foundation of the government's defense in Fred Korematsu's unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge of 1944.

When in 1980 Congress responded to calls from Japanese Americans and formed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), Aiko applied for the position of researcher. While reading documents released to the Commission by the National Archives, she came upon critical evidence that not only advanced passage of the redress bill, but also swung the pending coram nobis cases, the efforts by Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu to have their wartime Supreme Court cases reheard.

Aiko learned from a trail of documents that the Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, recognized how damaging DeWitt's "self-serving" report was to the government's policy toward Japanese Americans. McCloy ordered the ten known copies of DeWitt's report to be retrieved and destroyed. He then had the incriminating passages edited and the reports reprinted for presentation to the public, and -more shocking in retrospect - for presentation to the Supreme Court justices. Aiko summarizes her discoveries:

When Mr. McCloy saw this report, he hit the ceiling. He said, "Some of the statements in this report do not reflect the policy of the War Department. And it was not right for the general to make these statements without clearing it with us…. This report is nothing but a self-serving, self-aggrandizement document for the general. And several things he says in here show what happened to the Japanese Americans was based on racism, bigotry. And we cannot have an official document, with approval of the War Department stamp on it published for public consumption and for international reading… One of the things, for example, that Mr. McCloy objected to was that the report said Japanese Americans were removed from the West Coast because no matter how long it took, we would never be able to determine whether or not they are loyal to the United States. Now, Mr. McCloy said, "Now if that is not a racist, bigoted statement, what is?"... And so this began a series of memos and telephone conversations between the West Coast and the War Department in Washington as to the nature of the changes, the words to be changed, the phrases to be knocked out. And I knew that this had taken place because I saw a file. And I saw the file which included -- after the corrections were made and the newer version was printed.

One afternoon, Aiko happened upon what she calls a gold nugget of evidence. Along with other "smoking gun" documents found by the lawyer Peter Irons, here was overwhelming proof that government officials had suppressed, destroyed, and altered evidence presented to the nation's highest court as it ruled on the constitutionality of the incarceration.

I found this document signed by Warrant Officer Theodore J. E. Smith saying that, "I have witnessed the destruction of galley proofs, memos, letters having to do with the first version of the final report." Okay, so since I knew the history behind the fact that there was an original version, I had seen it; that was the only reason I recognized this particular book that was sitting on the corner of an archivist's desk that I was thumbing through. I looked at it and said, "Ooh, this looks like the final, DeWitt's final report." But I noticed in the margin many handwriting things: "delete," "scratch," "change to," "move to page so and so." And, oh, my goodness. This is one of the first versions. And this is the one that they could not locate. There had been ten copies, messages and cablegrams went back and forth between McCloy's office and the Western Defense Command saying, "Hey, we got nine copies back, where is the tenth copy? We've got to find it." Well, apparently they never found it. I never saw any documents saying, "Here is the tenth copy," or anything. It ended up in somebody's office in the War Department when everything was moved over to the archives. It got mixed in with all the papers that belonged to the War Department...

And then I called Peter Irons right away because I had sent him the original batch of papers talking about this, all the changes that were made because it was important to the coram nobis case. And he came down from one of the universities where he was teaching at the time to confirm it. He said, "Oh, yes. This is it." So, we felt that that now-- plus what he had found in Justice Department records that tied in with this book -- was going to be very precious, important evidentiary documentation for not just the coram nobis, but for the whole redress movement. Because it proved that in Korematsu especially, the government knew that there were certain things they should have told the Supreme Court. They relied on this book that was full of lies, and didn't mention to the Supreme Court that this book is not truthful and that things had been changed. So, this we were able to prove at the Hirabayashi case in 1985. And the judge, no question in his mind, he said, "The government did wrong." And so he right away, he vacated that conviction of Hirabayashi, right then and there. And in San Francisco, the same happened with Judge Patel, who vacated Korematsu case based on these findings.

Thanks to their courage, resolve, and fierce faith in democracy, Aiko and other heroic redress activists secured a measure of justice in the courts and in Congress. The Civil Liberties Act approved partial restitution of $20,000 to each survivor of the camps, and authorized funding for education programs to prevent similar violations of civil liberties. In unequivocal language, the law says, "Congress apologizes on behalf of the nation" for the "grave injustice" and "enormous damages, both material and intangible" suffered by Japanese Americans.

Aiko found personal satisfaction in the part she played. She modestly sums up her work for the CWRIC, whose conclusions and recommendations transformed redress from a goal into a reality:

I served with the Commission for two years, until it closed its door in June, end of June of 1983. ...And during that period, I was able to contribute about six to eight thousand documents that I had by that time collected...It was my duty to prepare reports, or actually to hand over primary, important key documents to Angus Macbeth, who was the Special Counsel for the Commission, and to his editors for them to read, assimilate, analyze and include in the report [Personal Justice Denied]... There was nothing in those documents in the archives that would indict Japanese or Japanese Americans as disloyal people. Therefore, it was a pleasant task to find...key documents on which the Commission could base its study and base its recommendations.

And I think Mr. Macbeth and the editorial staff did a fantastic job. It moved the Congress to vote for...redress for Japanese Americans, because the report was based on papers that came right out of the government. Congress could not refute those facts. Everything proved that the government had unconstitutionally taken away the rights of Japanese Americans, deprived them of liberty, all those wonderful things the Constitution gives to us, the government deprived us of.


To create a free archive user account, go to:
  densho.org/archive/register.asp


back to top



Copyright ©1997-2014 Densho. All Rights Reserved.