Internment Archives

Japanese Americans Get Affirmative Action Medals Of Honor

William J. Hopwood, Commander USNR (Ret)
April 11, 2007

On June 21, 2000, in an impressive ceremony on the White House South Lawn, President Clinton awarded Medal of Honor upgrades to 22 Asian-American soldiers in World War II who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor more than fifty years ago. All but seven of the awards were made posthumously. Twenty of those named had been members of the 100/442nd Regimental Combat Team, including Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii who was present at the ceremony to accept his Medal of Honor upgrade.

The ceremony was nationally televised and widely reported in newspapers throughout the country. Headlines such as, “Racial Prejudice Had Blocked Medal of Honor Awards,” were typical of the national coverage.  News reports contained the usual litany of politically-correct but historically inaccurate charges roundly condemning our wartime government for its treatment of Japanese-Americans and firmly proclaiming that the Medals of Honor were long overdue, having been withheld from these particular recipients more than five decades ago because of “racism.” In the reporting process, it was common for press stories to multiply by several times the number of Purple Hearts and other wartime awards received by the Japanese-American 100/442nd Regimental Combat Team, using exaggerated figures repeated so often that they have become firmly embedded in the media psyche.

The upgrades to Medal of Honor only for Asian-Americans has not been without controversy. In letters-to-the-editor and in Internet discussion groups, many World War II veterans have expressed outrage at what they perceive to be a politically-motivated action timed to take place in a presidential election year in an effort to pander to an increasingly important ethnic constituency. The blatant discriminatory nature of the upgrade process, which eliminated consideration of any Caucasian recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross for no other reason than their race, is considered abhorrent and un-American by numerous war veterans and non-veterans alike.

At this point some background information is in order. The Medal of Honor was originated during the Civil War and represents the highest military award available for bravery in action against an enemy force. Until this recent upgrade, only 3,427 such medals had been awarded in the history of the United States and never before had a numerical ratio or quota by race or ethnicity been established for recipients of this, our nation’s highest honor. Only 347 Medals of Honor were awarded during WW II.

Agitation for the recent awards was initiated in 1996 by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), himself as Asian-American, who contended that although Asian-Americans had received numerous awards of the Distinguished Service Cross for WW II service, the “climate of racial prejudice” which existed in the country during World War II resulted in “bias, discrimination, and hysteria” in the award process of the Armed Services, preventing Asian-Americans from receiving the number of Medal of Honor awards which was their due.

As a result of Senator Akaka’s Congressional efforts, an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-106, Title V, Subtitle C, Section 524) directed the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of the Navy to conduct a review of all Asian-American and Pacific Islanders who were awarded the Army Distinguished Service Cross of the Navy Cross in World War II “to determine whether any such award should be upgraded to Medal of Honor.”  The Congressional Record reflects that during discussion of the proposed amendment, Senator Akaka stated “I am deeply concerned that this group of Americans may have been discriminated against in awarding the CMH. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a clear indication of the bias that existed at the time. This hostile climate may have impacted the decision to award the military’s highest honor to Asians, particularly Japanese-Americans.” He offered no evidence that any such discrimination had actually taken place.

In line with what has become the conventional wisdom of the times, the senator’s remark, “internment of Japanese-Americans” mistakenly confused the evacuation and relocation of resident alien Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the West Coast military zones with the internment of enemy aliens in time of war in accordance with international and domestic law. Only enemy alien Japanese, German, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian nationals were “interned” during WW II, including over 5,000 Japanese-Americans who had renounced their U.S. citizenship and requested expatriation to Japan to support the enemy war effort. Nor did the senator mention the considerable amount of intelligence with regard to espionage and potential sabotage involving then-unidentified persons (alien and citizen) within the West Coast Japanese community which formed the basis for President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorizing the evacuation of such persons from sensitive military area for national security reasons shortly after Pearl Harbor.