Senate Approves Funding to Pay War Internees
Heeding an emotional plea from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who lost an arm fighting for the United States in World War II, the Senate voted Friday to guarantee that Japanese-Americans interned during that war receive $20,000 redress payments starting in October, 1990.
Congress authorized up to $1.2 billion last year for payments to as many as 60,000 survivors of the internment camps. But so far it has approved no funds for the payments.
The Senate-passed legislation would make $500 million available automatically in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 1990, another $500 million in the following year and the remainder in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 1992. The bill, however, must be reconciled with a House-passed measure that appropriates $50 million to begin payments in fiscal 1990, which begins Sunday.
Pitted Against Helms
It was an extraordinary moment in the Senate as the normally self-effacing Inouye was pitted against the formidable Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was trying to stop the payments through a parliamentary maneuver.
Later, listening to Senate colleagues denounce the internment as an American shame, Inouye brushed away tears.
A volunteer at the age of 18 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Inouye won a battlefield commission with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed entirely of Japanese-American soldiers. He said that his Japanese ancestry made him reluctant to speak on the subject of payments for an estimated 80,000 internees.
But his silence, he said, was a great disservice to his Army buddies who were killed or seriously wounded fighting for their country overseas while their relatives were locked up behind barbed wire in internment camps.
Because of wartime censorship, Inouye added in a quiet voice, he did not know while he was overseas of the roundup of 120,000 Japanese-Americans by the federal government at the outset of the war against Japan, nor did he know of their resettlement in guarded camps.
“History now shows their only crime was to be born of parents with Japanese ancestry,” Inouye reminded the Senate. Speaking of his Army company that fought in France and Italy, he said that 180 of 200 men were seriously wounded or killed in action.
Many Purple Hearts
“That’s a very high percentage of Purple Hearts,” Inouye said, adding that the Nisei Combat Team was the most decorated unit in World War II. “That’s all I have to say--I just hope my colleagues go along.”
Helms stood alone in arguing against the payments, authorized by Congress in April, 1988. He said that an appropriations subcommittee’s decision to make the payments as a matter of right was contrary to congressional intent. It would add $500 million to the deficit in the 1991 fiscal year, Helms said, adding: “The committee is asking us to purge someone else’s guilt--that’s about the size of it.”
But the Senate was on the side of Inouye. “There are times when we must set fiscal reality aside and find the right thing to do,” said Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), one of the authors of the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law.
Rudman noted that Inouye had earned the Distinguished Service Cross for valor in the action that led to the loss of his arm. Senator after senator, Republican and Democrat, echoed the theme.
“I sincerely regret that the senator from North Carolina has chosen to raise this issue,” said Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in an unusual rebuke to Helms. “I would implore him to use some restraint on an issue like this in a society as diverse and pluralistic as ours.”
Helms insisted on a roll-call vote and the Senate voted, 77 to 22, to permit the payments to be made. The bill later was passed by voice vote and sent to conference committee with the House.
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose), who was interned as a young man, said that he would seek to preserve the House funds to begin payments to 1,330 Japanese-Americans aged 90 or over immediately.
“It’s a cruel hoax to say, wait until next year,” Mineta said in a statement. He also favors retention of the Senate-passed provision for guaranteed payments, a spokesman added.