As Sean Wilentz recently noted in Rolling Stone, most historians consider the George W. Bush presidency a failure. They should know; these are, after all, the people who best understand the complex social processes through which the present was shaped. These same historians routinely place Franklin Roosevelt among the few “great” Presidents. Yet as terrifying as Bush’s Big Brother policies are (a terror mitigated, perhaps, only by his administration’s colossal ineptitude), and as massive an insult to civil liberties as Bush has delivered, he has yet to build concentration camps on American soil.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, did just that. Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, empowered the military to designate “military areas,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” The express goal of this order was to facilitate the militarization of the entire west coast and the “relocation” of the more than 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-American people living there, on the ostensible grounds that they constituted a threat after Pearl Harbor. Torn from their homes and livelihoods, these victims of state power two-thirds of whom were American citizens were sent to internment camps spread across Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, and elsewhere. Roosevelt himself publicly referred to the camps as concentration camps.
Unfinished Business addresses the Japanese internment, deftly approaching it through a set of personal stories that keep the documentary free of any overt ideological agenda, but never makes the common mistake of losing the broader picture in the particulars of its characters. The film, nominated for a 1984 Best Documentary Oscar, works not just as a reminder of the need for eternal vigilance over our precarious rights, but also as a testament to the courage of those who resist oppression. More subtly, it also tracks the generational development of Japanese-Americans, from the first-generation Issei immigrants to the American-born Nisei generation (who bore the psychic scars of internment quietly for several decades, preferring cultural assimilation to antagonism), and finally to the politicized third-generation Sansei, who reintroduced the internment to public discussion in the 1970s, demanding reparations.
Director Steven Okazaki hones in on three men who challenged internment. Minoru Yasui grew up in an Oregon farm town, served in the military and attended law school, then worked for the Japanese consulate in Chicago before resigning quickly after the Pearl Harbor attack. Fred Korematsu worked as a welder in Oakland until the union expelled all Japanese-Americans from the shipyards, and Gordon Hirabayashi belonged to a pacifist group in Washington.
Forced relocation began with a gradual stripping away of rights, and the very day Order 9066 was signed, Yasui violated an imposed curfew and demanded to be arrested. Police were initially reluctant, suggesting he simply go home, but Yasui insisted. He ended up spending nine months in solitary confinement, the harshest sentence possible. Hirabayashi, meanwhile, refused to submit to evacuation and was convicted by a jury in 10 minutes, spending five months in prison. Korematsu attempted to evade the round-up, even getting plastic surgery to alter his appearance, but he too was captured by May 1942 and convicted. All three cases reached the Supreme Court in 1943-44, and the Court, in a shameful display of subservience to the executive branch, upheld the convictions and refrained from declaring unconstitutional the racially-motivated roundup and internment of American citizens without due process of law, citing wartime exigency.
Interviewed in the early ‘80s, Yasui, Korematsu and Hirabayashi tell their stories with a surprising absence of bitterness. Director Okazaki conveys some of the hardships of internment and the often devastating loss of property and community it wrought, but he declines to dwell on these matters (for a powerful look at the experiential aspects of internment, see Lawson Fusao Inada’s anthology Only What We Could Carry). Instead, having established the three narratives, he jumps ahead to the ‘80s, when a legal team spearheaded by Sansei lawyers sought reparations and the overturning of the convictions after several decades during which the internment went too little mentioned.
We briefly meet several activists, whose research uncovered evidence of governmental awareness that the fears of subversion used to justify the internment were completely unfounded. Instead of being based on legitimate concerns, the internment was a blatant case of pandering to the long-held anti-Asian racism that marked the west coast (in comparison, members of the German American Bund were also interned, but there was, of course, never any widespread attempt to round up German Americans, who were just as likely to have been loyal to the Axis). Unfinished Business ends on a high note, as Korematsu’s conviction is overturned in 1983 because the government willfully withheld information at his trial showing the internment to have no basis in fact or reason.
After the film’s release, Yasui and Hirabayashi also won their cases. But while the convictions were overturned on technical legal grounds, the Supreme Court decisions themselves still stand, a frightening legitimization of unchecked executive power in time of war. Docurama’s reissue of Unfinished Business, alas, does little to bring the viewer up to date. It offers the short film Japanese Relocation, a WWII Office of War Information propaganda piece narrated by Milton Eisenhower, who justifies the internment and adds that its victims “cheerfully” handled the ordeal, but it’s otherwise a bit barren. Most people who seek out the DVD will likely have a bit of context already, but it couldn’t have taken that much effort to explain developments such as the 1988 Congressional approval for $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee, or Bill Clinton’s 1998 awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Korematsu.
For that matter, Okazaki tiptoes too quietly toward the middle of the road with the film, mentioning the racist sentiment that made the internment acceptable to white America but rarely conveying its visceral ubiquity. We see some newspaper headlines mentioning “Japs”, but that’s about it (for one indicator of how pervasive racist imagery was at the time, see Dr. Seuss’ anti-Japanese wartime, cartoons). In focusing on his three male protagonists, the director also overlooks the equally compelling story of Mitsuye Endo, evacuated from Sacramento, who filed an important habeus corpus petition that led to a victorious 1944 Supreme Court decision critical to the demise of internment. Including her would have given the film a bit more gender balance.
If it isn’t a documentary masterpiece, Unfinished Business is still an impressive work, valuable for its documentation of three American heroes and its insistence that the tragic civil-liberties violations of the Japanese-American internment not be forgotten. Does the story make Roosevelt a worse president than Bush? History will tell; Bush still has a regrettably long time in office, and civil liberties have eroded rapidly under his tenure. But it certainly undermines Roosevelt’s status as “great”.
As long as knowledge of the past precludes the repetition of its mistakes, Unfinished Business deserves the widest possible audience, to counteract the misinformed American belief that it can’t happen here. If by “it” we mean the unjust internment of American citizens on arbitrary grounds and without due process of law, it already did, and it must never again.