Courage to Speak Out
It was 12 years ago today, December 24, 2001, that the late Iris Chang published her op-ed piece entitled “Betrayed by the White House,” in the New York Times. It was her sharp criticism of Bush administration’s interference into the Congressional action that aimed to give former POWs of the Japanese their day in court regarding their claims against Japanese companies that enslaved them during WWII.
Last month, Congress overwhelmingly approved a provision, added to a spending bill, that would have prevented federal agencies from opposing civil lawsuits by former prisoners of war against Japanese individuals or corporations. The White House succeeded in having the provision struck in a conference committee; the Bush administration feared it might interfere with gathering international support for the war on terrorism…
On September 10, 2001, the day before the 9-11
attacks, the US Senate passed an amendment to the appropriation bill for
Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and related agencies
the next fiscal
year. It would prohibit these departments from filing a motion opposing
the POW forced labor lawsuits or sending their attorneys to court hearings to
argue against former POWs, which the Departments of Justice and State had been
doing although the US government was not a party to the lawsuits. (The heated
debate in the Senate on this amendment can be
The decision of the Bush administration to wage a legal fight against its own veterans is shortsighted as well as morally insupportable. A sustained assault against terrorism will require men and women who believe their country and their commander in chief stand behind them. Americans should be ashamed that the government is now prepared to sacrifice the interests of a previous generation of soldiers in order to woo their former enemy.
Our leaders in Washington must not be permitted to sell out the men who gave so much in the fight for freedom. Otherwise, what shall live in infamy will be not only Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, but this unjust betrayal. If we are to have another "greatest generation" we must duly honor the rights of the first one.
Re-reading her op-ed piece 12 years later, I cannot help but wonder where Iris, 33 years old at that time, gathered her courage from to even challenge the powers that be. Indeed, just a few months earlier, three former Ambassadors to Japan, Walter Mondale, Thomas Foley, and Michael Armacost, had co-written their op-ed piece in the Washington Post, arguing that the Congressional support for former POWs of the Japanese "would undermine our relations with Japan, a key ally. It would have serious, and negative, effects on our national security.”
These former Ambassadors to Japan tried to appeal to the mood of the post-9-11 America in their criticism of the Congressional support for former POWs of the Japanese during what they described as "a time the president and his administration are trying so hard to forge a coalition to combat terrorism."
After seeing Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki's direct apology to former POWs in 2009, another display of great courage, and the subsequent launch of the successful Japanese/POW Friendship Program (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) funded by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, I must say that it is Iris's piece that will stand the test of time.
Iris took her own life in 2004. She was researching for her next book about the Bataan Death March. I try to remember her not for the tragic ending of her life, but for the remarkable courage she exhibited during her short but brilliant career as a writer and activist.
Another friend of mine who, like Iris, never lets injustices go unchallenged is Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an internationally renowned Jewish human rights organization. A few years ago, he took on the last remaining issue of the tragic history of American POWs of the Japanese.
When he heard that the California State Legislature passed a bill requiring companies that tried to bid for high speed rail projects to disclose their history during WWII and that possible bidders included Japanese companies that enslaved American POWs, he spoke out. He issued the following statement.
Simon Wiesenthal Center praised the passage of AB619, The Holocaust Survivor
Responsibility Act, in the California Legislature requiring companies submitting
bids for the state’s high-speed rail project to disclose any direct involvement
in transporting prisoners to Nazi Germany’s extermination camps, work camps,
concentration camps, prisoner of war camps, or any similar camps during WWII.
Rabbi Cooper later published an op-ed piece with the same message in the Orlando Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury, newspapers of the two cities where a high speed rail project was planned. He wrote, "Japanese corporations no longer have to be concerned with lawsuits from their WWII-era slave laborers. But is a handshake and respectful bow asking too much?"
He also arranged a meeting between former POW Dr. Lester Tenney and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Speaking out is not easy. We all know that doing nothing is much easier. But
people like Iris Chang and Rabbi Cooper inspire us and make us want to speak out when
we see injustice. We need to believe that we have the courage
in us to do the right
* For more about the
issue of Japanese companies' responsibility please read