Densho Digital Archive
Densho Visual History Collection
Title: Peter Irons Interview II
Narrator: Peter Irons
Interviewers: Alice Ito (primary), Lorraine Bannai (secondary)
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: October 27, 2000
Densho ID: denshovh-ipeter-02-0025

<Begin Segment 25>

PI: But almost an entire generation has grown up since the mid-1980s. I have students now who were just being born, just toddlers at that time. They have no memories of that, just as many people now have no memories of the 1960s, or the earlier Civil Rights movement or the Great Depression, things that their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents lived through. Things recede into history. And the real task as I see it, and I think the Densho Project is a very important part of this, is to keep this all alive in the best ways that we can, even if the people themselves -- and of course, Min Yasui has died. Fred and Gordon are still with us and very active. But as the years go by, generations change. And how do you keep alive something as important as the internment experience and the lessons that we learned from it? And it's not that easy to do because people don't, younger people do not have a direct personal connection to it. Some do through the memories of their parents and grandparents, but even those recede with time. And it becomes, "Oh, yes, I remember my grandmother was in the camps. My great-grandmother, or father was in the camps." But I think one way -- and I know I sound now like I'm preaching -- but one way to help keep this alive is to relate it to what's happening today, to make those connections that what happens today is a direct outgrowth of what happened in the past, even going back. I mean, I for example, think that much of what happens in this country today about race and race relations has its direct roots in slavery and that experience of what it did to our country and what it has done to all the people on both sides, white, black, and others as a result of that one experience.

The internment did not just affect Japanese Americans. It certainly didn't just affect Asian Americans. It affected everybody in the country because it was done by the American government. And so I think one of the lessons that has to be learned is that in time of war -- and this is exactly what Judge Patel said in her opinion -- in time of war or national emergency, passions are aroused. And any group can be singled out, whether it's Arab Americans, Cuban Americans, whatever group is now, what's happening, as we're speaking today, in the Mideast. What is our government going to do, or what can it do? Can the experience of the wartime internment help to prevent something like that from happening again? And I do not know. You would like to believe that the legal victories that we won would influence people who are thinking about taking similar kinds of steps. Say, "Well, we did this once, but it was wrong and legally it violated people's rights." But I don't think in crisis situations that anybody thinks about legal issues very much. That comes later. Maybe I'm unduly pessimistic about this, but the lessons of history, the lessons of history have to be learned over and over again. Roger Baldwin, who was the first director and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union right after World War I was fond of saying, "No civil liberties battle is ever finally won." And I think that's right. So the extent to which people can learn about this and hopefully be able to exert their personal influence, both personally and collectively, to educate coming generations about this and to use it as a lesson will be very helpful.

But I think all throughout what I've been saying is the notion that unexpected events happen. We cannot predict what their consequence or outcome is going to be. This was true of my own life all the way through, particularly my involvement in the Korematsu and Hirabayashi and Yasui cases, the whole coram nobis effort, not knowing what was going to happen next. Maybe having a vision of what I would like to happen, particularly when we got into it. We would like this all to come out the way it did. But I don't think any of us at the very beginning could have said this is what's going to happen. And I think that's true of most of life. The thing that we can hope for is that more and more people will realize how important it is to learn these lessons and to be willing to work and take sacrifices and risks of protecting what's most important to us, the values of our Constitution, even though during wartime and crisis, as John J. McCloy once said, "The Constitution is just a scrap of paper."

LB: [To Alice Ito] Did you have anything else you wanted to follow up on? All right.

AI: I think we've covered quite a bit of ground, and we really appreciate the interview. Thank you very much.

PI: Well, I've been really glad to do it.

<End Segment 25> - Copyright © 2000 Densho. All Rights Reserved.