Densho Digital Archive
Steven Okazaki Collection
Title: Peter Irons Interview
Narrator: Peter Irons
Location: San Francisco, California
Date: November 11, 1983
Densho ID: denshovh-ipeter-03-0013

<Begin Segment 13>

Q: Can you give some general background on the ACLU and their involvement in these cases?

PI: American Civil Liberties Union, at that time, was the only national organization which was devoted to protecting constitutional rights. During the 1930s, the ACLU had been very active in supporting the rights of workers to organize. Protesting discrimination against blacks, the use of lynching. At the time the war began, the ACLU was not a very large or strong organization. It only had about five thousand members around the country, only had a few chapters on the West Coast that were active. When the ACLU first learned of these cases, Roger Baldwin, who was its national director and had been since it was founded in 1920s, was very interested in becoming involved, providing legal help for Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu in particular. But the ACLU's national board of directors, composed of people who lived in New York City, turned the ACLU against the internment cases. Most of the members of that board were either personal friends or political supporters of President Roosevelt. It was more important to them during wartime to back the President than it was to support a small racial minority on the West Coast. Most of the board members had never had any personal involvement, didn't know Japanese Americans. So that when the cases came before the courts, the ACLU took a position that it would not support any challenge to the constitutionality of Roosevelt's executive order. Their legal defense would be limited to very narrow issues. It made it difficult to argue the cases as completely and directly as lawyers would have wanted to be. So that the AC.LU's role in this, although it wound up supporting the cases before the Supreme Court, earlier during the trials and the initial appeals, the ACLU backed off from the cases, refused to allow its West Coast branches to support them. In fact, came very close to expelling the San Francisco branch because it refused to give up its support for Fred Korematsu. So a lot of internal division and politics that involved in the ACLU's role in these cases. Roger Baldwin himself consistently supported the rights of Japanese Americans, but he was bound to the directives of his board, which had voted by a two to one margin not to support the constitutional challenge.

<End Segment 13> - Copyright © 1983, 2010 Densho and Steven Okazaki. All Rights Reserved.