At least 31 students were among those studying hard at Cal Poly in the winter of 1941-42. These children of Japanese immigrants were then forcibly removed to racetracks and county fairgrounds called “assembly centers.”
Next, they were sent to relocation camps in some of the most inhospitable locales that America had to offer.
On June 7, university President Warren Baker will confer honorary bachelor’s degrees to these students of Japanese ancestry who were relocated during the war.
Some people got it right even then.
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On Aug. 22, 1944, Robert E. Kennedy, a journalism instructor at Cal Poly since 1940 — who would go on to become president there from 1967 to 1979, when Baker came aboard — wrote a letter to The Tribune.
It’s an important historical statement about the responsibility that goes along with the freedoms we cherish as Americans:
“Recently there has been a great deal of feeling voiced by those who would deprive American-born persons of Japanese parentage of their rights as American citizens …
“The essence of the democratic principle of government is not that all men are exactly alike, but that all men are equal before the law. … If one is to deprive Japanese-Americans of their citizenship it must be done on an individual basis and not on a group basis.
“The father of a boy who is fighting against Japanese soldiers on a South Pacific island cannot be an impartial judge on this question; the wife of a navy man whose life is endangered by Japanese submarines isn’t thinking in terms of brotherly love …
“However, they and others who would judge might well consider the words of Christ in Matthew 7:1 ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged. …’
“We are still fighting Nazi Germany and our country is full of Germans, many of whom came direct from the fatherland and belonged to German organizations up until the time of the war. Of course, most of them are loyal citizens of the United States, but that is beside the point.
“If you deprive Japanese-Americans of citizenship on the basis that we are at war with Japan then you must deprive American-born Germans of their citizenship, even back to the third and fourth generation. And if that is logical, where do we stop? … Of course, if we insist on going back to the Revolutionary War, we can give the country back to the Indians. You might ask the American Indian what he thinks of sending people back where they came from if their color isn’t the same as yours.
“One recent writer, who would deprive Japanese-Americans of citizenship, said in effect, ‘Sure, I know that Japanese-American soldiers are fighting in Italy and have brought honor to their division by their bravery … but when they send them in the first wave to land on the Japanese mainland, I’ll believe they’ve done something.’
“Well, brother, did you read in the paper Aug. 20 that ‘Six Japanese-Americans were cited for meritorious services in the capture of Saipan?’ … that’s on the road to Tokyo.
“When the war’s over and Cpl. Nelson Agaki and Pvt. Jiro Kai and a few other Japanese-American citizens who were students of mine before the war return as part of a victorious army, I don’t want to have to look down at the floor and say, ‘Yes, boys, while you were fighting for democracy and for the rights and privileges guaranteed you by the Constitution, I sat quietly by and let a few misguided patriots engineer the passage of a bill that deprives you of the privilege of returning to your home.
“ ‘I’m sorry, boys, but I was afraid I might be criticized as ‘un-American’ and a ‘Jap-lover’ if I let my name be used in an attempt to protect your rights as American citizens.’ ”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.