A More Perfect Union":
The Smithsonian Institution Exhibit
Following is an excerpt from the book: Maki, M. T., Kitano, H. H. L., & Berthold, S. M. (1999). Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 157-160:
During the early 1980s a series of unplanned events culminated in the creation of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit about the world War II concentration camps. As with the redress effort, hard work, the rightness and framing of the issue, and luck all played significant roles.
The genesis of the Smithsonian exhibit was in 1979, at the Presidio Army Museum in San Francisco. This museum was located a little off the beaten path and was visited by approximately twenty people a day. Eric Saul, the museum's curator, had long been interested in the idea of a black soldiers' exhibit. He approached his supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel Donald R. Sims, a highly decorated African American Vietnam veteran who had been a company commander, and quickly gained his approval. The commander of the post, however, initially had reservations that the exhibit might be too controversial. As luck would have it, President Carter had appointed the first African American, Clifford Alexander Jr., to the position of secretary of the army. Secretary Alexander was planning an appearance on the post for black history week; as a result, the exhibit was approved.77
The response to the exhibit was enormous. There was abundant media coverage, and the African American community showed great support. The experience convinced Saul that an ethnic minority perspective on relevant topics was the key to raising attendance and stimulating public support. When planning the next exhibit, Saul's father reminded him of the 442d R.C.T. Saul approached the board president of the museum association, Retired Lieutenant General William "Ray" Peers, who had been a colonel in Burma during World War II commanding OSS Detachment 101 and had many Nisei linguists under his command. Since the war he had kept in touch with many of them. Lieutenant General Peers authorized five thousand dollars for the exhibit.78
Saul, faced with the challenge of finding artifacts and stories for the exhibit, did not personally know any Japanese Americans and was unsure where to look. Once again good fortune smiled on the project. Saul received an unsolicited and unexpected visit from a Japanese American veteran. Hank Oyasato, a company commander in the 442d, came in and told Saul that he enjoyed the black soldiers exhibit. He encouraged Saul to complete his plans to do an exhibit on the 442d and put him in touch with another veteran, Tom Kawaguchi.
Kawaguchi contacted Saul the following week and requested a proposal and description of the exhibit. Saul was strongly in favor of dealing with the controversial topic of the exclusion and incarceration. Kawaguchi worked with Saul on the plans for the exhibit and eventually became the project's veterans coordinator. He requested a list of the artifacts and the number of photographs that would be needed and immediately set up a national network among his veteran friends to gather the memorabilia.79 Saul anticipated that the exhibit would use up to 150 photographs. As a result of Kawaguchi's request, Saul received many boxes of artifacts and photographs from Nisei veterans. The gathering of artifacts and photographs also led Saul to make several trips to the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., as well as to numerous other cities and states that had Nisei veterans (e.g., Denver, Chicago, Hawai'i).
Early in the development of the exhibit Chester "Chet" Tanaka, a highly decorated veteran who was an original volunteer with the 442d R.C.T., became instrumental in the effort and served as a co-project coordinator and technical adviser for the exhibit.80 Tanaka was one of the original unit historians of the 442d R.C.T. and was therefore intimately familiar with its story. He had written the original regimental history in 1944-45 and was largely responsible for writing up nominations for battle honors and individual citations for members of the 442d R.C.T. and 100th Infantry Battalion. Kawaguchi, Tanaka, and Saul contributed money to help cover the expanded cost of the exhibit and to publish Tanaka's book, Go for Broke. The advanced sales of Go for Broke were also used to help fund the exhibit costs.
Saul was familiar with the history of the concentration camps and promoted this as an integral part of the story. The exhibit was eventually divided into five parts. It originally had only three sections: racism in California and why the incarceration happened, the exclusion and the WRA camps, and the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442d R.C.T.81 In the summer of 1981 the exhibit expanded to include the history of the Military Intelligence and Language Service and its contribution to the Allied victory in the war in the Pacific. The fifth section explained the postwar impact of the Nisei veterans on the political history of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. The exhibit opened on March 7, 1981. Over two thousand people attended the exhibit opening, including Mike Masaoka and Senators Inouye and Matsunaga.
In the fall of 1981 Lieutenant General Peers and the secretary of the (page 159) Smithsonian Institution, Dillon Ripley, corresponded about having the exhibit placed in the Smithsonian. Ripley had been a captain in Lieutenant General Peers's unit and had worked closely with the Nisei linguists. Ripley came up with the idea of tying the exhibit in with the upcoming constitutional bicentennial celebration. Ripley assigned the exhibit to Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History, with the intention of placing it in that museum. Saul provided an extensive proposal to Kennedy, who then viewed the exhibit, which was being shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.82 Kennedy met with Saul, Kawaguchi, Tanaka, and Hiro Takusagawa and eventually brought in Tom Crouch to be the curator of the Smithsonian exhibit.83
Crouch was given the task of framing the exhibit so that ii: would strike at the heart of the Bill of Rights. Crouch recalled telling Kennedy about the potential of the exhibit: "I told him, 'If we were to take the story of the 442d to its natural extension, if we were to talk about the experience of Americans of Japanese ancestry during the war years, we would have the show you're talking about. It would be a gutsy thing to do ... it would speak to what can go right and what can go wrong with the Bill of Rights.'"84
The Smithsonian Institution's initial attempts to gather artifacts were not very successful. In response Tanaka and Saul worked with the JACL in organizing local "swap meets." People were asked to bring their artifacts to the local community center, church, or temple, where members of the exhibition team could meet with them and select objects for display. Crouch and Jennifer Locke, the research assistant on the project, would then pick out appropriate artifacts. In designing the exhibit Crouch relied heavily on his advisory board. Crouch recalled, "The advisory board was very important. Especially Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who I could go to for a thorough historical review."85
The exhibit had its opponents. Because the Smithsonian needed to collect artifacts from the community, news of the proposed exhibit circulated quickly. The negative mail began early. The Smithsonian received scores of opposition letters protesting the exhibit's creation. An opening day protest was promised by Lillian Baker but never materialized.
According to Crouch private fund-raising for this project would have been very difficult because of its controversial and unresolved political nature. Representative Mineta, a regent of the Smithsonian, secured a congressional line item in the budget that ultimately provided for three-quarters of the exhibit' s budget.86 In an era when the Office of Management and Budget was trying to eliminate these sorts of line items from the Smithsonian's budget, Representative Mineta and other legislators fought to maintain it.87
The exhibit opened on October 1, 1987, and was titled A More Perfect Union.88 The opening event was well attended by congressional members and (page 160) many individuals from the Japanese American community. Planning and implementing the Smithsonian exhibit served as an unintended dress rehearsal for passing the upcoming redress bill. The Smithsonian exhibit addressed an unresolved political question. It helped educate congressional members about the wartime -treatment of Japanese Americans, the heroism of the 442d R.C.T., and the importance of an apology and monetary redress. Representative Mineta, describing the exhibit's contribution to redress, observed that "it verified that what we were doing was right and that we were on the right course ... the bill had been about things nobody could see or feel or touch. The exhibit made it real."89
Crouch believed that the inherent quality of the story and of the imagery is what made the show work: "It was not a special interest exhibit. It was not an ethnic minority exhibit. It was an exhibit about an American ideal .. . . When people first see the exhibit, it looks like a negative story. But when you stop and think about it, this is ultimately a story about fifty years worth of citizen involvement with the Constitution."90 A More Perfect Union provided the lesson of how redress needed to be framed as an American issue and its potential as a positive political issue.
Notes to Pages 159-68
77. Saul, interview by authors, July 18, 1995.
79. Kawaguchi, letter to Harry H. L. Kitano, February 4, 1997.
81. The exclusion had special meaning to the Presidio since the exclusion orders were administered through the Presidio Army Post in San Francisco in 1942.
82. Many veterans asked to have the exhibit travel to different cities. The exhibit eventually traveled to over twenty cities.
83. The exhibition team was made up of Edward C. Ezell, project manager; Jennifer Locke, research assistant; Selma Thomas, filmmaker; and Dru Culbert, designer.
84. Crouch, interview by authors, July 11, 1995.
86. The total budget of the A More Perfect Union exhibit was $1.2 million. The amount appropriated by Congress was $750,000, which was appropriated on a yearly basis between 1985 and 1987.
87. Representative Mineta cites the efforts of Representative Sidney Yates (Democrat from Illinois) as very helpful. Representative Yates was chair of the appropriations subcommittee that handled the Smithsonian appropriations.
88. It had originally been planned to occupy ten thousand square feet on the main floor. The actual exhibit, however, was six thousand square feet and was placed on a side wing of the second floor. The exhibit received many accolades and awards, despite sporadic feedback on the inaccuracy of the portrayal of the barracks. A common complaint was that the barrack on display was too nice. The furniture looked like it was store-bought, and the floor was fitted too perfectly. Furniture for many incarcerated families was handmade from scraps of wood; barrack floors often had large gaps between the floorboards, which allowed dust and sand into the barracks.
89. Mineta, interview by authors, August 6, 1994.
90. Crouch, interview by authors, July 11, 1995.