In fall 2018, I toured the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center outside of Cody, Wyoming, where American families of Japanese descent were forcefully interned during World War II. I was there as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency that funds the museum. More personally, I was there as an American citizen.
I have a fierce love for our nation—but it is not a blind love. At Heart Mountain, one must acknowledge hard truths. One cannot view the museum exhibitions, watch the visitor film, or walk quietly from end to end of the reclaimed barracks without a sense of reckoning.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans and other Asians were immediately subject to scrutiny and violence. Within a couple of months, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that resulted in more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans–a majority of them U.S. citizens–being transported to quickly erected camps. In Wyoming, the housing was not properly winterized, and the internees from California found the weather brutal.
As detailed in a 2019 PBS special, two young boys decided that the war of adults would not divide their lives. The Heart Mountain internment camp had barbed wire fences, but it was not enough to keep the Boy Scouts out. Internee Norman Mineta was paired up at a jamboree with Alan Simpson, son of a prominent Wyoming family. They bonded quickly. Decades passed, then they reconnected in the halls of Congress, working on joint legislation in 1988 for the U.S. government to formally apologize for the internment program. When their health allows, they go on family vacations together and revisit the Heart Mountain Center annually.
Mineta became a Democrat Congressman and Simpson a Republican Senator, but their political differences did not prevent their bond. Likewise, Mineta’s service in President Clinton’s cabinet did it stop him from accepting a Cabinet position from President George W. Bush. Nor did it Bush from offering it. Old Washington had many shortcomings, but it exercised greater civility across party lines.
The story of these Boy Scouts growing into elder statesmen is a rare ray of sunlight in a dark narrative. It is a story of cleaving: an auto-antonym, a word that can mean its own opposite. The Minetas were cleaved—separated—from their immigrant dream. Like thousands of interned families, they persevered by cleaving—holding tightly—to one another for strength. In time, the Mineta son and the Simpson son would face their shared history and cleave to one another in unbreakable friendship.
The year after my visit to Wyoming, the NEH funded the Heart Mountain Center $165,172 in educational workshops for 72 schoolteachers. Our agency awarded an additional $92,851 in CARES Act funding to support the shuttered museum during the pandemic. To adapt a Tip O’Neill saying, what is federal is local.
While I was in Cody, I toured the remarkable Buffalo Bill Center of the West, one of our nation’s finest history centers. That evening, I delivered a speech on the importance of the creative economy and the societal value of the arts and humanities. I spoke afterwards with Pete Simpson, a civic leader, former state legislator, and Alan’s brother. True patriots like the Simpsons are committed to preserving culture, even when it reveals hard truths. Such is the path toward friendship and forgiveness.
Reflecting on Heart Mountain, I find myself in awe of the resilience of generations of Americans who moved forward together against the odds to forge our imperfect, enduring democracy that President Abraham Lincoln so aptly called “the last best hope of Earth.”
Jon Parrish Peede is the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.