Reparations - Reparations and group remediation

There were occasions in the twentieth century when the United States paid reparations or considered doing so. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt provided indirect assistance to a group of conspirators who staged a rebellion in Panama that resulted in the secession of this province from Colombia. His motivation was to help create an independent nation in Panama that would then sign a treaty authorizing the United States to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Roosevelt succeeded, but embarrassment over the incident and hopes for oil concessions caused Congress in 1921 to approve payment of a $25 million indemnity to Colombia, satisfying a demand it first had made in 1914. A similar situation existed in Hawaii, where many natives believed that the United States played an unethical role in conspiring with white American businessmen to stage a rebellion during 1893. Although the United States did not annex Hawaii at that time, its actions eventually led to the overthrow of Hawaii's last monarchy. In August 1988, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on a proposal for payment of reparations to native Hawaiians. But in the end, native Hawaiians had to be satisfied with only an official apology that Congress extended in November 1993 for U.S. actions in helping end Hawaiian home rule.

Much more controversial was the issue of whether the United States should pay reparations for the destruction that military operations inflicted on Vietnam during the Second Indochina War. In January 1973, as part of the Paris Peace Agreement, the Nixon administration agreed to provide North Vietnam with $4.75 billion in aid for economic reconstruction. This was intended as an inducement to respect the terms of the accord, but Hanoi was determined to reunite the country and achieved success in April 1975. Two years later, when President Jimmy Carter sought the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam made the payment of reparations at least equivalent to the amount of the promised reconstruction aid a condition for normalization. The House of Representatives, in a quick and angry response to perceived blackmail, voted to forbid aid, reparations, or payments of any kind to Vietnam. By contrast, a decade later, the United States paid compensation when it accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf. These differing outcomes revealed how the principle of reparation for damages had not been firmly set in international law. In 2000, the United States chose not to pay reparations to the families of South Korean civilians that U.S. soldiers had killed at No Gun Ri during the first weeks of the Korean War.

During the years after World War II, specific groups of people have made claims to reparations for a variety of transgressions. The Federal Republic of Germany, for example, voluntarily paid reparations to Israel for the policies and actions of the Nazi government that inflicted unspeakable suffering upon individual Jews. During the 1990s, U.S. World War II veterans who had been prisoners of war in Germany filed suit against Daimler-Benz and other firms to gain damages for German industry's ruthless exploitation of them as slave laborers. These demands gained legitimacy from a definition of reparations as an "act or process of making amends," usually by "giving compensation to satisfy one who has suffered injury, loss, or wrong at the hands of another." Consistent with this broader definition, in 1983 the U.S. Congress passed a remediation (remedy) law for Japanese Americans whom the U.S. government had put into internment camps during World War II. It provided for Congress first to pass a joint resolution, signed by the president, "which recognizes that a grave injustice was done and offers the apologies of the nation for the acts of exclusion, removal, and detention." Second, it granted official pardons to Japanese Americans convicted for violating orders to evacuate. Third, it created a foundation for educational and humanitarian purposes. Last, and most important, Congress established a $1.5 billion fund for the payment of reparations to survivors of the internment camps.

Remediation for Japanese Americans revived African-American demands to receive reparations for enslavement. Despite various legislative and legal attempts to redress the legacy of American slavery after 1865, large-scale payment of reparations never had gained widespread support in the United States as a viable option for indemnification. In 1989, Representative John Conyers, an African-American Democrat from Michigan, introduced in the House of Representatives legislation to allow African Americans to achieve remediation. It failed to pass then and again in 1991. But in February 1993, the first National Reparations Awareness Day program in Detroit presented strategies for accomplishing indemnification. Legal action, while not expected to succeed, was endorsed as a powerful symbol of white group responsibility for slavery that would set the stage for passage of remediation legislation once a favorable political context emerged. In 2001, at the National Reparations Conference in Chicago, activists argued that an honest reckoning of American history showed "the difficulty of transcending race without some attempt to repair the damage done by racial slavery and the structures of racism erected to justify it." That demands to indemnify the descendants of American slaves extended into the twenty-first century demonstrated that the principle of reparations for damages had not been firmly established either in U.S. domestic or international law.

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