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Radiolab Presents: More Perfect - American Pendulum I

Monday, October 02, 2017 - 12:10 AM

This story comes from the second season of Radiolab's spin-off podcast, More Perfect. To hear more, subscribe here.

What happens when the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, seems to get it wrong? Korematsu v. United States is a case that’s been widely denounced and discredited, but it still remains on the books. This is the case that upheld President Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of American citizens during World War II based solely on their Japanese heritage, for the sake of national security. In this episode, we follow Fred Korematsu’s path to the Supreme Court, and we ask the question: if you can’t get justice in the Supreme Court, can you find it someplace else?

 The key voices:

  • Fred Korematsu, plaintiff in Korematsu v. United States who resisted evacuation orders during World War II.
  • Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter, Founder & Executive Director of Fred T. Korematsu Institute
  • Ernest Besig, ACLU lawyer who helped Fred Korematsu bring his case
  • Lorraine Bannai, Professor at Seattle University School of Law and friend of Fred's family
  • Richard Posner, recently retired Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit

 The key cases:

 The key links:

Additional music for this episode by The Flamingos, Lulu, Paul Lansky and Austin Vaughn.

 Special thanks to the Densho Archives for use of archival tape of Fred Korematsu and Ernest Besig.

 Leadership support for More Perfect is provided by The Joyce Foundation. Additional funding is provided by The Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Foundation.

Supreme Court archival audio comes from Oyez®, a free law project in collaboration with the Legal Information Institute at Cornell.


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Comments [34]

William Morton from Conecticut

I was really disappointed with the section with Retired Judge Posner.

The host should have brought up the point that German Americans were more of a treat than Japanese Americans.


1. Germany's actions in WW1
2. German Americans holding large Nazi Rallies in the USA
3. German Americans building Nazi Camps that had Nazi Propaganda and Streets with Names like Hitler and Gerbel.

Apr. 12 2018 05:53 PM
Harold Wardlaw from Texas

One of the best I've heard so far! So important and so moving!

Mar. 27 2018 03:14 AM
Dr. Cardenas from Seattle

I want to use Radio Lab and More Perfect for my class, but you do not have transcripts for my hearing impaired students. The students LOVE the podcasts! This American Life provides transcripts of all their podcasts. Wish you would do this. I really want to financially contribute to your work but until you provide equal access, I cannot. I also cannot share with my students.

Kind regards,

Dr. Cardenas

Feb. 25 2018 11:46 PM
Chris from Chicago

Can somebody tell me what song/artist plays at the end of this episode (44:50 mark)? I was unable to find it through the artists listed as additional music in the credits (The Flamingos, Lulu, Paul Lansky, Austin Vaughn). The closest seemed to be a band called Lulu, but I didn't find that particular song, and they don't really sound like a perfect match. Help!!

Feb. 09 2018 01:57 PM
Noel Higa from Bellingham, Wa

I am very, very disappointed in Radio Lab for not telling the full story of the Korematsu case. Korematsu's total vindication is the real story here. The lies and deceit of the government both to the President in making his determination that a "military necessity" existed that justified the concentration camps and in the subsesquent Supreme Court case cannot be ignored. The whole episode was a shameful frame up job on the Japanese American community. Radio Lab should be ashamed for not telling the whole story. The work done by Lorraine Bannai and other Japanese American attorneys to finally clear Mr. Korematsu's name and to expose the intentional false narrative of the government is the real story, which you totally ignore.

Jan. 09 2018 03:21 PM
Carolyn from NY

I really want to use your podcasts in my class, but your transcripts are terrible. Can you please send me a corrected transcript of American Pendulum 1?

Nov. 13 2017 11:54 AM
Ben Vernia from Arlington VA

I was disappointed in the interview of Judge Posner, on both sides. His express premise- that FDR’s administration acted on the basis of evidence before it- was disproved when Obama solicitor general Neil Katyal found evidence that DOJ had deceived the Supreme Court. I would think that basic research on the Korematsu case would have led to this. See

Nov. 01 2017 03:42 PM
Rian from Seattle

Wow, guys, I'm pretty shocked. I've usually found Radiolab (I guess, technically, this ISN'T Radiolab, but you're hosting it) to do it's utmost to remain as close to unbiased in it's storytelling as possible. But this time it seems that you've nearly completely disregarded the other side of the story for both narratives. The treatment of Japanese Americans AND the current travel ban.

I truly enjoy when you provide as much of both sides of a story as you can and create a thought provoking experience instead of trying to pour fuel on the fire that is our current political turmoil. I will, of course, continue to listen to your podcasts (I'm not THAT petty, lol), but c'mon guys, you can do better.

Oct. 31 2017 03:26 PM
New Hampshire Listener from Central New Hampshire

Must say I enjoyed the 'More Perfect' podcast and also found it a bit unwieldy and poorly-balanced. Love the range of comments from your listeners that really round it out! The podcast and the responses all seem to be animated Rorschach tests, which is as interesting as anything. I'm in my mid-sixties and my personal vantage point reflects (and is probably restricted by) coming of age in the late sixties. Anyway, here's what strikes me.

Korematsu's vantage point in challenging the internment is understandable, as was his distress at the rejection he faced in the internment camp. The sentiments of his neighbors at the camp are also easy to understand and empathize with. From what I understand, those in the Japanese culture have traditionally been encouraged to sacrifice the personal for the greater good. The vantage point of the Berkley students was completely in keeping with those times - abrasive and self-righteous in its urgency. I remember being similarly rude to faculty wives when our women's liberation group met with them for a 'friendly chat' (not). Finally, I was deeply moved by the recordings of protests against Trump's horrific policies.

Posner is prominent as an insider, and insiders' views tend towards the realpolitik. To me, he sounded sanguine, and not particularly impressed with the Supreme Court, right? So he referred to what was the politically expedient and predictable response, which may be cynical, pragmatic or both. Ask an insider a question and you'll get a realpolitik answer. No big surprise there. He sounded a lot like my Republican politician father, and although that's no compliment, trust me, why be surprised?

What I felt was completely unaddressed in the exchange with Posner was the opportunistic use of crises by a number of presidents, be the crises real or fabricated, to erode civil liberties and consolidate executive power. The interviewer had the decency to be abashed, and if he learns from his oversights, more power to him. I feel 'More Perfect' deserves time to develop the needed strengths to navigate the cut and thrust of politics. Thanks to Jad for sticking his neck out, and thanks to all the people who weighed in here. I learned a lot from all of you, and I look forward to seeing how this podcast evolves. (Remember how mortified Ira Glass was when reviewing his first podcasts, folks? Politics is miles away from RadioLab's original orientation, and it's treacherous territory.)

Oct. 19 2017 12:20 AM
John from USA

Wow, it sure takes a looooooong time to tell this story.

Tighten it up, guys. The listener's attention drifts when you drag out the length.

Oct. 17 2017 01:12 PM
Roger from Australia

Great story - you had me completely on side until the last five minutes when you contaminated this powerful story of racial profiling with misty-eyed, false analogies with the current fight against Islamic extremism, deftly couched in emotionally triumphalist Hillsong-like guitar music.

The two situations are only mildly analogous, with the most obvious (yet seemingly ignored) distinction being that Mr Korematsu's story was one of unwarranted (or perhaps at the time, somewhat warranted) racial profiling. Racial profiling of people groups like Japanese Americans is very different to sensible ideological profiling of inter-racial groups who hold to dangerous and anti-democratic extremist ideologies. But in your podcast, you deliberately gloss over this distinction in some tsunami of misplaced civil liberties moralizing.

It is that kind of moral panic and analysis paralysis that puts Western societies at grave risk from the insidious creep of anachronistic, anti-liberal, anti-democratic extremist ideologies. Buyer beware!

Oct. 16 2017 05:31 PM
Active Listener from Chicago

Opinions are opinions, but did Posner say anything that *wasn’t* true? More importantly, if so, who or what could curtail the Executive Branch Gone Wild? The Congress? The 25th Amendment? Radiolab, please hire a legal expert who can do better thsn “flail[]” when interviewing anyone more brilliant than a Brillo pad. If I wanted Average Joe’s opinion, I could have gone to my plumber, who is actually pretty smart.

Oct. 12 2017 10:11 AM
Pualani from Hawaii

Love More Perfect. You found the heart of your story. You gave the antagonists a turn. You showed the many facets of what we think of as "justice". Your story was perfectly chosen.

If you are ever interested in exploring the Sovereignty of Hawaii; how Hawaii illegally became first a territory and then a state; how 1.75 million acres of land are still held in trust for the benefit of the Hawaiian people thanks to the foresight of the Hawaiian monarchy before we were overthrown; what shape the Sovereignty Movement has taken today in Hawaii, how the US government is still trying to break the trust and get it's hands on the 1.75 million acres. PLEASE CONTACT ME.

I can get you started.
A hui hou,

Oct. 10 2017 05:37 AM
Engineer from Boston

How can RadioLab do and hour on this subject and not mention the more relevant Mitsuye Endo Supreme Court case, ruled upon the same day, that unanimously declared locking up Japanese American citizens WAS unconstitutional, which caused Roosevelt to cancel the original order and allow the return of Japanese Americans to the west well before the end of the war. Is it because it is more fun to pick and choose your data to fit a story you want to make up?

Or why wasn't it mentioned that 30 years ago President Reagan with great ceremony and fanfare made apologies and financial reparations to the Japanese Americans effected by the government's error?

Your story earlier on fake news was panicking about new technology being able to pick and choose words from people's recorded speech and being able to string them together into a new sentence that has an entirely different or even opposite meaning. Yet, you guys have succumbed to the temptation of picking and choosing your facts and stringing them together to create your own view of history. It is easy to make almost any point you want if that is the game you want to play.

Politicians are self advocates so it makes sense that they will pick and choose their facts to try to make their case and try to soil the reputations of their competitors, but one of the problems facing us today is it seems each news outlet has selected their preferred politics and are playing along with the same game. If you list the top 5 virtues of option A and the 5 top sins option B you can get option A to seem like the better choice every time. Is that really where Radiolab wants to go? Everything and everyone has pluses and minuses.

As hosts, if you find you aren't able to provide the pluses and minuses of both sides of any issue, then you probably need to find some new sources of information. As listeners, it is the same.

Oct. 07 2017 09:38 PM
CT in Ohio from Oxford, Ohio

While I overall enjoyed this podcast, I must admit the blatant attempt to connect the Japanese interment to the current travel ban without even taking a moment to discuss the similarities/differences between the two seemed like the cowardly way out. Usually Radiolab dives deep into both sides and multiple aspects of an issue, but here they made a nod toward people who equate Trump's travel ban to Japanese interment, almost as some sort of moral signaling, and then left it there. If you're going to address highly controversial political/social issues in your podcasts you should have the courage to actually face them head on.

Oct. 06 2017 02:37 PM
Engineer from Boston

I'm hoping RadioLab does a retraction/correction/apology for this factually incorrect holier-than-thou podcast.

In fact, it would make great kick-off segment on the Fake News podcasts that were perhaps pre-occupying the producers' minds last month when they should have been fact checking their own work.

It is easy to present a position as correct if you skip the other side of the story and change the facts that you do present to suit you position. This is the fooling some of the people some of the time Grandpa Abe warned us about. Much harder is to present the best arguments of BOTH sides of an issue (not the worst case for side A followed by the best case for side B) and if your position is still convincing, then, and only then, do you have a chance to actually move people forward. If no one on your team is willing or able to present the best case for the opposing view, then maybe you need to diversify your team.

I repeat that the story is just factually incorrect in the lead of the story since the Supreme Court DID overrule internment in 1944, rather than uphold, as you claimed. But in addition to facts offered in my other posts, here are some more facts that you omitted in your hour of half-truths. Any thoughtful person would want to know them before forming an opinion about the horribleness of the US Govt at this particular time and place. Listeners might still come to the point of view you steered them to, but then they would be honest and strong positions, not weak and misinformed ones.

1)The first and only direct case of random Japanese Americans interacting with the Japanese military at the time of passing this law was a trio of Japanese Americans who were asked to guard a Japanese pilot shot down over Pearl Harbor because they were bi-lingual. Instead of guarding him however, they helped him try to escape by capturing other US citizens and holding them hostage. It ended badly. Of course this doesn't mean all Japanese Americans were 'disloyal' or even that statistically many were, but it was not a good start to the the question.
2)Thousands of Italian and German Americans were held in internment camps as well, so while race may have played a major issue, race is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain it.
3)The Meiji Government of Japan had for years a policy of sending thousands of their citizens to the US and other countries with the express purpose of living, learning and then returning home to improve Japan. Many high profile people in Japan's government and military had lived for years in US or Europe. Again, of course not all or even most Japanese Americans were disloyal because of this, but it is important background to understand the situation at the time.

Come on Jad and Robert, confession is good for the soul. Retract. Correct. Redo. Don't let this weak piece stand as is, tainting the rest of your good works.

Oct. 06 2017 12:51 PM
Engineer from Boston

Now I've done some more reading and am just sad for RadioLab. I really like RadioLab, but it is almost like they opted not to do any research at all for this show because they wanted to make 'a point' instead.

In particular, the Supreme Court did rule unanimously in 1944 that the Govt can't just hold loyal citizens in camps (Ex Parte Endo.) The Korematsu case, which was tried on the same day as Endo, was on the separate question of exclusion, meaning that citizen could be excluded from certain states or regions if requested by the military, which the same judges ruled 6-3 that the Govt could exclude.

RadioLab did not know this(?) and did a whole hour saying the Korematsu case was about sending the Japanese Americans off to camps and how the Supreme Court was horrible for finding that that was OK, when first that wasn't what the case was about and second and separately the court did unanimously strike down the internment rule.

There has always been the possibility that the real problem here was that 'the people,' being racists, wanted to push the Japanese out of California and that this was a convenient excuse to do so, but that would suggest that 'the people' were the evil ones here, not the Supreme Court or the Army. But that wouldn't be such a simple story to tell and wouldn't have the desired ending.

Should I send in more donations so Radiolab can hire fact checkers? I suspect that isn't really the issue here.

Oct. 06 2017 01:43 AM
Engineer from Boston

Why is it OK for Radiolab to use racial stereotypes like Japanese-Americans are quiet, well behaved, that the first child honors and takes care of parents, the third child is spare and other stereotypes to explain the events of the 1940s but it was horrible for the US Government to use a stereotype, that the Japanese-American might be more susceptible to overtures from Japan than other Americans?

You brushed over awfully quickly that the Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were given opportunity to move elsewhere in the country, as many did, instead of going to the camps and that they were not 'prisoners' in the usual sense because almost immediately they were allowed to apply to leave the camps to go live and work away from the west coast or join the army as tens of thousands eventually did. In fact, about half of those who went to the camps had left by the time the supreme court case was heard and those running the camps were actually frustrated that many in the camps were choosing to stay rather then relocate elsewhere. This isn't to say that the whole thing was our best moment, it wasn't, but by the time the court case was heard, there were very few people being held against their will. They were being prevented from accessing their property and businesses, but there were literally millions of other Americans also dislocated and prevented from accessing their property and businesses at this time in the country.

It is interesting that Korematsu was able to get a hearing and run it up through the Supreme Court. That sounds like an open and accessible government and doesn't jib with the tone you have set for the show.

You reported with some sympathy that Korematsu, 25 years later, was verbally attacked and abused by Berkeley students for not somehow trying harder to do better, while in fact he was among only a very few who tried as much as he did. Ironically, RadioLab (and others) are verbally attacking and abusing the US WW2 Government for not being better when in fact the US WW2 Government was far and away more gentle in this type of situation than ANY of the other WW2 belligerents.

Posner is a significant legal figure. It is unfair to pretend that if you have thought of asking a follow-up question, you would have turned the table on him and won some kind of debate. Far more likely you would have found that your clever retort wasn't so clever by half. Rather you might want to humbly listen more carefully to what he was saying, like it or not, and digest the information he was trying to relay to you. A President, in times of war or other emergency, has sweeping powers. That IS in the constitution. Judges do not sit in a skybox doing video review of every call the President makes.

It seems like your whole show was written from the ending, you wanted to do your Trump bashing, which is good fun, and then you crafted the rest of the 'investigation' to get where you wanted to be.

Oct. 05 2017 07:52 PM
Luke from San Francisco

I've really enjoyed RadioLab's unique style of storytelling, and the More Perfect offshoot is no exception. One thing that I wanted to point out is that in this episode Fred Korematsu's last name was repeatedly mispronounced, and I found it very distracting. Instead of "Kor-Mat-Su," it should be pronounced "Ko-Re-Ma-Tsu."

Oct. 05 2017 01:08 PM
New Listener from Oklahoma

I am a new listener to Radiolab -- came to it through podcasts. I have pretty much enjoyed the well done presentation of stories, but then something jumps out that leaves me questioning. I do enjoy hearing a different take on subjects, but I got REALLY confused with this last story. While following the story on the Japanese Interment Camps, all of a sudden at the end, there was this very different style and presentation -- so much so that I looked at my phone to see if it had jumped to some other podcast. I failed to make a connection between the Interment of American citizens at the outbreak of WW II and an air travel ban. Confusing.

Oct. 05 2017 11:31 AM
Fredy from Reno, Nevada

Fantastic episode! I'm glad Season 2 has arrived! Keep up the resplendent content, guys!

Oct. 05 2017 12:01 AM
Jim from Gaithersburg, Maryland

I thought the background music was too dramatic and excessive. Sometimes I felt you were trying to hard to insinuate suspense...but it ended up sounding silly.I enjoyed the topic

Oct. 04 2017 08:34 PM
Ktower from NYC

I've thought longer and harder about these issues than this mealy-mouthed pinhead Richard Posner. ...a poor, deferential interview of a thoughtless loser (Posner) who has an absurd, badgering, subjective perspective.
Why is he anywhere near power?

Oct. 04 2017 08:02 PM
Kyle from Florida.

Current and previous episode seemed like a beg for money and to subscribe. It’s tine to move on to folks outings out content more frequently.

Oct. 04 2017 07:58 PM
Jason Teets from Detroit, MI

Posner is the exact reason we have a Trump presidency. Kindly put, F you Dick Posner.

Oct. 04 2017 03:57 PM

Who was interviewing posner?? Super frustrating to witness the interviewer totally drop the ball on easy and obvious follow up questions. Did he not prepare follow ups? “You have me flailing” Geez. Bush league journalism.

Oct. 04 2017 02:43 PM

Were you thinking with your chimp brain or analytic brain when doing this episode?

Oct. 04 2017 11:37 AM
Upset from Denver, Colorado

I am really upset with Judge Posner's comments, especially as it relates to the U.S. Constitution. There is a thing that was built into the U.S. Constitution and it is called checks and balances. Posner seems to be abdicating that responsibility as a member of the court and it is extremely disturbing. With that attitude, how is he considered a great legal mind? The rule of law is the rule of law. That should rise above all, but I am not naive. It certainly did not for those Japanese Americans who were detained.

Oh, Judge Posner. Giving each surviving member $20,000 does not seem like just compensation to me.

Oct. 03 2017 09:11 PM
Dante Esmont from Canton, Ohio

I am little disappointed with the end of the episode where they equate the travel ban to Japanese internment camps. I don't believe that the constitution applies to non-American citizens.

Oct. 03 2017 12:57 PM
Active Listener

Did Seth MacFarlane (or whoever does the voice of the old decrepid WWII vet and a fan of Chris Griffin) impersonate that de facto tenth SCOTUS justice? Absolutely frightening.

Oct. 03 2017 10:34 AM
Jim from Omaha

This is why I've never understood why the left loves FDR so much. I think he was very despicable.

Oct. 03 2017 10:00 AM

Posners comments are absolutely frightening

Oct. 03 2017 09:58 AM
RBG from DC

Right or wrong, Posner's manner is really grating. It's frustrating that his arguments about prioritising the safety of American citizens aren't shown to be undermined by the fact that the Japanese Americans in question are in fact American citizens who are due the same consideration and presidential protection as all others. While this may not have undone his argument entirely, it would have made it less black and white, and perhaps his attitude would have been correspondingly less dismissive.

Oct. 03 2017 09:30 AM

This week is a spinoff pocdast. The last few podcasts all seem to be repeats or other podcasts. We had a repeat of the trolley-car problem, oliver sipple was unique, Anna in Somalia was a story from another podcast, Where the sun don't shine was a repeat.

I know a podcast is not simple or easy to make, but I'm starting to wonder why I check the radiolab feed anymore

Oct. 03 2017 09:08 AM

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