Two Boy Scouts Met in an Internment Camp, and Grew Up to Work in Congress

“Out of that short experience came this wonderful, beautiful relationship. I just love Alan.”

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week, she talks with two former members of Congress, a Democrat and a Republican, whose across-the-aisle friendship originated many years earlier, when one boy—Norman Mineta—was incarcerated in Wyoming with his family in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. The other boy, Alan Simpson, was part of a local Boy Scout troop that visited the camp to have a jamboree with the scouts who were imprisoned there. Mineta and Simpson were paired up for that one day. Decades later, when they both entered politics, they reconnected; after they both were elected to Congress, they worked together to help pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The act served as the federal government's formal apology to those who were imprisoned during the war, and paid them financial reparations. Mineta and Simpson’s friendship is featured in the upcoming PBS special Norman Mineta and His Legacy: An American Story, which airs May 20. In this interview, they discuss the atrocity that brought Mineta's family to Wyoming, their Boy Scout antics, and why they think friendships across political parties are harder than they used to be.

The Friends

Norman Mineta, 87, a former Democratic representative from California (1975–95), secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton, and secretary of transportation under President George W. Bush. He now lives in Edgewater, Maryland.
Alan Simpson, 87, a former Republican senator from Wyoming (1979–97). He now lives in Cody, Wyoming.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: Tell me a little bit about your childhoods—Senator, growing up in Wyoming, and Mr. Secretary, your childhood in San Jose, up until your family was imprisoned.

Alan Simpson:  My parents lived in Cody. I was raised here. I just lived the typical boy's life, and joined the Boy Scouts. And war came in ’41.

Norman Mineta: And I was born in San Jose, California. My parents were both immigrants from Japan. After December 7 [1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor], President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066 delegating to the Department of War the ability to evacuate and intern persons. And soon after the executive order was signed, all these big placards went up on utility poles and sides of buildings where there were relatively large populations of those of Japanese ancestry. Those signs said Attention, all those of Japanese ancestry, alien and non-alien. As a 10-year-old kid, I looked at that sign, and I said to my brother, who is nine years older, “Who's a non-alien?” He said “That’s you.” I said, “I’m not a non-alien. I’m a citizen.” He said, “It means the same thing.” I said, “Why aren’t they calling me a citizen?” And my brother said, “Well, maybe some sort of psychological warfare.” And that’s why, to this day, I still cherish the word citizen, because my own government wasn’t willing to use the word citizen to describe me.

Former Senator Alan Simpson (left) and former Representative Norman Mineta (right). (Courtesy of Mineta Legacy Project.)

Beck: What do you remember about the journey there and your reaction to the camp? Were you able to make friends with other kids your age when you got there?

Mineta: The first camp we went to was Santa Anita, the racetrack near Los Angeles. We left San Jose on May 29, 1942, on the train, and went to Santa Anita. Then, in November, we went from Santa Anita to Wyoming. We got up to Wyoming on a cold, blustery day, and fine sand was pelting our faces. We were from California, so we didn't have any warm clothes. When we got to our building, the place was just full of silt and the schools hadn’t been built yet. The camp elders were a little worried about what to do with the boys and girls. So they had written to the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts and said, Please come and help organize troops.

So we had about eight or 10 Boy Scout troops in the camp. And our scout leaders would write to the scouts in Deaver, Ralston, Powell, Cody, and all the towns around the camp to invite them to come for jamboree.

Beck: I have to say, I’m not totally sure what a Boy Scout jamboree is. Is it just a meeting of different troops?

Simpson:  Oh, you’ve got to get together and talk about your merit badges. And learn how to braid the bolo, and do all sorts of things.

Mineta: These troops wrote back and said, “No, no, there’s barbed wire all around that camp. There are military guard towers with searchlights and machine-gun mounts. Those are POWs. We’re not coming in.” And our scout leaders would write back and say, “No, these are Boy Scouts of America. They wear the same uniform you do. They read the same manual you do. They go after the same merit badges you do.” And fortunately, the Boy Scout troop from Cody decided to come in. They had a leader who thought this was a good thing to do.

Beck: Senator, did you live near the camp? Had you seen it before your troop went for this jamboree?

Simpson: The thing about the camp was, here you are living in Cody, Wyoming. The war has started. You don’t even know much about Japan at all, and suddenly we're at war. There was nothing between Cody and Powell, Wyoming. It was just a two-lane road. They picked the most remote areas of America to put these camps. And they couldn’t have found a more remote one than between Cody and Powell, with just one road. Not a farm, not a homestead, no water, no irrigation. And suddenly the third-largest city in Wyoming sprung up on the prairie in weeks.

You had barbed wire all around. Guard towers. And in the guard towers, searchlights and soldiers with rifles, all aimed inside. So if you were a local boy, you’d say, “Why the hell would I ever want to go there? All the stuff is aimed inside, so they must be some real characters in there. What if they escape?” Well, the scoutmaster was way ahead of us. He said, “Look, they’re American citizens.”

Downtown in Cody, there’d be a sign on the door of a restaurant: No Japs allowed. You sons of bitches killed my son in Iwo Jima. It was a time of total hysteria—war hysteria and racial prejudice. There isn’t any other way to look at it. Getting to know Norm and the other scouts was a time of growth and understanding.

Beck: Tell me about the jamboree. How long was it? What did you guys do? What were your impressions of each other?

Simpson: He was a pixie. He had a great laugh, a great smile, and he was fun. And he was very serious, actually working toward Eagle Scout. I was just hanging by my thumbs trying to get to be a Star Scout.

Mineta: It was just a one-day affair. We went through the knot-tying contest and the woodworking contest and how to start a fire without a match. Then we got paired off with a Boy Scout from Cody. We had to put up a pup tent, and because you might have rain, you have to protect your tent. You have to build a moat around the tent. So we were building our moat and Alan said, “You know, there’s a kid from my troop in that tent down below. He’s sort of a bully. Would you mind if we cut the water to exit that way?”

It was no skin off my nose, so I said, “Sure.” So we built this beautiful moat, cut the water to head down to the other tent below us, and as luck would have it, it started raining. And our moat worked beautifully. The moat flooded the other tent.

Mineta family members and friends at Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II. Norman is in the front row in the white shirt. (Courtesy of Mineta family)

Simpson: I do remember it was funny as hell. And it meant that our work as scouts was good.

Mineta: Out of that short experience came this wonderful, beautiful relationship. I just love Alan.

Simpson: Then when he became mayor of San Jose [in 1971], I wrote a note to him. I said, “Well, how are you doing? I’m in the state legislature out in Wyoming and saw your name. Do you remember the fat kid from Cody and the tent?” He wrote back and said he sure did.

Mineta: I could say that I knew Alan when he had hair and was roly-poly.

Simpson: Then he was elected to Congress in ’74. And I was elected to Congress in ’78. We immediately looked each other up.

Beck: So after that first letter you didn’t really write back and forth?

Simpson: That’s right. We didn't correspond or do anything until we got to Congress.

Mineta: And yet in ’78 when Alan came to the U.S. Senate, our friendship went back as if we were still sitting in that pup tent when we were 12 years old.

Beck: What was that moment like when you guys met each other again after all that time?

Simpson: We just came toward each other and gave each other a big squeeze. I’ve ruined lots of glasses in my pocket squeezing him. Our wives have given up on us. They say, “My God, there they are over there hugging and squeezing each other.” Well that’s what you do if you have lovely friends, and he’s the loveliest of the loveliest ones.

Mineta: My wife says when Alan and I see each other, we revert to being 12 years old.

Simpson: We really do. There’s a biblical phrase, “The scales fell from their eyes.” They think they’re 12 and they’re actually 87.

Beck: How did serving in Congress together shape your friendship? Obviously you were in different chambers and on different sides of the aisle, but did you work together on anything? Did you ever find yourselves at odds over certain issues?

Simpson: Oh sure. But you know, he was in a different [field]. He was very big in aviation. I don’t know what that committee was, but his butt was shaped like an airline seat. And I was involved with immigration, and veterans’ issues, senior citizens, and nuclear high-level waste.

But then the reparations bill [for Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II] came up, and Norm was right there. He said, “Now we need help. We got it done in the House. Will you be ready?” So we began to move it in the Senate. There were other great movers and shakers. I wasn't the principal one, but I certainly dragged a few people with me.

Mineta: Alan was very, very helpful in moving that bill on the Senate side.

Simpson: My own colleague from Wyoming, Senator Malcolm Wallop, was a very intelligent, articulate man. He was very much opposed to reparations, and here I was, fighting the battle. I finally said, “Look, Malcolm. I was there. You weren't.” And we made our peace and moved on, which you have to do.

Beck: Did he end up voting for reparations or against?

Simpson: He voted against it.

Beck: Did you guys celebrate when the bill passed?

Simpson: When we celebrate, he has a Diet Pepsi and I’ll have a glass of Cabernet. That’s about the extent of our celebrations.

Beck: Over your years working in Congress, what did your friendship add to your life that was different from friendships you had within your own political parties?

Mineta: Today, the word compromise is a bad word. And yet in those days, we would fight in subcommittee, full committee, on the floor of the House, and then we’d slap each other on the back and say, “Come on. Let’s go have a drink. Let’s go have dinner.” And that just doesn’t happen today. That kind of relationship doesn’t exist.

One time we were having dinner and someone came up to us and said, “Simpson, you’re a conservative Republican and that is a liberal Democrat. Now tell me, what is the biggest difference between the two of you guys?” And Alan thought about it and he says, “Well, I wear 17 E shoes; he wears 8 1/2 D.” And the guy looked at Alan as if thinking, Now what kind of a response is that? And he went off mumbling to himself.

I started laughing. I said, “You son of a gun. That's the very reaction you wanted to get out of the guy, walking away mumbling.” He does things like this all the time.

Simpson: There’s a deepness there that you don't always have with others. Friendships go, friendships pass. Friendships aren’t friendships when you see a guy you haven’t seen for 20 years and he says, “Well I haven’t heard from you. I wondered what happened to you,” putting a little guilt trip on you. We never did any of that. We just saw each other and started up right where we were and always with great good humor and fun. Very genuine affection and love for each other as human beings.

Beck: Why do you think it has become harder these days on Capitol Hill to form the kind of friendship that you two have?

Mineta:  I think part of it is the schedule. Because in the House, the first vote is [Monday night or] Tuesday. They’re there all day Wednesday, then Thursday the last vote is [often] at 3 o’clock. So they don’t get to know each other.

When we were there, [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill said the first vote would be Monday at 12 noon and the last vote Friday at 3 p.m. So we were there the full week. We got to know each other. Members would socialize, as well as legislate together—whether you want to play basketball or whatever sport it might be. And you really meant it when you said, “My good friend, my fine colleague from Wyoming.” And that doesn’t happen today.

Simpson: The worst thing today is a thing called hatred. It’s “I hate Trump.” “I hate Hillary.” “I hate Warren.” “I hate McConnell.” It isn’t about “Oh gosh, I don’t agree with them.” Then, man oh man, the hacking that’s going on within the Democratic Party and over in the Republicans … This is madness. It’s stupefying to watch.

Mineta: I remember when Alan said one time, “Hate corrodes the container it’s in.”

Simpson:  And boy, you see it on the faces of people. It’s unraveled in their features, the hate. That's the difference.

Beck: Do you think it’s possible to go back from this, in terms of people’s relationships?

Mineta: I don't know how we put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Simpson: You have to do it with leadership, and there is none. The leaders have all gone into hiding, or political correctness has overpowered their brand, or their pollsters have met with them every Wednesday and told them not to touch this or not to touch that.

Mineta: On top of that, if you take a different view from leadership, then they’ll say, “Oh, we’ll get someone to run against you in the primary.”

Simpson: Winning was a great thing. You won and you moved on. Or you lost and you shook hands. Nowadays, if you win, you want to rub the other guy’s nose in it. You want to taunt. It’s almost childish. It’s like children in a sandbox.

Mineta: I remember May of 1995. Alan and Ann [Alan’s wife] went back to Cody and announced that Alan was not going to seek reelection in 1996. Before they went out, we talked about it. I said, “Why are you going to not run in ’96? You’re in the majority and you ought to stick around.” He says, “No. The stability of this place is starting to go. I want to get out of here before it’s totally gone.”

Beck: After you left Congress, how did your friendship progress after that? How often are you in touch these days?

Mineta: Well, 2017 was not a good health year for me, but up to that point, we would go on vacations twice a year. We’d be on the phone four, five times a month. So we still stay in touch.

Simpson: Then out here we have a pilgrimage every year, thanks to many of the incarcerees. Norm and I usually are asked to say something.

Beck: A pilgrimage to where?

Mineta: Going to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, the camp that I was in.

Beck: You go there every year still?

Mineta: Yes.

Beck: From meeting each other when you were so young, when this terrible thing was happening, and then connecting up later as adults, what has it meant to have a friend that's known you through all these different stages of your life?

Simpson: It warms your heart. Both of us have been through some health problems. We’re slowly falling apart, but we cheerfully slog on because Deni and Ann [our wives] give us no pity. Just whack on us with sticks. No—they don’t.

Mineta: Alan always says, “Remember the good old days when we talked about politics, history, education, sex?” Now today, all we do is have organ recitals. We talk about our liver, our bladder, our heart, stomach, whatever.

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