Authors: Richard Reeves
Tags: #History, #Military, #World War II, #United States, #20th Century, #State & Local, #West (AK; CA; CO; HI; ID; MT; NV; UT; WY)
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This book is for Lavinia Josephine Catherine O’Neill
People who live in Southern California sometimes head north from Los Angeles on U.S. Route 395, usually on the way to skiing on Mammoth Mountain on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It’s a long, boring six-hour drive through mostly uninhabited territory. About halfway there, in the desolate high desert framed by distant mountains, they would see a sign:
MANZANAR WAR RELOCATION CENTER
Few people stop there. Driving past, someone in a car might ask, “Isn’t that where they put the Japanese?”
Yes it is. More than 120,000 American Japanese were forced from their homes and incarcerated in ten “relocation centers” and several prisons during World War II. Within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them to these “concentration camps” by executive order. Most of the evacuees and prisoners, more than 70 percent of them, were American citizens, born in the United States. Their first-generation immigrant parents, however, were forever aliens, prevented from gaining naturalized citizenship by the Immigration Act of 1924. Most of them, citizens and aliens alike, were fiercely patriotic. Guarded by soldiers in machine-gun towers, none of them were charged with any crime against the United States. In fact, there was not a single American of Japanese descent, alien or citizen, charged with espionage or sabotage during the war. These men, women, and children were locked up for the duration of the war because they looked like the enemy, the troops of Imperial Japan, a place most of them had never seen.
Living in California on and off for years, I’ve passed Manzanar many times, each time thinking I should stop, each time thinking I should write about what happened there and in the other camps in Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Arkansas. I am from a part of the country, New York, where most of the people I know had only the vaguest notion that these events happened. I finally decided to write this book when I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the American troubles of the day. Seventy years ago, it was American Japanese, most of them loyal to their new country; now it is Muslims and Hispanics. This story is not about Japanese Americans, it is about Americans, on both sides of the barbed wire surrounding the relocation centers, the Americans crammed into tar-paper barracks and the Americans with machine guns and searchlights in watchtowers.
The sweeping story of what happened to the American Japanese and the Caucasians who imprisoned them is not a series of isolated events, but a look into a dark side of the “American way.” The story goes back at least to the treatment of Native Americans, to the persecution of British loyalists after the American Revolution, to the enslavement of Africans in the New World, to the treatment of American Germans during World War I, to Jewish quotas and “Irish Need Not Apply,” to the excesses of official bodies such as the House Un-American Activities Committee. And, at least to me, it seems there is always the possibility of similar persecutions happening again if fear and hysteria overwhelm what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
The dangers of history repeating itself seem greater given that this story is often forgotten, or treated as a footnote in the larger, mostly heroic description of World War II found in American history textbooks. Even at the time, the American Japanese concentration camps were underreported or misrepresented. Although there were periodic national stories about the roundup and incarceration of the American Japanese, much of that coverage treated the evacuation as something like a vacation trip to the country. The camps were generally portrayed as resorts; “pioneer communities” was the euphemism of the day. Americans, their sons shipping off to Europe and the Pacific, had a lot on their minds in those days—and California was still far away from most of America.
The United States government and military had no reason to publicize the evacuation and incarceration. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who within ten weeks of the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the detention of the American Japanese, did not want the incarceration debated as a political issue. The evacuees themselves were, for decades, reluctant to tell their stories even to, especially to, their own families. The truth was simply too painful.
Then, partly because of the black civil rights and anti–Vietnam War protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s, young Japanese Americans began questioning their parents and grandparents about what happened to them in the 1940s. Soon enough, books and memoirs by American Japanese held in camps began to appear; many of them were striking works of literature, many privately published, many never published, and, significantly, a large number of them were books for children and young adults. Japanese American organizations were energized by the questions asked by the new generations; oral history projects were created, letters became public, small museums were opened, and activists lobbied for official apologies, financial redress, and the designation of some of the camp sites, like Manzanar, as national historical monuments. Government records of the evacuation began to be discovered or declassified. Soon academic tracts and legal texts were written focusing on the constitutionality (or unconstitutionality) of what happened during the war.
The men of history who had demanded and overseen the relocation camps tried in later years to explain themselves in books and hearings. They had striking injustices to explain. The Supreme Court had delayed or ignored challenges to the mass incarceration, deciding instead to protect President Roosevelt by waiting to hear all related cases until after the 1944 presidential election, and in the end the justices approved the concentration camps. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy said in a memo, “We can cover the legal situation … in spite of the Constitution. Why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.” The governor of Wyoming, Nels Smith, shouted at Milton Eisenhower, then director of the War Relocation Authority, “If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree.” The governor of Idaho, Chase Clark, added, “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats.”
Two army officers of the Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John DeWitt and Colonel Karl Bendetsen, both bigots, the former a fool, the latter a brilliant pathological liar, drove the process, grossly exaggerating the dangers posed by West Coast Japanese. The theory advocated before the House Committee on Naval Affairs by General DeWitt (and many others) was simply, “A Jap is a Jap! There is no way to determine their loyalty.”
While DeWitt was recognized by peers as weak and ignorant, Bendetsen could have been a calculating character in a bad spy novel. He stated in his 1944 entry in
Who’s Who in America
that he had “conceived the method, formulated the details, and directed the evacuation of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from military areas.” When the Japanese evacuation was being investigated by congressional committees in the 1970s, he was asked about his involvement, and he replied, “Of course, I wasn’t in high-level meetings. I was just a Major.”
The villains of this story include California attorney general Earl Warren, who rode the anti-Japanese tide to the governorship of California; Secretary of State Cordell Hull; Secretary of War Henry Stimson; Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy; Roger Baldwin, the hypocritical founder of the American Civil Liberties Union; Supreme Court justices Tom Clark and William O. Douglas; as well as William Randolph Hearst, Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow, and hundreds of other raving journalists.
There were heroes, too, though lesser known, including Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, assistant attorneys general Edward Ennis and James Rowe, and San Francisco civil liberties lawyers Ernest Besig and Wayne Collins. There were also many ordinary folks, everyday heroes, like the fire chief Bob Fletcher in Florin, California, “The Strawberry Capital of the World,” who took real risks to protect the property of his American Japanese former neighbors, while other white men were taking over their land or burning down their houses and vandalizing the depositories filled with the possessions of the incarcerated—usually churches and Buddhist temples.
The heart of the book is formed by the stories of the evacuated families who were caught between those heroes and villains. This is an American story of enduring themes: racism and greed, injustice and denial—and then soul-searching, an apology, and the most American of coping mechanisms, moving on. Through it all, the desert heat and windstorms and bitter cold, the breakdowns and suicides, the overwhelming majority of the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States. Even as their country’s government humiliated first-generation immigrants, or Issei, in front of their Nisei children, young people strove to resume some semblance of normal American life in the camps. They were organized into Cub packs and Boy Scout troops and baseball leagues in the camps; high school yearbooks from the camps have a jitterbugging Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney look, with photos cropped to hide the soldiers with bayonets at the doors. Many graduates of those camp schools were among the thirty thousand Nisei who served in the army, some serving in the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, which fought across Italy and France and became, per capita, the most decorated unit in army history. The 442nd won fourteen Congressional Medals of Honor, including one to Sergeant Daniel Inouye, who would one day become a U.S. senator. Six thousand more served secretly as combat interpreters and translators in the Pacific war against Imperial Japan, heroically saving tens of thousands of American lives.
At the same time, many young American Japanese refused to fight for the country that imprisoned their families. Some stayed in the camps to care for their elderly parents; others felt betrayed and came to hate America.
Despite their forced evacuation, almost all of the former camp students went on to productive lives around the country, even if many college graduates became gardeners. In the 1960s,
magazine called Japanese Americans and other Asian immigrants “the Model Minority.” In 1976, on the thirty-fourth anniversary of Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066—the legal basis for the detention—President Gerald Ford, who served as a lieutenant commander in the navy during the Pacific war, said:
We now know what we should have known then—not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese-Americans were and are loyal Americans. On the battlefield and at home, Japanese-Americans—names like Hamada, Mitsumori, Marimoto, Noguchi, Yamasaki, Kido, Munemori and Miyamura—have been and continue to be written in our history for the sacrifices and the contributions they have made to the well-being and security of this, our common Nation.
I was only five years old when all this began, but for some reason I remember vividly a patriotic song, sung in 1942 by Frank Sinatra, who grew up a couple of miles from my family home, called “The House I Live In.” The song ends, “All races and religions / That’s America to me.” That popular song was made into a short film that was played in most every theater in the country. Maybe I saw it. But while it was playing, 120,000 American Japanese were incarcerated in camps on barren desert land and swamps from California to Arkansas.
The story of the “Japanese Internment,” as it is usually called, is a tale of the best and worst of America. I learned, I think, that what pushes America forward and expands our liberty is not the old Anglo-Saxon Protestant values of the Founders, but the almost blind faith of each wave of immigrants—including the ones we put behind barbed wire: The Germans. The Irish. The Italians. The Jews. The Chinese. The Japanese. The Latinos. The South Asians. The African Americans. We are not only a nation of immigrants. We are a nation made by immigrants, foreigners who were needed for their labor and skills and faith—but were often hated because they were not like us until they were us.