by Douglas Messerli
In the very first chapter of this study of the Japanese American Internment camps of World War II, Richard Reeves quickly takes us from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 to the sudden outcry against Issei (first generation immigrants), Kibei (children of immigrants born in the U.S. but educated in Japan), and even Nisei (second generation Japanese American citizens) by numerous governmental figures and state leaders, particularly in the West. Among the worst of the rabble-rousers were General John L. DeWitt, Colonel Karl Bendetsen, Governor of Idaho Chase Clark (who hatefully stated, “the Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats”), Attorney General Earl Warren, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Supreme Court Justices Tom C. Clark and William O. Douglas, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and journalists Walter Lippmann and Edward R. Murrow. Even cartoonist (and later writer of beloved children’s books) Theodor Seuss Geisel—who drew ugly caricatures of Japanese Americans—and the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, Roger Baldwin, joined in the national hate-mongering. Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron dismissed all city employees of Japanese lineage, arguing “There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm.”
Before long, California organizations such as the Lions and Elks, the Supreme Pyramid of the Sciots, and the Townsend Clubs joined in the discrimination and disparagement, and almost daily, DeWitt and military officers reported spotting fleets of Japanese ships, threats of raids and landings, and imminent attacks on Los Angeles, none of which was true. But then, as Reeves reports, “something did happen. On December 23, a Japanese submarine torpedoed and sank a Union Oil tanker, the company’s largest, the USS Montebello, in sight of Cambria, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco . . . By Christmas of 1941, soldiers, FBI agents, police, and local authorities were conducting raids on homes across California, Oregon, and Washington, arresting people whose names had never appeared on the sloppiest government lists.”
People would arrive home to discover FBI agents or other authorities had entered their homes, and were soon after taken away for supposed questioning. Fathers would be pulled from the house in the middle of the night and sent to camps no one had yet heard about. Even in Nebraska and Colorado, Japanese Americans were arrested with absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing. Indeed, Reeves describes that in some cases, when fathers were taken away, sons volunteered to serve in the army.
Despite very little evidence that Japanese Americans might be disloyal to the United States, on March 2, 1942, President Roosevelt signed the proclamation that would lead to the arrests and transfer of thousands of Americans of Japanese heritage to various camps (Manazar and Tule Lake in California, Minidoka in Idaho, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Poston and Gilla River in Arizona, Amache in Colorado, and Rower and Jerome in Arkansas).
Japanese American citizens and immigrants were forced to sell their land, houses, and furniture, and sent off—often with family members being sent in different directions—to older barracks and long unused governmental camps located in cold mountain locations, deserts, and steamy swamps. Through letters and historical records, Reeves spends numerous pages of his book describing the nearly unbearable conditions of these camps, whose inhabitants were plagued by freezing temperatures, wild sand storms, and drenching rainfalls. The evacuees were told that they were being taken to the camps in order to protect them, but as they noted, the guns on the other side of the barbed wire borders were pointing in toward them, not out toward any possible intruders.
Although some artists such as Ansel Adams, who attempted to document camp life, and Isamu Noguchi, the noted sculptor who volunteered to teach art to the evacuees, attempted to bring community activities to the boredom of camp life, Reeves describes that such activities aroused little interest from these basically farm folk. In fact, as other books such as Violet Kazue de Cristoforo’s anthology May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow (Sun & Moon Press, 1997) have revealed, there were haiku clubs in many of the camps, as well as numerous painting groups. Some camps held weekly dances and created scout troops for the younger internees. And both young and old had educational opportunities. Regardless of the shock of becoming subjects of such hate from their fellow citizens, and the harsh conditions the Japanese Americans faced in the camps, some semblance of meaningful activity gradually arose in the infamous internment installations.
As the war progressed, some Nisei were encouraged to volunteer for the military—many of whom did join up later in the remarkable One Hundredth Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Teams fighting in Europe, by war’s end liberating some of those imprisoned in the Jewish concentration camps, while in the U.S. their own parents remained locked away in somewhat similar conditions. Other second generation men and women were released to work in the Midwest and East, with the provision that they could not work or live near railroad tracks or military centers.
Eventually fractures between the locked away Japanese Americans began to grow, particularly between the first generation immigrants, together with those educated in Japan, and the often younger and more assimilated Nisei—particularly when all were asked to sign a loyalty oath after their rights as American citizens had already been taken away. Gangs of disbelievers, the so-called “no-no” boys (who had refused to sign) began attacking those who had more moderate views or even their other family members, particularly at Tule Lake. Many feared that all would be sent to Japan after the war and found little reason to remain loyal to a nation that had been so disloyal to them.
The government made it worse by rounding up most of the disloyals and sending them to Tule Lake, while refusing to keep order within. Major protests occurred, which brought about further feelings of injustice and hatred. As Reeves makes clear, conditions in the camps were often worse than the prisons to which the most violent were shipped.
Even when officials began to release the prisoners, others were afraid to leave for fear of how they might be treated by their fellow American citizens. Several feared leaving their older family members behind, and worried about the breakup of family which had been so central to their upbringing. Some, strangely enough, had become dependent on camp life, where meals and activities were served up to them freely. Many, who had lost everything they had owned, had nowhere else to go.
Reeves ends his detailed account of these camps by turning his attention to the young Japanese American soldiers who bravely fought for the U.S., demonstrating clearly that the post-Pearl Harbor hysteria had utterly no basis in reality. His descriptions of several Japanese American young soldiers are some of the most touching passages of his generally moving book.
After the war, some of those who had strongly supported the camps, like Earl Warren, came to regret their racism and injustice. Reeves argues Warren’s 1954 decision on public school integration in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, where he joined the court’s unanimous decision, “was related to [his] disgraceful actions in 1942.”
The author ends his fascinating account of this American infamy with a comment from Connie Nice, the director of The History Museum in Hood River, Oregon, where even after the war, a local group posted ads in the papers which read “So Sorry Please, Japs Are Not Wanted in Hood River”: “I’m hoping that people will just stop and think: Could we do that again? Are we doing that again, with Latinos or Mexicans or Muslims? . . . I’m not saying this little exhibit [A Circle of Freedom: Lost and Restored] will change the world. But I want people to walk away and say, ‘Maybe we didn’t do that right’ and I hope then that they’re not going to repeat history.”