Sunday, August 11, 2013


Today, I went back to Manzanar after about a 20 year absence.   When my daughter was in college my son and I drove by the spot where we interred Japanese Americans for a couple of years during WWII.   At the time I was first there, it was an abandoned spot.   There were some remnants of foundations of some of the buildings, but that was about it.

The climate in that part of Inyo county is hot in the summer and cold in the winter and often windy.   So one would expect that the temporary structures would not have survived.   And yet we should not forget this incident in our history.

Since about 2002 there has been an interpretive center and some reconstructed buildings including the guard tower in the photo to the left.  The exhibits are well done.   This is a place where every American should go.

The interpretive exhibits are actually almost unflinching in their description of what happened after December 7, 1941.   Within a very short period of time, Japanese Americans (many of the Californians were fishermen or farmers) were rounded up - many of those families eventually wound up in one of the relocation centers.  Some were allowed to relocate to other parts of the country - but many were simply put in the camps.   The federal government explicitly violated Constitutional protections yet at the same time they were imbued with the worst kind of bureaucratic speak possible.  The original director of the WRA was Milton Eisenhower.  The project director for the WRA was a person named Ralph Merritt - at one point in 1943 he said the following (it is not recorded whether he understood the irony of his statement) about the process of governance in the camps - Self governing is a process of growth from within, not the imposition of authority from without.   It is a slow process based on bitter experience."

It is hard to imagine the frenzy in the US, especially on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor.   So some supporters of the forced relocation justified it in two ways - they said a) this is not a concentration camp and b) it is being done for their own safety.  A young Warren Magnuson (who was later to be a US Senator from Washington) is quoted as saying "there were not 50 Japanese among the evacuees who are loyal to this country."  There were some Californians who were not taken up in this bigotry including the Presidents of UC Berkeley and Stanford who formed the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play.   But for the most part Americans supported these actions.  Near the end of WWII the Gallup organization polled people in five Western states (Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Arizona) on the following question -

Do you think the Japanese who were moved from the Pacific Coast should be allowed to return to the Pacific Coast when the war is over?
Results for the five States are:
  • Would allow all to return: 29%
  • Would allow only Japanese who are citizens to return: 24%
  • Would allow none to return: 31%
  • Undecided at present: 16%
The WRA is a blot upon US history that was only partially rectified when President Reagan signed an act offering partial reparations for the expropriation of all those people's property.

I was particularly struck with the work of the WRA because soon after I moved back to California, a farmer whose family had been relocated  told me his story.   He had offered to support me for a position on a planning board and I was at his property, near my house in the Natomas area (which was just being built), to talk to him about the position.   In his barn was a 1936 Dodge tractor that was in mint condition.  After we had gotten to know each other, I asked him about the tractor.  He said his family had bought the tractor before Pearl Harbor.   His family was forcibly relocated and like many other Japanese Americans who faced this peril, had all of their property expropriated.   When the war ended he and his brother who both served in the 442d in Italy with distinction, found the serial number of the tractor that the family had bought, found it, bought it back and ultimately restored it.   He said, without emotion, "as long as I am alive that tractor will never leave me."   It was a point of pride.

Sinclair Lewis wrote a semi-satirical novel about the rise of Fascism in the US called "It Can't Happen Here."   As one thinks about the WRA, one could have said , "it can't but it did."   We need to be on guard against the potential for wretched excess in government.

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