Book review: “Infamy, the Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II”
Special to the Daily
Nearly every country on Earth has some dark history that it would rather bury, a chapter of shameful national behavior that can damage the legacy of a nation, if not properly examined and dutifully acknowledged.
The United States has had its share of bleak and reprehensible periods in history, most prominently the devastating Indian Wars and the heinous centuries of slavery.
A more contemporary moral stain has received some revisited attention lately following the recent political shift to the right and the resulting calls for immigration reform and the profiling of certain ethnic and religious groups. In this age of sweeping executive orders, it is relevant to look into the not-too-distant past to examine the unwarranted and disgraceful Executive Order No. 9066, introduced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which consigned more than 120,000 Japanese American, primarily citizens, into relocation centers across the Western and Southern United States for much of World War II.
VILLAINS IN PLAIN SIGHT
“Infamy, the Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II,” a recent book by author Richard Reeves, turns the spotlight on villains who hid in plain sight, villains who held political and cultural power and who had immense sway over the American public and its collective sense of right and wrong. While exposing the depths of betrayal perpetrated on U.S. citizens, Reeves also makes sure to give attention to those who went above and beyond, those who risked their own social standing to aid and protect their Japanese American neighbors and friends.
What makes the aggregate American response to this neglected history all the more appalling, Reeves says, is that “the overwhelming majority of the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States” in spite of the treatment they received. Also, as the ultimate measure of hypocrisy, the knee-jerk reaction of the United States to the attack on Pearl Harbor came at the same time as Hitler’s actions against certain ethnic groups was being criticized.
FDR, himself, even used the term concentration camps to describe the places the interned Japanese Americans were to be sent.
LONG TIME COMING
Reeves highlights the further duplicity of the United States’ actions at the time, saying that citizens of Italian and German descent, for the most part, were left alone. This, he says, is rooted in the simple racial biases that were predominant at the time. Because of the Immigration Act of 1924, immigrants from places other than Europe were not permitted a track to naturalized citizenship, as it was deemed that because their way of life was so foreign, they could not be easily assimilated. Japanese Americans fell into this category.
Whatever the deeply rooted motivations, the backlash against Japanese Americans was swift, taking place, in some cases, in the immediate hours following the “day that will live in infamy,” December 7, 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Raids took place in the middle of the night, and homes were turned upside down as authorities searched for any clues that could be construed as signs of disloyalty. Unfortunately, this meant anything written in Japanese characters, including even one mother’s knitting manual.
The reason that so many Japanese Americans were identified and rounded up so quickly after Pearl Harbor is because the assembly of lists of names had already been underway for months. People had been placed on the lists for many reasons, including owning a boat or having a radio or because a neighbor saw fit to put forth a name. Farmers, business leaders and factory owners — mostly men — were targeted first.
Fathers and husbands were taken without word, and it was years, in some cases, before family members were reunited. Bank accounts were frozen, leaving wives and children without financial means to survive. Most significant, Reeves points out, is these individuals — these American citizens — were arrested without ever having had charges put against them.
A handful of individuals urged caution, aware of the legal missteps that were being taken, but their voices were drowned out by the war hysteria and the blatant efforts to target a non-white race. Some, such as Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi even went so far as to call the whole internment idea one proper step in a necessary “race war.”
Others, such as Jed Johnson, a Congressman from Oklahoma dared to advocate for sterilization. With looming threats of treason, voices decrying the push to lock up Japanese American citizens became quieter, more muted. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, one of the most persistent advocates of the camps, said, “… if it is a question of the safety of the country and the Constitution … why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”
Reeves presents intensive research, giving a detailed timeline of the internment period from start to finish and admits he was motivated to delve into the history of the years of injustice and wrongdoing on behalf of the United States because he sees a trend resurfacing toward the practices that set the United States on the misguided and unlawful path it undertook during the 1940’s.
“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.’”
“Infamy” is a timely history lesson, a deterrent example of reproach to a nation that often needs reminding of its core promises and principles, and its “better angels.”
See something new at the 16th annual Vail Film Festival, screening over 40 films Thursday to Sunday.