Don’t repeat the Manzanar mistake
December 25, 2007
“Those that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.” – Benjamin Franklin
I have traveled up and down U.S. 395 for most of my life. When I was a child growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in Southern California, we drove it getting to and from vacations in the Sierra. Each time we passed between Lone Pine and Independence, we’d notice a little stone building just off the highway. “Manzanar,” my mom would say. She told us of her Japanese American friends who had been interned there after Pearl Harbor. “They lost everything.” We never stopped and there wasn’t much to see from the road. However, I understood at an early age that something sad and shameful had happened there.
Last month, my husband and I finally did stop. The Manzanar National Historic Site, which opened in 2004, is located on the west side of U.S. 395, six miles south of Independence, Calif. The National Park Service has created a poignant exhibit in what was the gymnasium, including a short film, photographs, documents and artifacts. Admission is free. A short driving tour took us around the camp. We walked through the remains of what had been an elaborate garden and tried to envision what life had been like for the ten thousand Japanese Americans interned there between 1942 and 1945. We paid our respects at the cemetery where other visitors had left coins and chains of folded paper cranes.
In 1942, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was running high. Japanese Americans were attacked, fired from their jobs, arrested. The military disconnected their telephones, closed their businesses, froze their bank accounts.
President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the relocation and/or internment of anyone who might threaten the U.S. war effort. Over 100,000 West Coast Japanese Americans were given 48 hours to leave their homes, forcing them to sell or abandon belongings and property.
Manzanar was just one of 10 camps where Japanese Americans were sent. Although it was called a “War Relocation Center,” military police armed with submachine guns in the eight guard towers, the searchlights and barbed wire told a different story. Manzanar was a prison camp.
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About two-thirds of the internees at Manzanar were U.S. citizens. The remaining third had been in the U.S. for decades but denied citizenship simply because they were Japanese. Two-thirds were children. Not one of those confined here was ever charged with espionage. It didn’t matter. It was enough that they looked like the enemy.
In 1944, the Supreme Court, accepting justifications of national security and military necessity, refused to block Executive Order 9066. Paradoxically, in a separate ruling that same year, it held that loyal citizens could not be held against their will. And yet, thousands of citizens were indeed held without due process.
Internees repeatedly tried to demonstrate their loyalty. Some volunteered to build and maintain the camp. Some joined the military. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, about 5000 Japanese Americans were serving in the U.S. Army. The 100th/442nd Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese Americans, fought with distinction in Europe. Because of the dangerous missions it took on and the valor of its members, it had the highest casualty rate and was the most highly decorated unit for its size and length of service. By the end of the war, nearly 26,000 Japanese Americans had served in the U.S. military.
Sadao Munemori, the only Japanese American to win the Medal of Honor during World War II, fought and died in Italy while his family was interned at Manzanar. Nevertheless, Japanese aliens would not be allowed to become naturalized citizens until 1952, seven years after the war ended.
As I took in the exhibits, I felt both sad and ashamed. How could our government have done this? Doesn’t the Constitution limit its power to imprison someone so arbitrarily? I asked the ranger what other visitors felt.
“Many feel surprise or anger. They had no idea this had ever happened. They leave fired-up to never let it happen again.”
Nevertheless, earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments involving the rights of the 305 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. For six years, our government has held them with neither access to lawyers nor knowledge of the evidence against them. They have had no way to refute the charges the government has made. Sound familiar?
Manzanar exists as a reminder of just how fragile our civil liberties are. It is our duty to be vigilant, to view the actions of our government with a critical eye. The true enemies of liberty may well be our own ignorance and fear. Or our apathy. If we don’t stand up, we could be the target next time.
• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on issues both timely and timeless. Lorie Smith Schaefer is a retired teacher. She invites you to visit Manzanar and learn more about Japanese internment at http://www.nps.gov/manz/