Did you know that the U.S. had its own concentration camps during WWII? Every time I re-encounter this fact, I am amazed anew. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order and 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and placed in camps in the western U.S. By the way, almost half of the 68 civilian casualties at Pearl Harbor were Japanese Americans. (A total of 2,403 Americans died that day.)
In the 1980s, an investigation determined that the decision to put Japanese Americans in camps had little grounding in any evidence of disloyalty and was instead due to “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” (Senate Bill 1009, 1987). This led to President Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988 that apologized and authorized reparations for camp survivors.
Today’s debates about immigration, deportation, and refugees are held in the context of constant background fear about terrorism. Our history shows us that our country, just like any other, can be moved to acts we later regret out of fear and concerns about national security. We can claim no inherent moral superiority.
In addition to knowing facts, like how many people were groundlessly incarcerated, it is helpful to hear about individual experiences. The Densho digital archive collects stories of Japanese Americans with a particular focus on their incarceration in American concentration camps in WWII. Densho provides more than 900 video interviews as well as photos, documents, and camp newspapers. The photo at right is of the Manzanar concentration camp in California, taken by Ansel Adams.
The interviews talk about how people were rounded up, life in the camps, and the impact of that experience. As just one example, Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga talked about giving birth to her daughter while living in a camp. She was unable to persuade the camp to provide canned milk for her daughter, who was allergic to powdered milk. Yet some internees had access to art classes, or softball games as shown at left (I love this picture).
One detail of personal interest I learned is that one of the Citizen Isolation Centers (where “so-called troublemakers” were sent from the concentration camps) was located near my hometown of Moab, Utah.
These interviews are fascinating and educational. I look forward to listening to more of them. Perhaps the stories shared in this collection can help us to avoid repeating our mistakes.