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Manzanar National Historic Site, California


You know the story. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was believed that Japan would next strike the west coast of the United States. Some military strategists thought it might be a full scale invasion; others anticipated a series of raids by the Japanese fleet against coastal cities, towns and installations. The decision was made to declare the west coast a theater of war.


People of Japanese ancestry—whether or not they were U.S. citizens—were suddenly considered a threat, and the army recommended that they be evacuated and moved from the “theater of war”. President Roosevelt agreed, and signed Executive Order 9066, allowing more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry to be rounded up and moved into a series of internment camps in isolated locations situated along established railroad lines.


Japanese Americans were notified of their status and ordered to report to assembly areas—race tracks, or football stadiums—where they were processed, then moved with the fewest possible personal possessions, to remote camps where they were made to live.


Ralph’s masters thesis about this event has the longest title I’ve ever seen for a written work: “The Role of Army Doctrine in the Decision to Recommend the Evacuation of People of Japanese Ancestry on the West Coast of the United States—A Novel” (I’m kidding about that last part.) I asked him what he could tell me about the Manzanar War Relocation Center when we briefly stopped to see the site during our southwest road trip. At the base of a starkly beautiful range of hills stand two of the grim barracks, out of the former hundreds, reconstructed for historical reflection.


“There was no sign of any Japanese unrest,” said Ralph. “No subversive, threatening, or ‘fifth column’ activities at all in the United States." But DeWitt, the general in charge of defending the west coast, said "that very silence is an indication of a problem"—a perspective consistent with army doctrine.


The decision to move the families was challenged, but “the Supreme Court evaluated the legality of the order and ruled that it was a ‘military necessity’,” Ralph explained. “By late 1944 there was no threat of Japanese attack. These people hadn’t done anything. There was no instance of Japanese sabotage on the mainland. So they were allowed to go home.”


But the damage was already done. For three years, Japanese American families lived in cramped barracks with little privacy and no indoor plumbing. They tried to live as normally as possible, with schools, and sports. Living conditions improved over time. They built rock gardens.


“While they were interned, they lost property,” said Ralph. “A lot of them had to quickly liquidate assets, or if they leased property, like the farmers, their leases ran out while they were in the camps. They had to start all over again when they came home.” Often there wasn’t a home to return to.


“In the seventies, President Reagan signed an official ‘sorry, we fucked up’ document, and survivors were given an extremely low level of compensation,” said Ralph. “So, the U.S. officially apologized. Way too little, way too late.” 



Read When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (whose mother and grandmother were interned) for a beautiful novelization about the relocation camps.


One Response to “manzanar”

  • Tom Hughes:

    I’m not accustomed to correcting people in this type of forum but if my memory serves President Reagan wasn’t President until 1981. Additionally, those ‘range of hills’ happen to be The Sierra Nevada’s and Manzanar is not too far from the tallest ‘hill’ in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney being a little over 14,400 ft in elevation.


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