America’s concentration camps


tragedy_coverA few months after Pearl Harbor, the United States Army, acting under the direction of F.D.R. and Congress, summarily rounded up the entire ethnic Japanese population on the West Coast.  Ultimately, about 120,000 people would be interned, many in makeshift tarpaper shacks that were cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

As Greg Robinson writes, the events remain “oddly obscure in popular American memory: most ordinary people I have spoken to have never even heard of them.”  Yet one distinguished historian urged him to choose another field of study – what more, he asked, could be said about the matter?

Robinson, author of last year’s A Tragedy of Democracy, thinks a lot had yet to be said: Previous studies have been “too limited in time and space” he told a gathering last week in the Terrace Room of Margaret Jacks Hall.

Too limited in time, he said, because the Japanese-American community was under surveillance years before Pearl Harbor. The government began building concentration camps months before the war.  “It all points to a momentum,” he said, so that by the time the Japanese-American community was rounded up, “radical action seemed not just thinkable, but reasonable.”

Too limited in space, he said, because it was necessary to  “expand the discussion beyond the U.S.”  His study extends to similar actions in Mexico, which organized for the mass removal of its Mexicans months before it entered the war in May 1942, and Canada, where 3,000 or 4,000 out of 20,000 Japanese Americans were deported.


Greg Robinson

In America, rationalizations abounded.  Japanese Americans were told the internment was “for their own good.”  Yet before the implementation of the executive order 9066, there had been no discussion of protective custody.  And, as Robinson pointed out, the guns at the camps were pointed inward, to the Japanese Americans, not outward, towards any potential intruders.

“Almost everybody lost something, and some people lost everything,” said Robinson, also the author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.

In a question-and-answer period, James Campbell, who had headed Brown University’s committee to consider black reparations, pointed out that so often “institutions of memory are processes of forgetting.” (Think of the late modest reparations offered for Japanese Americans a generation later.)  “Apologies, confrontation, memorialization should be a way to open the books instead of a way to close the books.”

Easy to moralize over the worst civil rights violation of modern U.S. history.  But we live in the post- 9/11 era – in an era of suicide bombers reducing airline passengers to the shoeless shuffle through security, and an army shrink opening fire in Fort Hood.  How to answer those who call for more vigilant security measures — even profiling? “If the community members feel on the spot and see that they are trusted, they will be the first to call the bad guys out.”  Japanese informed on those who might have posed a danger to the U.S., he said.

Since my article on Svetlana Broz, and also on Philip Zimbardo, I have been interested, as they are, on why some people rise to heroism under such circumstances — I told Robinson of my mother-in-law’s father, Col. Kendall Fielder, who resisted the orders for the confinement of Japanese Americans in Hawaii.  But Robinson already knew the story — he’d written about it in both his books.  What makes such people different?  Robinson had only one further comment on the subject:

“You never know who will have a moment of grace, and under what circumstances.”

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