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New Light on an Old Story

September 27, 2007 By:
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The authorities came late at night, without warning, dragging people from their beds like criminals. No explanations were offered, despite all pleas. The next thing that the dazed, innocent victims knew, they were on trains, with the blinds drawn, traveling to unknown destinations, uncertain of what the future held for them.

It sounds like a scenario right out of Nazi-occupied Europe, but it happened here in the United States to American citizens of Japanese descent, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

The appearance of a truly important piece of historiography titled Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of the Japanese American Internment -- edited by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, and recently published by W.W. Norton -- draws attention yet again to this little-known and shameful episode in American history, which has obvious parallels to the fate of the Jews, especially in Germany, in the pre-World War II period.

Anyone of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast was ordered interned in one of numerous camps in the West and Southwest. The American standard, according to several histories of the event, was that if you had even one-sixteenth Japanese blood, then you were Japanese, which was twice as stringent as the guidelines adhered to by the Nazis. If you were one-eighth Jewish, you were considered a candidate for the concentration camps and, if so fated, the gas chambers.

Right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI began arresting all leaders of the Japanese community; as in the case of the Jews, these were invariably males. Wives and children were left behind, along with elderly individuals. The leaders were taken to camps in Montana and Texas, and then issued uniforms stamped with the letters "PW."

As with the Nazis, this was an effective plan, since it ensured that new leaders would not spring up overnight to resist what came next in the overall plan. A curfew was imposed on all Japanese-Americans living along the Pacific Coast, pursuant to an executive order issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in February 1942.

The president was taking his cues from the military commanders, who drew up all the guidelines, which were conveniently broad in their applications. The most important and influential of these advisers was Gen. John L. DeWitt, who was famous for making the statement, "A Jap is a Jap." He singlehandedly wiped out the civil rights of thousands of American citizens in a matter of days.

The next development was the most tragic: the wholesale roundup of Japanese-Americans, who were classified as Japanese aliens and non-aliens. The effort was much like that of the Nazis -- to dehumanize the prisoners. It is the key to racism in any society. What red-blooded Ameri-can wouldn't want action taken against enemy aliens?

The individuals -- 110,000 of them -- were told only to bring what they could carry. They were eventually consigned to tar-paper barracks, without running water, and each heated by a single potbellied stove. Five or more families could reside in a single unit, each living space divided by low, thin walls.

Though conditions varied from camp to camp, in most cases, the inmates went to a central core area to wash and use the latrine, and there was a central mess hall for meals as well.

Those people who did find employment were paid on a monthly basis, anywhere from $12 to $16; if you were a professional -- a doctor or dentist -- the pay was about $19 a month.

The articulated reason for the roundup was fear of espionage. But it was shown that there had been numerous German and Italian aliens -- noncitizens -- living in the country who were never incarcerated.

The other reason given for the internment was that the Japanese might be subject to violence from their fellow citizens. No one in the camps accepted this explanation, since it was the government that had created the atmosphere of suspicion. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and, in the four corners, there were watchtowers with searchlights and guards stationed with machine guns.

The government insisted that all this apparatus was there to protect the inmates. But the lights and guns were always pointed inward, not outward.

The only American citizens who spoke out against the roundups were Quakers and a few university professors. The Christian churches were silent.

The inmates did their best to retain some semblance of community life, as had been the case in the Jewish ghettos throughout Europe. Makeshift schools were set up for the children, and cultural events were planned to educate and entertain the adults.

Twists and Turns

American policy toward the Japanese took many twists and turns. At first, Japanese-Americans were classified 4C, as aliens who could not serve in the armed forces. In time, the policy was rescinded, and the army began drafting young Japanese men. Thousands served in both Europe and the Pacific Theater, leaving their parents and grandparents behind in the camps, and without being told what fate awaited family members.

In 1943, the War Department had reluctantly conceded that there was no longer any excuse for keeping these people locked up. The department, however, did not inform the president of its decision.

In the spring of 1944, staffers again raised the issue and were permitted to relay their conclusion to Roosevelt. As it turned out, the camps were not shut down till December of that year. It had been pointed out to the president that, since he was running for a third term, he might not want to shut them down until after November.

But once free to return to society, how were these people supposed to begin again? Many of their homes and farms had been lost, repossessed by banks or the government because of nonpayment of mortgages and taxes. Many people, especially the elderly, were broken and beyond repair. They may not have been incarcerated in death camps, but there is more than one way to crush the human spirit.

All of these issues are revisited in Impounded, which is filled with Dorothea Lange's unadorned, crystalline works, paradigmatic examples of the photojournalist's art. Lange was, at the time of the roundups, in the employ of the WPA and had already added many indelible images to the national consciousness, the majority of them dealing with the effects of the Depression on everyday citizens. She was assigned to document the internment, and threw herself wholeheartedly into the project, working seven days a week in early 1942, knowing it was important to record the consequences of this tragic policy.

The army limited Lange's ability to photograph the worst of camp conditions, but what is here is devastating enough. The photos, in toto, were never circulated -- a few appear in earlier volumes dedicated to Lange's work -- but they have been given new life through Impounded.

The book contains two extended essays, one that details the history of the roundup, the other focusing on how Lange went about her assignment. Along with the photos, these are documents of considerable importance, testimony intrinsic to the assessment of the American experience -- both its greatness and its terrible defects.

 

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