With little warning, they were rounded up by armed government agents and sent to bleak isolated internment camps. They were guilty of a crime of genetics, of being members of an ethnic group. None were charged with a real crime. None were put on trial and convicted. None were allowed to invoke their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
The only indication that one is approaching a place of shame and dishonor is the reconstructed guard tower off to the side of the road and the green road sign telling you this is Manzanar. This place is isolated, a stretch of desolate shrub and sand boxed in by mountains. In the winter it is cold and bleak. In the summer temperatures routinely hover near 100 and mountain winds whip up desert sands. Before this "relocation camp" was closed, some 11,070 people had been imprisoned here. There were ten other such camps as well.
In spite of years of mounting tensions, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a shocking event for most Americans. For Japanese-Americans it was also the signal that they would be targeted for the crime of looking like the enemy -- or in government parlance for being guilty of "Foreign Enemy Ancestry."
Most German-Americans did not face the same threat. Neither did most Italian-Americans. Their European features meant they looked like "real Americans" and the difficulty of telling them apart from "the good guys" offered protection. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, then Attorney General for California, explained: "When we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them. But when we deal with the Japanese, we are on an entirely different field."
Only a few weeks after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt put his signature to Executive Order 9066 which effectively created military dictatorship in parts of the country. Military officials would be allowed to exclude "any and all persons" from designated sections of the country. In reality these powers, found nowhere in the Constitution, were used only in a racial way. Over 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forced out of their homes and businesses because of it.
Today, little evidence of the concentration camp exists. Barbed wire that imprisoned the men, women and children is gone. The eight original towers were dismantled after the war. Now one lone re-creation stands sentry. The "barracks" that these people were forced into were all destroyed. Now only a handful of re-creations exist. A couple of old stone guardhouses remain. If you look carefully at the ground you see foundations where buildings once stood. The Manzanar auditorium now serves as a small museum reminding people of the crimes committed in this place.
Manzanar is a place for euphemisms. FDR's administration called it a "relocation center," but it was a prison -- a concentration camp where people were incarcerated because of their ethnicity alone. Here, you can listen to various government spokesmen assuring the world that these people were not prisoners, that no one was being arrested. Of course, if by arrested you mean subjected to the legal process of protections and rights, then no one was arrested. They were rounded up. Their properties were either abandoned or sold off for pennies on the dollar. Most personal belongings had to be abandoned, including pets.
In government "newspeak," these Americans were not incarcerated but "protected." Federal agents forcing them out of their homes was called a "voluntary relocation." Officials insisted these prisoners were really "refugees" not prisoners, even if they couldn't leave.
Prisoners were asked to sign "loyalty oaths." The Issei (first generation immigrants) had always been denied the right to become citizens by federal law. They were told they must repudiate, on paper, any loyalty to Japan and the emperor, which would effectively mean loss of Japanese citizenship. But with federal restrictions banning American citizenship they would effectively be denied citizenship anywhere. The Nisei, who were born here and thus American citizens, were also in a Catch-22. How could they repudiate loyalty to the emperor and Japan when they never had any?
The young men faced another dilemma. Effectively denied all Constitutional rights and protections, they still faced conscription into the military. Apparently the "danger" of being Japanese was so severe the government was willing to give them weapons and training for their use. These men were American citizens, yet government agents such as Lt. B.M. Harrington of the Traveling Examining and Induction Board would tell them: "We in the American armed forces are happy to welcome you Japanese among our ranks, even though your country, Japan, is at war with the United States."
He assured them: "The fact that you young Japanese are willing to fight against your country should prove to all that there are a few Japanese who are good Americans."
Three hundred of the conscripts refused. They first wanted to know why they were in prison camps for disloyalty to America, but still deemed loyal enough to be drafted. Nisei who had previously joined the military were discharged as aliens ineligible for military service.
The federal government wanted Nisei to take on the "responsibilities" of citizenship while denying them rights. The resisters were arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison. This time the government didn't pretend it was a "relocation center."
Few Americans spoke against this injustice. One exception was the crusading libertarian journalist, R. C. Hoiles, editor of the Santa Ana Register. He told his readers "convicting people of disloyalty to our country without having specific evidence against them is too foreign to our way of life and too close akin to the kind of government we are fighting." Few others dared to agree. Hoiles, in an Oct 14, 1942 editorial, wrote that the internment camps were "a result of emotion and fright" and were not in harmony with the "the inherent rights that belong to all citizens."
Manzanar reminds us that fear, coupled with lies and expansive government power, is a potent threat to cherished American freedoms. Sadly, it appears few heed that warning today.
Event information: Each year a pilgrimage to Manzanar is sponsored by the Manzanar Committee. The 2011 Pilgrimage will be held on Saturday, April 30th. More information here.