(This is a post from the end of September. I didn’t finish writing it then, but recent events made me revisit it).
I just finished reading Camp and Community: Manzanar and the Owens Valley, an oral history compiled in the mid 1970s by Jessie A. Garrett and Ronald C. Larson. Unlike many of the oral histories of Manzanar, these interviews are not of internees. Rather, this is a collection of interviews of twenty some odd people who lived and worked in the area. Some of them worked at the camp itself (including one director of the camp), while some had no connection to it at all.
It’s a fascinating read. Not unexpectedly, people often contradict one another and the memories are rife with inconsistencies, but it paints a picture of a small, relatively isolated community being confronted with substantial change and influx of outsiders (both within the camp and with the outside personnel the camp required). The change was an economic boon in a lean time, and it brought outside attention to the area. Both of these factors affected the attitudes of the community.
There is a strong impression that some people’s feelings changed in the twenty-five to thirty years between when the events took place and the interviews occurred.
Among the people whose opinions changed against the internment, there were all of the expected explanations: it wasn’t actually so bad, some of the the internees came voluntarily, it was for their own protection, the internment was a fait accompli and there was nothing to be done, there were legitimate mutual threats against America and Japanese Americans so this was sadly necessary, and so on. Among the people who supported the internment then and now, the arguments were also the expected ones: it was war, these were people of suspect loyalty, internees were treated better than the Japanese would treat Americans, to do otherwise would be to invite disaster.
One theme, as valid today as any time, is that fear is easily stirred up and manipulated to make people do things they would ordinarily oppose. Several of the interviewed people reflected on the fact that American citizens were unconstitutionally stripped of their rights, but excused it because there was a foreign threat to the country. It was also clear that the sense of “otherness” was key. Many of the people interviewed said they’d never seen (much less met) a person of Japanese descent before the establishment of the camp.
Another theme is essentially the William Goldman adage to “follow the money.” People like newspaperman Manchester Boddy helped establish the camps — and profited greatly on buying up the property of Japanese-Americans at firesale prices when they had twenty-four hours to liquidate their belongings before being shipped out.
Some of the defenses of the creation of Manzanar are true. People were afraid. We were at war. The imperial Japanese army was terrible and cruel to captured peoples. And yet, even if true, these are irrelevant. If our rights as Americans are subject to revocation when we’re afraid, then they’re not rights. If our answer to enemy cruelty is cruelty, then we’re no different than our enemy. If we can strip citizens of their freedom and property just because they look different than the majority, then we descend into mob rule and our lofty appeals to our ideals are just so much hot air.