July 14, 2024

Learning from past mistakes: WW2 US Internment Camps

Refusing to learn from our history is a ridiculous trait that the United States has carried for generations. Let’s stop that.

In 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Government froze Japanese assets and started surveilling community leaders and raiding homes for contraband. Within two months, President Roosevelt had signed an order forcing all people of the US with Japanese ancestry to get rid of everything but what they could carry, pull their kids from school, and report to assembly centers. (In case some are inclined think this was a well thought out plan, the centers were usually at fairgrounds and racetracks, and the detainees were living in stables. Smelly, dirty barns, sometimes without things like a roof.) From there they would be dispersed to concentration camps that had been set up across the inter-mountain west, well away from the coasts where it was thought that it was much easier for the enemy to infiltrate.

There were many camps. The Justice Department had sites that often held German-American and Italian-American detainees as well as the Japanese. These were in isolated parts of Texas, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Idaho, and Georgia, usually on Native American reservations. The problem inmates were sent to different camps in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Detainees that had been convicted of crimes (usually draft resistance) were sent to Federal Bureau of Prisons sites at Catalina, AZ, Fort Leavenworth, KS, and McNeil Island, WA. US Army facilities were also set up in California, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Arizona, Maryland, Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, and Hawaii.

These were not easy places to live. They were placed in barren environments or inside military installations with inadequate facilities, like open showers and communal dining and sleeping areas. Sickness and despondency was rampant and the level of misery was high. The US government kept up its long and colorful history of not giving a shit about the people it was harming, and kept between 110,000 and 120,000 Americans behind barbed wire because of a poorly thought out, reactionary plan. These weren’t spies. They weren’t terrorists. They were families, children, mentally ill people, men and women who had done nothing to threaten, and yet were detained for years and had almost everything taken from them. Sometimes even their lives.

No, there were no gas chambers. Extermination of a race was not the immediate goal. It was, according to Roosevelt, for the protection of both the Japanese-American people and the country. It would both stop espionage, and protect the people from overzealous white people citizens who might go all vigilante justice.

Gee, wonder how in the name of propaganda that would happen?
These reasons, turns out, were a front, because what FDR was really about was good old fashioned racism toward Asians. In the 1920’s, Roosevelt wrote a series of articles outlining his thoughts on how “Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population,” and how mixing of “Asianic” blood with American or European blood lead to disastrous results. The camps were an overreaction to his own racial biases, and generations of Americans have suffered for it.

We now live in an era where the same FDR level ideas about race toward Jewish and Japanese culture are now being leveled at Latinx and Muslim cultures. Our president attempted to ban all travel to and from seven Middle Eastern countries. (Conveniently, not the ones he does business in that are arguably more of a threat to national security.) A memo leaked talking about activating 100,000 National Guard members to ferret out illegal immigrants, many from Sanctuary Cities, and ship them back across the border. This cannot end well.

Our leadership might be incapable of learning from past mistakes, but this doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be. Over 4,000 Japanese-Americans were sent back to Japan after WW2, most of them under the age of 20. What could they have been, if allowed to stay? What does it do to generations to learn that their peers seem to be willing to put them in prison camps in the middle of godforsaken nowhere because racism? That pressure for perfection that can seem prevalent in Asian American families didn’t just happen for no reason. Cultural pressure is very real, and sometimes quite damaging.

Protests, lawsuits, the Judiciary arm of the government, all of these things will help us to stave off another grave mistake on top of the pile of grave mistakes this country has already made. Standing with our neighbors, getting to know people not based on generalization but for who they are, and recognizing that diversity is what makes America great, not stupid hats and horrifying lies to justify bad policy.


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Tami Dooley 142 Articles

Tami is from Idaho. She's a fan of the Boise State Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks, college football on the whole, and almost thought about becoming a baseball fan for a minute one time. Send whiskey.

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