Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II

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“A prominent supporter of Donald J. Trump drew concern and condemnation from advocates for Muslims’ rights on Wednesday after he cited World War II-era Japanese-American internment camps as a ‘precedent’ for an immigrant registry suggested by a member of the president-elect’s transition team… “We’ve done it based on race, we’ve done it based on religion, we’ve done it based on region,’ Mr. [Carl] Higbie said...We did it during World War II with Japanese…’ “He stood by his comments in a phone interview on Thursday morning, saying that he had been alluding to the fact that the Supreme Court had ‘upheld things as horrific as Japanese internment camps.’” --New York Times, 11/17/16, “Trump Camp’s Talk of Registry and Japanese Internment Raises Muslims’ Fears”

“The whole world is festering with unhappy souls, The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch, And I don’t like anybody very much.” --Sheldon Harnick, “The Merry Minuet,” popularized in 1959 by The Kingston Trio

“Rightly called humanity’s most dangerous myth, racism has no scientific basis. Modern genetics, neuroscience, and physiology have proved that there are no basic differences between races. Apart from skin color, hair texture, and facial features, all human beings are essentially alike.  We inherit physical traits from our parents, but social traits--morality, manners, ideas, religious beliefs, work habits--are not, and cannot be inherited. We acquire these from our upbringing, education, and life experiences.”

In his impeccably-researched and fascinating read, UPROOTED, author Albert Marrin frames the shameful story of America’s locking up Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps during World War II within a larger history of racism, as practiced in the United States and by other nations.

There are some big surprises here. Did you know that… … Dr. Seuss drew racially demeaning, anti-Japanese cartoons during World War II? … Eleanor Roosevelt called the uprooting “absurd,” “vicious,” and “pathetic,” and told FDR that the West Coast Japanese “are good Americans and have the right to live as anyone else”? … Dorothea Lange took hundreds of stunning, candid photos of Japanese Americans incarcerated at Manzanar that were “impounded” by the government and only came to light a decade ago? … World War II was arguably shortened by years thanks to brave Japanese-American soldiers, most of whom had family imprisoned in camps? … The U.S. War Department separated all blood plasma by the race of the donor until 1950? From cover to cover, UPROOTED is a gold mine for those of us who love learning the truth about American history.

While it is nowadays common knowledge that Thomas Jefferson was a slave-owning racist who fathered half a dozen children by a woman he owned, it was a shock to read about Abraham Lincoln’s pre-presidential writings.

“Lincoln was a white supremacist, a believer in the superiority of the white race, and laced his early speeches with this idea. The Declaration of Independence, he insisted, was ‘the white man’s charter of freedom.’ The founders had made the United States government ‘for the white people and not for the Negroes.’ The future sixteenth president called blacks members of ‘the inferior races’ and Mexicans ‘a race of mongrels.’”

From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pre-presidential writings, we learn that the man ultimately responsible for the Japanese-American concentration camps, “viewed people of Japanese origin racially--as a group--not as individuals. Japanese were Japanese in his eyes; they could no more change their nature than a zebra could change its stripes to polka dots. ‘Japanese immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population,’ FDR declared.” As president, “he insisted that the Japanese were a ‘treacherous people’ and that aggression ‘was in the blood.’”

It was with this mindset that, in 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which permitted the exclusion of any or all people from defined “military” areas. Without debate or dissent, Congress set severe penalties for violating the order. The order didn’t specify any particular group, but it seems everyone was in agreement as to whom they were targeting.

According to the author, “The presidential order and the law that confirmed it were unjust. The American ideal of justice is based on individual rights and equality before the law. It rejects any notion of group guilt. We are responsible for what we do personally, not for who we are or how we look. Innocence or guilt cannot depend on race, ancestry, religion, language, family, social class, sex, wealth, politics, feelings, or ideas. In violating this core principle, decision makers failed to discharge their first duty: to protect all the people equally. Rather than confront fear and rumor with facts and reason, they let them run wild, even fed them in the name of ‘national security.’ Leaders’ failures set the stage for untold personal tragedies, casting doubt on the very essence of America.” The author explains that there are recognized laws for rounding up and confining “enemy aliens,” foreigners inadvertently stuck in America when their country and America become enemy combatants. But taking away the constitutional rights of American citizens, because their ancestors came from a country that was suddenly at war with America? You’d think that this would be unthinkable and unconscionable.

Yet that was the result of FDR’s executive order and its enforcement against Japanese Americans. As the result of American “fear, economic jealousy, and racial bigotry,” more than 100,000 Japanese American citizens were forced to leave behind virtually all of their possessions--and their pets--as they were uprooted and imprisoned in concentration camps for the crime of being of Japanese descent. Having pursued the American Dream, they lost everything they’d worked for and accumulated, along with their Constitutional freedoms. Racists, con artists, and opportunists got great bargains on the belongings that had to be left behind. (I was surprised to learn that Japanese Canadians suffered similar treatment in Canada.)

The author explains how the War Relocation Authority (WRA) employed euphemisms and propaganda in seeking to influence public opinion about what was taking place. A euphemism is a mild word or phrase that is used in place for another one that is normally considered blunt, unpleasant, or upsetting. The term “concentration camp” was banned by those in charge of running the program. Instead, it was stated that Japanese Americans were “evacuated” to “internment camps.” But as FDR’s secretary of the interior Harold Ickes, stated, “‘They were concentration camps nonetheless.” Interestingly, the author points out, the 1940s euphemistic term “internment camp” is still used today by authors, journalists, and textbooks.

Trump confidante Carl Higbie was only partially correct about the Supreme Court. Albert Marrin details the cases brought by imprisoned Japanese Americans that reached the Supreme Court. A court majority affirmed the curfew and exclusion orders, but ultimately ruled that Japanese American prisoners were being denied habeas corpus and were Constitutionally-entitled to either a court hearing or freedom. This effectively ended their imprisonment.

The author concludes by drawing out the historical parallel between Japanese Americans during World War II and  American Muslims today. American Muslims have been vilified as a group over the past fifteen years. The president-elect has still not walked back his lie that he saw “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims cheering on New Jersey rooftops as the Twin Towers collapsed. Will he try to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.? Will he try to force Muslim American citizens to register like the Japanese Americans?

UPROOTED shows that in times of national crisis, individual liberties can be far too easily abrogated. Fortunately, as UPROOTED teaches us, the U.S. Constitution safeguards these liberties and requires due process if and when a president pursues such un-American actions.

256 pages 978-0-553-50936-6 Ages 12 and up (Grades 7 and up)

Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA

See more of his recommendations:  Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com

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