For years, the unjust relocation and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast during World War II — the majority of them American citizens — was shrouded in shame and secrecy.
In 1988, the U.S. government finally apologized to the internees and authorized the payment of modest reparations. Even today, this incident, well-chronicled in books and museum exhibitions and so antithetical to our American ideals, retains its power to shock.
"Infamy," by the journalist and presidential biographer Richard Reeves, covers much familiar ground. Its greatest strength is probably Reeves's masterful use of anecdotes, which enliven an epic story with poignant tales of individual hardship, courage, and endurance.
Reeves's sympathies are never in doubt. But he is a sufficiently rigorous reporter to present a complicated picture of life in the camps. He reminds us, too, that progressive political figures, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then-California attorney general and later governor Earl Warren, backed the relocation. (As chief justice of the Supreme Court, Warren would rue that support — a stance Reeves believes influenced the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision.)
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States mobilized — and panicked. Reeves recounts that more than 1,200 "American Japanese community leaders" were arrested within 48 hours without any charges. Anti-Japanese hysteria, fanned by the media, was a compound of "fear and prejudice, politics and greed," in Reeves's view.
Theodor Seuss Geisel — who would become the beloved Dr. Seuss — drew an inflammatory editorial cartoon with ugly caricatures of Japanese in America lining up for packs of dynamite. The influential columnist Walter Lippmann warned of potential sabotage and said that no one had "the right to reside and do business on a battlefield."
The government itself was divided, with the Justice Department opposing relocation. Nevertheless, Executive Order 9066, signed by Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, authorized the secretary of war to create "military zones" from which any resident could be removed. The order paved the way for resettlement of both Japanese immigrant parents (Issei), who had been denied the right to citizenship, and their U.S.-born children (Nisei).
With little warning, evacuees were obliged to sell homes, businesses, and possessions for bargain-basement prices, turn them over to friends, or simply abandon them. They were assembled in converted stables still smelling of horse urine before being transported to makeshift camps in desolate, rural areas afflicted by dust storms and brutal temperature extremes.
The young adapted best. At their camp high schools, students recited the Gettysburg Address and sang "God Bless America," while their volunteer teachers cried. "If I am helping the government by staying here," 17-year-old Louise Ogawa wrote to the children's librarian Clara Breed in San Diego, "I am glad." Breed visited the Santa Anita Assembly Center, and quoted a young girl there as saying, "I am tired of Japan, Mother. Let's go back to America."
Some internees took advantage of the opportunity, beginning in early 1943, to join the US military — a way of escaping the relocation centers and demonstrating loyalty. But many, angered by their treatment, demurred. "The enlistment program was a failure in all the ten camps," Reeves declares.
By contrast, Japanese American volunteers were plentiful in Hawaii, where internment was never attempted. LATER OTHERS WERE DRAFTED FROM THE CAMPS AND ELSEWHERE. Those who did serve — including the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team — demonstrated unusual valor.
Within the camps, all was not tranquil: There were instances of rebellion against U.S. authorities and violent conflicts between those with opposing political views. Intergenerational rifts were common. Some residents became bitter; others turned on one another. California's Tule Lake Relocation Center, transformed into a segregation camp for "disloyals," was the site of considerable unrest.
Four challenges to the anti-Japanese curfews and evacuations reached the Supreme Court; only one was decided, on narrow grounds, for the plaintiff. But eventually, as the war's tide turned, the government came to doubt both the legality and the utility of the relocation centers. In one irony, as they were emptied in 1944-45, some older people, fearing yet more disruption, fought to stay.
"Through it all," Reeves writes, "the desert heat and windstorms and bitter cold, the breakdowns and suicides, the overwhelming majority of the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States."
"Infamy" is above all a plea for tolerance. American misgivings about immigrants have long been a feature of our popular culture, Reeves reminds us. They were "foreigners who were needed for their labor and skills and faith," he writes, who were "often hated because they were not like us until they were us."
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.