Manzanar, according to my information, is a charming Spanish word meaning “apple orchard.” It was the name of a small east-central California town which flourished at the beginning of the 20th century. Before Manzanar, the land was used by Paiute Indians, who were forcibly removed to make way for agricultural settlement. The town is gone completely today, but it is not a place remembered for its apple orchards.
In December of 1941, the Japanese Empire declared war forcefully on the United States by their air strike on the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was, as President Franklin Roosevelt soon declared, a “day that would live in infamy.” Unfortunately, that was not the only one, as many Americans of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast soon found out. Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated from the West Coast of the United States to “relocation settlements” set up by the American military. And approximately ten thousand of those Japanese Americans, guilty only of their ancestry, were uprooted from their homes, given bare minimum of time to dispose of their worldly possessions and taken to a hostile piece of the California desert known as Manzanar.
Two thirds of these people were natural-born citizens of the United States of America. Many of the rest who were not citizens, were not citizens because they had been forbidden that citizenship because they were “not white.”
Insisting that the move was voluntary and these camps were in no way concentration camps, public officials tried to settle the jittery nerves of a nation under attack. They did not, however, give enough consideration to the jittery nerves they inspired in the relocated Japanese-Americans at Manzaner and other camps. The internees were told repeatedly that they were being relocated for their own protection. But, as one internee put it later, “it was soon apparent that the military guards were standing facing us with their weapons, not facing away from us for our protection.”
Incredibly, the Japanese Americans managed to re-establish their lives under the worst of conditions. Fenced in by miles of wire and living in barracks ill-designed for protection from the weather or privacy of any kind, they set up schools, social events such as dances, movies, etc. and sporting events. Many of the internees were visited in the camps by their military sons, boys serving in the United States army and fighting in segregated units in the European theatre, proving their loyalty again and again to a nation who time and circumstances had caused to regard them with distrust.
Not much remains of Manzanar today, but a few poignant reminders of the high cost of war. An auditorium houses a museum dedicated to the story of these Americans–who were proud to point out that not one of their number was ever charged with espionage. A guard tower, one of six that once surrounded the camp, stands alone today, a mute reminder of a scene of shame played out in the harsh deserts of America.
During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, restitution and an apology were issued to the remaining survivors of the internment camps. For many, the apology was the far more important part of the recognition. Perhaps Reagan said it best when he said that the authorities were responding in what they thought was the best way they could, but, “it was a mistake.” I agree, and I also believe it is important that Manzanar serve as a reminder to us all what panic can do to a free people.