Monday, February 19, 2007

February 19

Four hundred and seven years ago today, the most violent explosion in the recorded history of South America occured when Huaynaputina blew its top in Peru. Seven cubic kilometers of debris were propelled from the volcano on 19 February 1600, with a plinian column extending perhaps 25-35 kilometers into the atmosphere. A thick blanket of ash was scattered across 360,000 square miles. No one knows how many villages -- or how many people -- were entombed by the event.

More precise figures, however, are available for the internment of Japanese Americans -- a relocation program authorized by Franklin Roosevelt on this date in 1942. Citing the need to defend the nation against saboteurs and spies who did not in fact exist, Roosevelt utilized World War I-era legislation to authorize the Secretary of War and his designated commanders
to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
Calls for the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans began, quite predictably, after the Pearl Harbor attack two months previously. Political leaders, journalists and ordinary citizens acted symbiotically, whipping one another into a froth of racist anger that helped persuade Roosevelt -- whose own opinion of Asians was quite low -- to issue Executive Order 9066. Although concrete proof of disloyalty among Japanese Americans was nowhere to be found, the momentum in favor of internment was extraordinary. John DeWitt, head of Western Defense Command (WDC) offered the truly ingenious argument that the absence of sabotage in fact proved the existence of a conspiracy. According to his logic, only the Japanese government itself could exert such control over Japanese saboteurs, encouraging them to wait until the nation’s guard was down before launching their campaign of terror.

Over the next half-decade, 120,000 innocent people were removed from the West Coast and relocated to ten camps in the bleakest regions of the country. Several thousand additional Japanese who had come to the US from Latin America were held at eight camps run by the Department of Justice. Nearly two-thirds of those subject to Executive Order 9066 were American citizens by virtue of birth.

A similar order was issued by the Canadian government five days later.

Charles Kikuchi, an American of Japanese ancestry, was a graduate student at the University of California when the US entered the Second World War. He had worked for the National Youth Administration until 1941 and later served in the US Army. In a diary he kept throughout 1942, Kikuchi documented the process by which so many were deprived of their rights and dignity. In an entry dated April 30, Kikuchi wryly described the expulsion of Japanese Americans from Berkeley:
It certainly is degrading . . . . The Amry Lieutenant over there doesn't want any of the photographers to take pictures of these miserable people waiting for the Greyhound bus because he thinks that the American public might get a sympathetic attitude toward them . . . .

I understand that we are going to live in the horse stalls. I hope that the Army has the courtesy to remove the manure first.
Executive Order 9066 was not formally rescinded until Gerald Ford's presidency, over 30 years later. Compensation for the survivors of the camps would be delayed an additional decade.

Photo credit.

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