The Greatest Generation at its worst

A review of ‘Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II,’ by Richard Reeves.

 

In his heartbreaking new book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II, California writer Richard Reeves reminds us that wars have a frightening tendency to spawn racial prejudice. The incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans has been relegated to a footnote in U.S. history for 70 years. Infamy is a not-so-gentle reminder of that tragedy.


Backed by a daunting wealth of research, Reeves documents the systemic racism behind internment, the military and political leaders who launched it, and the massive toll it took on immigrants and their children in the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.


“Soon after Pearl Harbor,” Reeves writes, “Caucasian shopkeepers joined the farmers in outspoken hatred, with signs saying ‘This restaurant poisons both rats and Japs’ and ‘Open hunting season for Japs.’ ”

Luggage of Japanese Americans who were evacuated under a U.S. Army war emergency order.
Russell Lee, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-09961
 
Infamy generally portrays first-generation Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents as patriotic U.S. citizens who happened to have the “wrong” physical features. The campaign to evacuate them from the West Coast was led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, future Supreme Court justice Earl Warren, generals and other prominent officials.


Reeves was inspired to write Infamy, he explains in the introduction, after he drove through a desolate area of the high desert in Southern California and passed a sign that read, “Manzanar War Relocation Center.” This relic of the past haunted him: “I finally decided to write this book when I saw that my country, not for the first time, began turning on immigrants, blaming them for the troubles of the day.”


Xenophobia reigned then much as it did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Horrific scenes in California, Oregon, Washington and Arizona mirrored events in Nazi Germany: FBI agents barged into private homes, and soldiers herded Japanese Americans into railroad cars bound for 10 relocation centers located primarily in the West, ranging from Heart Mountain in Wyoming and Topaz in Utah to Amache in Colorado, Gila River in Arizona, and Minidoka in Idaho.  Barbed wire and machine gun-toting guards kept them imprisoned until the war was almost over. More than 1,800 died in the camps.  


The epilogue notes that, almost 50 years later, the U.S. government paid $1.2 billion in reparations to the survivors. “The money was a pittance compared to the billions in 2014 dollars American Japanese had lost, but in the end, it was not about money,” Reeves concludes. “It was about getting a formal apology from the government for stealing liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”


Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II
Richard Reeves
368 pages
hardcover: $32.
Henry Holt and Co., 2015.