It is quiet here at midweek, the silence of Owens Valley in California broken occasionally by the croak of ravens and the throb of a car or truck passing on Highway 395. Infrequently, one of those vehicles slows and follows the dirt driveway leading into this place of sorrow and remembrance.
There is little here to greet the visitor as
yet: a pair of stone huts surrounded by wire fencing, a few signs
pounded into the desert soil, a scattering of concrete building
foundations half-submerged by a rising tide of weeds. Gnarled fruit
trees signal long-abandoned orchards.
Follow the dirt
road far enough and it reaches a white stone obelisk, which stands
out dramatically against the two-mile-high wall of the Sierra
Nevada just a few miles to the west. The monument's base is
littered with brightly colored paper cranes and hundreds of coins
and medallions; its face bears the Japanese characters for the
phrase "soul consoling tower."
In November, the National
Park Service will at last open a visitor center at this site,
commemorating one of the darkest episodes in the nation's past.
There is no reason to wait until then to journey to Manzanar,
however, for the present offers sufficient parallels to that dismal
time to make a visit instructive.
Known 60 years ago as
the Manzanar War Relocation Camp, and today as Manzanar National
Historic Site, this lonely patch of desert was once home to 11,061
men women and children, uprooted from their homes and forced by the
American military into a concentration camp for the duration of
World War II. Manzanar was one of 10 such camps established mostly
in the Interior West (two were in Arkansas) to accommodate nearly
120,000 Japanese-Americans -- more than 70,000 of them U.S.
citizens -- relocated from coastal communities in California,
Oregon and Washington.
Manzanar was not the largest of
the camps. That distinction belonged to Tule Lake in far Northern
California, which had a peak population of 18,789. Others included
Poston and Gila River in Arizona (17,814 and 13,348, respectively),
Topaz in Utah (8,130), Minidoka in Idaho (9,397), Heart Mountain in
Wyoming (10,767), and Granada in Colorado (7,318).
Manzanar is, however, the only one of the camps to have been
acquired by the National Park Service for restoration as a reminder
of that moment in time when America deprived thousands of its
citizens of their liberty for no better reason than wartime
hysteria and racism.
There still are apologists for that
event, who try to justify the relocation by citing acts of sabotage
by Japanese-Americans, and who downplay the harsh and coercive
nature of the camps themselves, preferring the official euphemism:
Calling them "concentration camps" is
not merely an example of modern-day political correctness. It is
what people at the time called them, too, although that was
admittedly before the Nazi death camps had forever given the term
new and horrifying connotations. In a January 1942 letter to the
secretaries of War and Navy, Rep. Leland M. Ford of Santa Monica
said his constituents were demanding Japanese removal. He provided
a twisted rationale: "I submit that if an American-born Japanese,
who is a citizen, is really patriotic and wishes to make his
contribution to the safety and welfare of this country, right here
is his opportunity to do so, namely, that by permitting himself to
be placed in a concentration camp, he would be making his sacrifice
and he should be willing to do it if he is patriotic and is working
As for domestic sabotage by Japanese Americans,
there was none. There were many reports of such things, but
subsequent investigation proved them false. In a chilling example
of doublespeak, however, innocence was regarded as proof of guilt:
"The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a
disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be
taken," wrote Gen. John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense
That statement is but one of many aspects of the
Japanese relocation that resonated recently, when military and
political leaders claimed the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction was proof that they exist but were hidden; when
terrorism suspects -- civilians, convicted of no crime -- are
denied legal representation and incarcerated indefinitely; when
pro-war protesters and newspaper letter writers demand that
citizens stop criticizing U.S. policy because exercising that
constitutional right "gives aid and comfort to the enemy."
Manzanar -- like the fading remnants of other relocation
camps scattered across the West -- is a reminder that not all the
things Americans do under the stress of war are heroic or even
admirable. Sometimes they are despicable, and violate the very
principles upon which the nation was founded.