There is an historic window into America's heart and soul and it provides a troubling scene.The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, followed days later by submarine attacks on central California marine targets unleashed a public mania that resulted in a low point in American history, the internment of nearly 120 thousand Japanese Americans during WWII.
The Manzanar National Historic Site near, ironically, Independence California, captures the history and stands as a bold testament to how fragile our civil liberties are.
Run by the National Parks Service, Manzanar, 200 miles north of LA, provides an intelligent and emotional account of the life that began there in March of 1942.
10 thousand people lived in 504 barracks, that the internees built. Tar paper shacks really, windy, cold and snowy in winter, blown by sand and sweltering in the 110 degree summers.
Surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards and watch towers, entire families tried to make the best of life in what amounted to a kind of prison camp.
They had been completely uprooted from life and were forced to live in a cramped adversity using communal latrines and showers with no stalls.
They worked, digging irrigation canals, raised fruit, vegetables and livestock. They made clothing and furniture, camouflage netting and rubber products for the military and were paid between $12 and $19 a month. With their own limited funds they published a newspaper, operated a general store, bank and barbershop.
Without due process, the Federal government gave Japanese Americans only days to decide what to do with homes, farms, businesses, cars and all property. Most sold their possessions at a significant loss. They could take only what they could carry with them.
Not one Japanese American was ever charged with espionage.
Nearly 26 thousand Japanese Americans served in the US Military during WWII, many serving with distinction and decoration.
In the frame below is the mother of the first soldier from Manzanar who was killed in the line of duty.
Most of the Japanese American soldiers served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in North Africa, France and Italy. They had the highest casualty rate and was the most highly decorated Army unit of its size and length of service.
The quote below is from President Harry Truman at a White House ceremony honoring the 442nd and 100th Infantry Battalion of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard.
President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 on February 19,1942 authorized relocation and/or internment of "anyone who might threaten the US war effort."
With that simple order American civil liberties and justice were savaged.
Processing and reporting centers were opened and Japanese Americans were forced to depart.
Ten relocation camps were built and without due process American citizens were forced into internment, with no idea of how long they might be held and with no charges being brought against them.
21st century Americans can visit Manzanar and see the vestiges of a time when emotion, paranoia, horrible political judgment and prejudice combined to create a dark and despicable chapter in the life of this nation. It was a time that made our words of freedom, liberty and justice empty, hollow and hypocritical.
It is both moving and a bit frightening to see the names of those American citizens, who because of their heritage, were, without any legal recourse, treated like criminals and put into internment camps. Their freedoms denied by a single executive order, while a nation stood by.
A portion of the driving and walking tour takes you to the memorial ground, where those who died are remembered and where ashes were spread.
Those who lived through this nightmare of the American soul are still amongst us and they return.
This memory and this tangible lesson is available to all and it should be seen.
Our modern America has new paranoias, new people of foreign ancestry who are the target of zealots, racists, ideologues and politicians. We are a divided nation with a political system that fails to govern in the middle as extremists are willing to shut down, default, and marginalize.
As much as I hate terrorism, I also despise the quick and fast suspension of personal liberty and freedom that has been propagated in the war on terror and in the Patriot Act.
I worry about administrations that are obsessed with leaks, whistle blowers and who seek to keep too much information under government wrap.
I ask if Manzanar could happen again? Is it possible that we could again suspend due process and trample civil liberties because of fear and a perceived threat? After the horrible thing we did to Japanese Americans, we must remember, never was a Japanese American even charged with espionage. In the end we learned it was all a horrible, hellish mistake.
American has much to learn at Manzanar.
See you down the trail.