Monday, November 06, 2006

Sixty years ago, this is what we thought was okay


Seems that National Archives found some misplaced photographs by Dorothea Lange. The above picture, from this newly found collection of 800 photographs, and published in the New York Times, shows "people of Japanese ancestry arriving at Tanforan Assembly Center, a former racetrack in San Bruno, California."
During the winter of 1942, in the first heated months of America’s war with Japan, the United States government ordered tens of thousands of people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, to report to assembly centers throughout the West for transfer to internment camps. The infamous episode has been widely chronicled in books and memoirs, as well as in famous photos by Ansel Adams.

But now close to 800 new images from the period by the photographer Dorothea Lange have been unearthed in the National Archives, where they had lain neglected for a half-century after having been impounded by the government.
I am struck by the similarities between 1942 and today. Just as the current administration claims that detainees in the secret CIA prisons are not allowed ever to speak at all about the detention tactics used, the administration of 1942 worked to cover up what was going on in the internment camps.

These photographs
"tell us that conditions in the camps were much worse than most people think," said Linda Gordon, a historian at New York University who edited the book with Gary Y. Okihiro, a historian at Columbia University. Both also contributed essays.

Lange’s work unflinchingly illustrates the reality of life during this extraordinary moment in American history when about 110,000 people were moved with their families, sometimes at gunpoint, into horse stalls and tar-paper shacks where they endured brutal heat and bitter cold, filth, dust and open sewers.

In his essay Mr. Okihiro describes the atmosphere in which the deportations took place. He quotes from an editorial in The Los Angeles Times from the period: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched — so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents — grows up to be Japanese, not an American.” Yet, Ms. Gordon said, “The U.S. government had deliberately suppressed reports from F.B.I. and military intelligence that concluded that Japanese-Americans posed no security risk.” The War Relocation Authority hired Lange to document the internments, possibly to demonstrate that the detainees were not being mistreated and international law was not being violated.

But at nearly all of the 21 locations Lange visited, the government tried to restrict her. At the assembly centers and at Manzanar she was not allowed to photograph the wire fences, the watchtowers with searchlights, the armed guards or any sign of resistance. She was discouraged from talking to detainees. At one point she was almost fired when one of her photographs appeared on a Quaker pamphlet denouncing the internment.
What I find most troubling is that universally, we Americans now admit that the internment of these Japanese-Americans was wrong; it was unnecessary; it was a mistake. And, yet, there are strong similarities in restrictions and abbreviated rights with today's "war on terror."

What will my sons' sons think sixty years from now? What will history say about this time?

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