The air here is dry, and the wind that has whipped constantly since my arrival blows sand and dust into my face and eyes, making it seem even dryer. I shield my eyes from the sun and sand, and look out across the valley in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Eastern California, awed by the natural beauty of the place. But this vista is broken up by a guard tower and barbed wire fence. This is where the United States gave into fear and imprisoned its own citizens. This is Manzanar.

One former resident of the camp recalls, “They said we were here for our own protection, but then why were the guns pointed in?”

On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into the Second World War. On that day, life changed, for the country and for the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans living in the western United States. Fear of further Japanese attacks sparked the arrest of Japanese-American community leaders for questioning, and discussion of more intense measures to be taken in the name of public safety. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, head of the US Western Command declared that “citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty,” going on to state that “a Jap is a Jap.” Public opinion followed statements like this, and on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forbidding anyone with any Japanese ancestry from living in the Western United States. Those who were there were given as little as 48 hours to pack, and sent to camps like this one, one of ten such camps set up around the country.

The visitors’ center provides a welcome respite from the wind and dust. As I walk in, I am greeted by an elderly Japanese man. Saburo “Sab” Sasaki lived here in Manzanar from age seven to eleven, and returns from his home outside of Detroit to share his story with visitors for a month every year. Not all of his memories are bad. “For me it was somewhat exciting,” he tells me. “For the first time, there were lots of kids around to play with.”

Saburo Sasaki, a former resident of Manzanar, returns each year to share his story

The exhibits at Manzanar tell of life in the camps, from the barracks-style housing that offered little to no privacy to the factory producing camouflage netting that many of the residents were expected to spend their time, providing military support to the country that declared them as hostile. The common thread, though, is similar to Sab’s recollections. For the ten thousand Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar, this became a community. Schools were set up, parks and gardens planted, and events held. It functioned much like any American town, except for the guns and barbed wire preventing anyone from leaving.

Barracks like this one housed multiple families, who hung sheets to create a bit of privacy.

In early 1943, inmates at Manzanar and the other camps were given questionnaires to test their loyalty to the United States. Question 27 asked if they were willing to serve in the US armed forces. Question 28 asked if they would swear unquestioned loyalty to the United States and forswear any allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Most answered “yes” to both questions, and many of these served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of World War Two’s most highly decorated units. (Prior to this, Japanese-Americans were not allowed to volunteer to serve in the military.) However, for some, these questions constituted an insult. How could they be expected to serve a country that had torn them from their homes and locked them up? And how could they forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor when they had never sworn it to begin with? Those who answered no to questions 27 and 28 were called “no-nos” and removed from their families to be sent to the camp at Tule Lake, near the California-Oregon border, the camp with the highest percentage of “no-nos.”

A one-way road circles much of the camp, which today is largely ruins. Signs point to what used to be there. I pass an empty dirt field that was once a baseball diamond, and a vacant lot where the hospital once stood. Circling the north end of the camp, a sign directs me to the cemetery. While few inmates died here in Manzanar, a monument was constructed to those who did. Standing just outside the barbed wire – as a kindness, inmates were not forced to bury their loved ones inside the prison camp – against the backdrop of the mountains, it stands as a reminder that some Japanese-Americans passed away in a captivity that stemmed only from their ancestry.

The cemetery monument at Manzanar is hauntingly beautiful.

After the war, Japanese-Americans were permitted to return to their homes, or what was left of them. For most, their businesses and livelihoods had vanished, along with the vibrant communities they had worked so hard to create. Racism was rampant, and instances of violence were commonplace. A California jury even found four men not guilty of setting a Japanese-American owned farm on fire, accepting their defense of wanting to keep California “a white man’s country.”

I return to the visitors’ center to complete my loop around the camp, and explore the museum. A television set captures my eye. In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act Of 1988 into law, offering an official apology for the internment of Japanese-Americans and a one-time restitution of $20,000 to each surviving internee. The legislation admitted that the internment was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Anti-Japanese fervor led to one of the most reprehensible and embarrassing chapters in American history. Today, however, much of the political leadership in our country is once again using fear of outsiders as a means to increase their own power, and to justify their racism. President Trump and many in the Republican leadership have attempted to stir up hatred of immigrants, focusing on Latin- and Muslim-Americans as their targets of choice. Sadly, much of white America is listening. Instances of racism – and even violence – against immigrant communities are growing.

Exploring the interment camp at Manzanar is a glimpse into what was, and what might be again if we as Americans don’t speak out. Here an entire minority population of our country was kept behind barbed wire fencing, simply out of fear and racism. I worry that many of those currently in power would do the same thing again if they are able, rounding up minorities simply for the “crime” of not being white and Christian.

Benjamin Franklin once said that “they that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Let us learn the lessons from Manzanar, and never repeat these terrible mistakes.

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