Viewing Civil Liberties through a different generational lens…

As a writer of historical fiction, I always have to “check” myself against judging actions of the past through our current set of values and cultural norms.

The novel that I am currently writing is set during World War 2, and deals with the executive order issued by FDR to “evacuate” all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast and relocate them to camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. Granted I wasn’t alive during the 1940s, but from the extensive research I have conducted, most Americans believed that there was a military necessity for this at the time. Fear is a powerful motivator, and there was a widespread fear of further attack after Pearl Harbor. Therefore I would not presume to judge the people who lived in America at that time and assert that I would have defended the honor of my fellow citizens. Of course, I admire the people who did stand up protect their property while they were gone–which occurred in some instances. I don’t think we ever know for certain what we would have done in a given circumstance, even if we like that think that we’d have acted in a completely altruistic and humanitarian manner.

I did receive a bit of a shock recently when I was discussing my novel with a WW2 veteran in his 90s. After politely listening to me talk about the plot of the novel, he interjected that the American government was right to do what it did. He stated that the Japanese that were locked up did just fine after the war and it was for national security. I was honestly shocked to hear that this viewpoint would still be adhered to after so many years. From what I have read, not one of the people interned in the camps was ever found to be guilty of espionage. In fact, President Ronald Reagan apologized on behalf of the country years later and surviving internees received a reparation check from Uncle Sam.

Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge about this event that causes these misconceptions to linger. I know that I learned extremely little about the indignities suffered by these families as they were forced to sell their homes, cars and businesses to leave behind the only life they knew for a complete unknown. When they finally arrived at the camps, they lived in barracks covered with tar paper in crowded conditions. They had no privacy and no way to earn a decent living. In other words, they were completely stripped of their civil liberties. Shouldn’t this have been taught in depth during our high school and college history classes?

George Takei has spoken about his family’s experience in an internment camp in Arkansas. He has also brought us a Broadway musical Allegiance which I am extremely excited about. The best way for us to learn about what it cost the families is through the first hand accounts. I have read countless of these which are available online at the Densho site and at PBS. If this unfortunate time in our history is unfamiliar to you, I encourage you to take a look at these sites and make plans to see Allegiance.

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts!camps7

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5 thoughts on “Viewing Civil Liberties through a different generational lens…

  1. There are many aspects to this internment, Melissa. Many aspects. Some secrets died with FDR. But as you write, one cannot judge a person’s actions of 75 years ago with the vision of today’s viewpoints. Was it hysteria? Discrimination? Fear of espionage? Or the desire to keep the fact the US had cracked the secret codes of the Japanese? Hypothetically – if the FBI were to round up only those suspected of espionage, would the Japanese suspect we broke their codes and change them? Historically, our ability to keep it a secret – that we cracked their codes – allowed us to end the war in about 3-1/2 years.

    While I do have feelings that FDR likely maneuvered us into war, people of Japanese descent living in the “exclusion zone” did have an opportunity to move inland on their own. But many like my dad just couldn’t afford to do so. One uncle – who received the Congressional Gold Medal – did move to MA on his own. Nevertheless, the anger drummed up by both people and the government (look at some of the prop and a posters) did possibly endanger Japanese-Americans.

    1. I appreciate your views on this issue tremendously. I came across your blog many months ago and couldn’t stop reading about Michie and other members of your family. I find historical fiction incredibly difficult to write for this very reason. It is so difficult to put oneself back in time and have any clue as to what one would have thought or felt. Just looking at the propaganda posters that you mention is horrifying in itself. The caricatures of the Japanese made them seem less than human somehow, and I think that dehumanizing any group of people makes it easier to justify taking away their liberties. Thanks for taking an interest in my little blog!

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