Japanese Interment: Not Only Important for Historical Perspective

When my high school history teacher first taught us about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2, I was shocked that something like that had happened. But it was “ancient” history to a teenager. I honestly didn’t see the relevance of the topic to my life in the 1980’s.

As I began researching to write my novel, Go Forward with Courage, the relevance to modern times became increasingly clear to me. While the novel was being edited, my husband drew my attention to an interview given by a retired US Army general who suggested the solution to Islamic terrorism was to lock up young Muslim men in camps. (Watch interview here)

Who gets to decide which Americans are “disloyal”? You might want to believe that the FBI had compiled credible evidence against these Japanese American citizens who were placed in camps, but that was not the case. Their ancestry alone was the sole deciding factor in their internment.

Someone shared this article on my Facebook page this morning, and I thought it was a wonderful example of how little most Americans understand about this topic. A middle school class researched their ancestry and one young man discovered that his grandmother was born in a horse stall during internment.

George Takei’s new Broadway musical Allegiance also tackles this painful period in history. The show is earning rave reviews and features one of my favorites–the beautiful and talented Lea Solonga. I can’t wait to see it myself, and I hope that it continues to shed light on this important subject. Especially since the subject is even more relevant today than it has been since the war.

Can History Repeat Itself?


As many of you know, my recently completed novel, Go Forward with Courage, is set in and around a Japanese Internment Camp in Arkansas during World War 2. In talking with people about the book’s subject matter, it has come up several times that this sort of thing could happen again in this country if the general populace became scared enough. Well, apparently this wasn’t a far-fetched notion on my part to speculate about this sort of situation happening again. It is now being proposed as a solution to the types of terror attacks we just witnessed in Chattanooga.

And not from some “fringe” group of fear mongers, but from a former General and Democratic presidential candidate. My initial thoughts after reading this article were, “Who gets to decide who is radical?” and “What kind of evidence will our government need to detain these individuals?” Let me tell you what my research clearly showed me regarding the last time our government chose to lock up loyal citizens for the “greater good” of society: the FBI needed no concrete proof of wrong doing to imprison leaders in the Japanese American community. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, these men’s homes were searched and they were taken in for questioning–many of them didn’t see their families again for months if not longer. Eventually, entire communities of people were transported across the country and held behind barbed wire for years.

As an American, this alarms me. I wholeheartedly support our military and despise the types of terrorist acts we’ve seen in recent years. But I also value civil liberties and have respect for different cultures and belief systems. If you take the time to get to know people of the Muslim faith and talk to them about their beliefs, you will find that most of them detest this type of violence against fellow citizens as much as we do.

I’m not nearly as eloquent as the man who penned these words while imprisoned at Dachau, but his words still ring true today. “In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”Pastor Martin Niemöller, 1945

Our challenge as Americans is to find the balance between protecting the general public without infringing on other citizens’ rights. Obviously I am in favor of locking up people when there is credible evidence that they are planning an act of terrorism, and I’m even fairly tolerant of NSA monitoring actions of those who seem suspicious. But building camps for people with “radical beliefs” sends up too many red flags for me to simply “not speak up” about it.