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Mar 07, 2008

The Silent Erasure of Executive Order 9066

Tule Lake, Minadoka, Heart Mountain, Grenada, Topaz, Rohwer, Jerome, Gila River, Poston, Manzanar: their names should be etched on our national consciousness as a reminder of how quickly fear can blind us to the “better angels of our nature” and activate the dark side of our democratic sensibilities.  But of course they are not; indeed, in all but a few cases the names are barely recognizable.   This week marks the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s ignominious decision to “relocate” some 110,000 Japanese-Americans—over two thirds of whom were U.S. citizens—in the ten internment camps listed above and scattered throughout the western portion of the nation.   Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942, and that the national media has chosen not to acknowledge the occasion of its anniversary only compounds the original tragedy by contributing to the erasure of its memory.

The photograph above was taken twelve years ago at Manzanar, a relocation camp located five miles south of Independence, California—the irony of its name should not escape us—and home to over 10,000 interned Japanese-American residents. The rusted and bent barbed wire that frames the landscape, emphasizing the wide open spaces and the big sky, is at home in the American west where it was a tool used to establish the boundaries of land ownership in an expansive frontier, and to contain and control cattle or other livestock.  Ordinarily such a framing of the landscape would not warrant a second look as perhaps anything more than a photographer’s affected representation of the relationship between nature and civilization.  But here, of course, the barbed wire is not a tool of civilization but a weapon of war, its purpose to imprison a race of people whose only crime was that they didn’t quite look like “us” and whose ethnicity identified them with a country that was at war with the United States.

When located in relationship to its proximate political history the focus invites us to shift our attention from the background to the foreground, from the majesty of the sky and the distant mountains to the violent protrusions of the barbs, from now to then. While all else seems to have been erased—the stables that were initially used to house humans, the eight guard towers that surrounded the compound and provided twenty-four hour surveillance, and indeed the compound itself—the barbs, cast almost but not quite in silhouette, linger as a twisted reminder of our own violent and unjust past, of what once was and risks being again if only because it risks being no more in our collective, public memory.

Photo Credit: Getty Images North America

Manzanar is now a national historical site maintained by the National Park Service.


The Silent Erasure of Executive Order 9066


5 Responses

  1. Janis Edwards says

    Some updates: the stables that served as temporary holding centers were not located at Manzanar. They were in Los Angeles. Other temporary holding centers (as the remote prison camps were constructed) included packing sheds. In an effort to keep memory of the Japanese American incarceration alive, here has also been a move to erect memorials near the sites of these holding centers (often surrounded now by suburban growth) and original Japanese American immigrant communities, in addition to the remote camp sites. Some of these camp sites, such as Manzanar, are being renovated as historical and pilgrimage sites. I have been meaning to post pictures of community memorials on flickr, but having been a slow poke about it I would be happy to post some here, if you tell me how to upload. Readers may also want to see my essay about community memorials and the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in Washington D.C. in Mitch Reyes, Ed. Public Memory, Race, and Ethnicity. Thanks for noting the event.

  2. Janis Edwards says

    I have started to load images of community internment and immigration memorials on flickr. They are under my name, Janis Edwards. The site needs work, but in case anyone is interested interested, I am posting them.

  3. Lucaites says

    Thanks Janis. The best way to link photos here would be to post at Flicker and give me the URL and I can post it next to my comments re. the National Park Service. Or you could send me the photos and I could then link them into the post–giving you credit, of course. And thanks for the correction on the stables. I know that Lange did photos of them and just assumed that they were at Manzanar, but it just goes to show one should never assume!

  4. brenopa says

    To me, nothing says “MEMORIAL” like a National Park or Historical Site. Once an event is situated and enshrined in a specific place (or places)–once the Rangers start giving tours–the memory becomes commodified, sanitized, and palatable. Now it’s cool to feel righteous indignation about Japanese internment camps. This reminds me, again, of the media’s feel-good use of Civil Rights photos. Wow, we’ve come SUCH a long way. Public memory evens out the rough edges of truth and leaves us with a soothing and self-congratulatory sense of progress. We cannot face our own history.

  5. Dave McLane says

    On my way to and from Sierra Nevada I would often go by what once was Manzanar in the ’60s when the only thing left was the Obelisk. Thus it was a surprise to see the new building when I came down the Sierra as part of my Small Town America project in August 2009. While many such memorials have made such places sanitized and palatable I didn’t that feeling at Manzanar which has by far the best presentation of any such center I’ve seen.

    I suspect that part of the feeling came from going out to the Obelisk before dawn to catch the first rays of sunrise and reading the heartfelt messages left at its base and then going through the Interpretive Center. In addition to photos by Ansel Adams there were some by Dorothea Lang a photographer famous for her pictures of the dust bowl. And most probably some of the feeling came from having spent 18 years in Japan where many people were glad that the war had ended as their lives were so miserable when the military ruled their country.

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