Book review: ‘Infamy’ by Richard Reeves
May 6, 2017
Nearly every country has a dark piece of history, a chapter of shameful behavior that can damage the legacy of a nation, if not properly examined. The U.S. has had its share of bleak periods, most prominently the Indian Wars and centuries of slavery.
A more contemporary moral stain has been revisited lately following the recent political shift to the right and the resulting calls for immigration reform and ethnic and religious profiling. In this age of sweeping executive orders, it is relevant to look into the not-too-distant past to examine Executive Order 9066. Introduced by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the order consigned over 120,000 Japanese Americans — primarily citizens — into "relocation centers" across the western and southern United States for much of World War II.
"Infamy: the Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II," is a recent book by author Richard Reeves that turns the spotlight on villains who hid in plain sight, held political power and who had immense sway over the American public and its collective sense of right and wrong. While exposing the depths of betrayal perpetrated on U.S. citizens, Reeves makes sure to give attention to those who went above and beyond and risked social standing to aid their Japanese American neighbors and friends.
What makes the aggregate American response to this neglected history all the more appalling, Reeves says, is "the overwhelming majority of the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States" in spite of the treatment they received. As the ultimate measure of hypocrisy, the knee-jerk U.S. reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor came at the same time as Hitler's actions against certain ethnic groups were being criticized. Roosevelt himself even used the term "concentration camps" to describe the places Japanese Americans were sent.
Reeves highlights the further duplicity of the U.S.'s actions at the time, saying citizens of Italian and German descent, for the most part, were left alone. This, he says, is rooted in racial biases predominant at the time. Because of the Immigration Act of 1924, immigrants from places other than Europe were not permitted a track to naturalized citizenship because their way of life was deemed so foreign and people felt they could not be easily assimilated. Japanese Americans fell into this category.
The backlash against Japanese Americans was swift, taking place, in some cases, hours after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, "a date which will live in infamy." Raids took place in the middle of the night, and homes were turned upside down, as authorities searched for anything that might suggest disloyalty. Unfortunately, this included anything written in Japanese characters, even one mother's knitting manual.
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The reason U.S. officials were able to round up so many Japanese Americans so quickly after Pearl Harbor is because assembling the lists of names had been underway for months. People were placed on the lists for many reasons, including owning a boat or having a radio, or because a neighbor saw fit to put forth their names. Farmers, business leaders and factory owners — mostly men — were targeted first.
Fathers and husbands were taken without word, and it was years before family members were reunited in some cases. Bank accounts were frozen, leaving wives and children without the financial means to survive. Most significantly, Reeves points out, is these individuals — American citizens — were arrested without ever having had charges put against them.
A handful of individuals urged caution, but their voices were drowned out by the hysteria of war.
Others, like Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi, went so far as to call the internment one proper step in a necessary "race war," while Jed Johnson, a congressman from Oklahoma, advocated for sterilization.
Looming threats of treason helped mute voices decrying the push to lock up Japanese Americans. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, one of the most persistent advocates of the camps, said, that "… if it is a question of the safety of the country and the Constitution … why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me."
Reeves presents intensive research, giving a detailed timeline of the internment from start to finish. The author admits he was motivated to delve into the history of the years of injustice and wrongdoing because he sees a trend resurfacing that resembles the practices that set the U.S. on the same path it took during the 1940s. "It seems there is always the possibility of similar persecutions happening again if fear and hysteria overwhelm what Abraham Lincoln called, 'the better angels of our nature,'" he wrote.
"Infamy" is a timely history lesson, a deterrent example of reproach to a nation that often needs reminding of its core promises and principles, and its "better angels."
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