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Several days ago, I attended the 45th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage and spent all day into the evening on the grounds where, from 1942 to 1945, thousands of people of Japanese descent were held as World War II ignited the planet.
Japan's attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, brought America into the war. At the time, America had thousands of Japanese-American citizens. Within a few months, after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, they would be taken to relocation camps strewn all over the country, where they would be held for years for nothing more than being of a certain ethnicity during wartime.
I remember this being covered very quickly in my American history class, basically a footnote in the overall wide shot of WWII history.
When I moved to California in 1981, I heard a song by the great Southern California band CH3 called "Manzanar." Up to that point, I had never heard the word before. This is when I started to learn about California's rich Asian culture and a bit of the backstory.
As a guy growing up on the roads of America, I became fascinated with our country's history as viewed from the street level - which, as I temporarily occupied the hard spots of cities, was often the only vantage point afforded. In the Southern states, I got an understanding of the ravages of the Civil War and how this conflict was not completely resolved but merely put on a back burner. I learned that almost every city had a rough part and they were all similar. America became, despite its incredible hugeness, a very small neighborhood, linked by thousands of miles of highway, punctuated by liquor stores, fast food outlets and police stations.
Many years ago, in an effort to understand where America is, I sought to understand where it was. I came upon the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law by President John Adams. I will always think that Adams favored the Sedition Act because it allowed him to strike back against the constant ass-ripping he endured in the press, by journalists frisky with their First Amendment protections. The Naturalization Act and the Alien Friends Act were perhaps a young country establishing its place in the world, an early flexing of the muscles.
Jefferson quickly took these laws out of service in his first term. However, the Alien Enemies Act remains on the books. It basically says that if America is at war, it has quite a bit of reach to detain those it thinks endanger the country at that time.
In the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, every person of Japanese descent in America was under suspicion.
As I looked out the car window on the way to Lone Pine, near where Manzanar is located, the city quickly fell away. We spent hours driving through a massive Ansel Adams postcard. I tried to imagine thousands of people in vehicles, clutching their one suitcase allowed, as everything they knew was suddenly torn away and their completely uncertain future was to be realized in such alien surroundings. It must have been terrifying, confusing, humiliating and infuriating all at once.