The New Yorker got it right saying Ken Burns' The War falls far short of the magnificence of his 1990 documentary on the Civil War. But the 15-hour series gave us a fresh look at one of the greatest injustices in our history, the internment of Japanese Americans.
The series will be rebroadcast on subsequent Wednesdays on KCTS-TV (9) in Seattle and on other PBS stations.
Burns takes us to Sacramento, where a large number of Japanese Americans were forcibly removed and relocated. Perhaps the most anguishing scene is the American soldier visiting his parents at a camp, where guns where pointed inward. That was how our government treated his family, our countrymen.
Of course, it was shameful. That's so clear now.
But what interests me is why it made so much sense to so many then, especially in our own city, where we hear so much about our special quality. In this crime, many of us were ordinary, and wrong.
The question resonates today because we've gone through another episode of failures by our institutions. The fiasco of Iraq flowed from shared failures by the presidency, Congress, the generals, and the news media. The assertion "they attacked us" obliterated scrutiny and skepticism. We felt fear. It worked. We trusted those in power.
Burns, clearly, wants us to connect now to then. There are other places to learn more about internment: the Densho Web site, the Wing Luke Museum, David Takami's fine essay at HistoryLink or his book, Divided Destiny, and the book by Crosscut's own David Neiwert, Strawberry Days. KCTS created a Web page of Northwest stories related to the war.
The question that rolls around in my head is how could something so terrible be accepted by decent people?
Born in Seattle, my mother attended the Immaculate School in the Central Area, where as many as a quarter of students were Asian Americans. They were her neighbors, friends, and fellow student officers. You can look at class pictures year by year and see they were gone after 1942, the year of Executive Order 9066. That same year, The Seattle Times carried an op-ed by Henry McLemore headlined, "Stop Worrying About Hurting Jap Feelings." Takami estimates that 7,050 Japanese where shipped out of Seattle, first to the fairgrounds in Puyallup, then mostly to the Minidoka Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho. "Relocation Center" sounded much better than what it was, a prison for the innocent.
Before her death in 1995, I asked my mother about that era. By 1942, she was in college. She spoke of neighbors who bought cars from Japanese Americans about to be shipped off. My mother was a person of great courage and integrity. Why did people allow it to happen? I don't recall her precise words, but she spoke of the broadly held feeling that people felt it was necessary. Note that concession by the individual to the consensus of the group.
I didn't want to judge her. It's too easy to apply today's moral viewpoint and apply it to a moment in history. There were some individuals, of course, who did act in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island.
The enduring lesson from this, I think, is that in our corner of the world, we too can fall victim to fears. We fool ourselves in thinking there is no risk it could happen again.