January Book Review

This month’s review is by Tom Tomlinson

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II

By Richard Reeves

FDR’s famous declaration that the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor was a day that would live in infamy anticipated a less-well remembered, but powerfully consequential act aimed at Japanese Americans. Executive Order 9066, issued by Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, empowered the U.S. Army to round up, incarcerate, and manage under armed military guard more than 120,000 Japanese American civilians living in California, Oregon, and Washington deemed persons of suspicion and dangerous to America. From the stables of the Santa Anita race track and other locations throughout the West, loyal Americans were shipped to ten remote internment camps scattered across seven states. The internment camps remained in operation until 1945.

Reeves explores this dark aspect of the American historical experience, deftly tracing the anti-Asian sentiments buttressed by legal prohibitions on property ownership that held sway throughout Western America since the late nineteenth century. Based solely on ancestry, American civilians loyal to the United States lost property and liberty in one legal swoop. Plumbing the lives of individual Japanese American detainees, author Reeves describes the often daily behavior of the incarcerated both in the camps and military. As internees, Japanese Americans re-created small communities of Americana—saluting American flags in school and at Boy Scout meetings, playing baseball and dancing to popular American songs—and, volunteering for the famous, most decorated American military brigade, the 442nd “Go For Broke” which served with distinction in Europe.

Infamy makes for a squirm-in-your seat read; the targeted incarceration of one group of American people recalls an uncomfortable yet enduring aspect of American history, one of unmitigated racism based on fear itself, which, as Roosevelt noted on a different occasion in 1933, was the only thing we had to fear acting upon; nine years later, the President ignored his own counsel and acted on fear itself.
Infamy is a story rich in irony. When he helped liberate a Dachau concentration camp in October 1942, one Japanese American soldier observed: “This is exactly what they built for us in Idaho.”

Tangible reminders of what should never be forgotten are the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the Manzanar National Historical site in the Owens Valley, a four hour drive from Sierra Madre.


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