Seems like every time Americans get scared in large numbers, innocent people are killed or sent to jail—and the Constitution be damned. That was so with African Americans, native Americans, left-leaning Americans, pacifist Americans and, now, Muslim Americans. In Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, Richard Reeves re-tells—with heart-breaking specificity—the story of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast who were incarcerated during World War II strictly because of their ancestry. More than 120,000 were stripped of their property, freedom of movement and community standing and held in “relocation centers.” Courts generally turned a deaf ear. That no such roundups were made of German Americans or Italian Americans laid bare the racist undercurrent.
After Pearl Harbor, it was open season on all “Japs.” Politicians and newspapers vilified them as an undifferentiated mass of saboteurs in waiting. When no sabotage occurred, the persecutors said it was evidence that an attack was still being planned. The most abysmal aspect of this injustice was the number of public figures—subsequently to distinguish themselves as liberals—who jumped onto the racist bandwagon. Among these were California attorney general and later governor, Earl Warren, who would go on to become chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court; American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin; and cartoonist and writer Theodore Geisel, who, as Dr. Seuss, would teach generations of children the virtues of inclusion and tolerance. Of course, progressive President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the order allowing this to happen.
Forced to start new lives, most of the prisoners made the best of it, growing crops and establishing schools, newspapers and other social institutions. Some were eventually allowed out of the camps to attend college or find jobs in the Midwest and East. A sizable number, mostly from Hawaii, joined the army and proved their patriotism on the battlefield. Reeves follows the personal trajectories of dozens of camp inmates to illuminate both their loss and resilience.