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REVIEWING

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

By Richard Reeves

Henry Holt and Company | 2015 | 368 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Richard Reeves

This Time It’s Personal

For a number of years I ran a small café (Fred’s Café) and bookstore at the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market on Ivar, between Hollywood Blvd, and Sunset.

I was then a member of the Ivar Theater, now owned by the Inner City Cultural Center, an organization I worked for over two decades.

The Ivar Theater was then the most prominent structure on the two blocks, and we had voted to allow the farmers to use our restrooms on Sunday

But someone had to be there by 6:30am to let everybody in. Theater people, as most of you could have guessed,  are not noted for being early risers. So, as the only writer on the Board of Directors, I was the one everyone pointed at.

So what! Unlike those actors and actresses and directors, the night offered little for me. I loved getting up early.

My little café and bookstore did well, and I made many friends. One day, the friendly lady that sold me those delicious fuji apples, came out of the restroom, stopped, and pointed to a new book on sale, Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuk Houston and James Houston.

“See that little girl in that picture on the cover, that’s me.”

I didn’t know what to say. But, from that brief statement came a history lesson that I knew nothing about: The force internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps in World War Two, which Richard Reeves covers with remarkable writing skills, excellent research and a voice much like the voice that was running through my head as the friendly apple seller over time told me her harrowing tale, which Infamy well document.

Reeves makes an important point early in his book: “Living in California on and off for years, I’ve passed Manzanar many time, each time thinking I should stop; each time thinking I should write about what happened there and in the other camps in Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Arkansas, I am from a part of the country, New York, where most of the people I know had only the vaguest notion that these events happened.”

He had that right. This rube from the Bronx was one of those “educated” New Yorkers who knew nothing about these camps. Concentration camps were for Nazis, not Americans.

After the attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, attention was immediately focused on the Japanese living among us, most of whom lived on the west coast, with California having the largest number. The FBI started raiding homes, detaining at will any Japanese American they deemed worthy of investigation.

Some of this was driven by the notion that they were different, inassimilable. As the Commanding Officer of the Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John DeWitt said often, “A Jap is a Jap.”

The press and the politicians whipped the American public into a wild frenzy over this potential “Fifth Column.” Among these are historic names that I was shocked to find.

As Reeves point out: “The villains of this story include California attorney general Earl Warren, who rode the anti-Japanese tide to the governorship of California; Secretary of State Cordell Hull; Secretary of War Henry Stimson; Assistant Secretary of war John McCloy; Roger Baldwin, the hypocritical founder of the American Civil Liberties Union; Supreme Court justices Tom Clark and William O. Douglas; as well as William Randolph Hearst, Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow, and hundreds of other raving journalists.”

In addition, there was the land grab of the greedy whites that coveted Japanese business, and especially the farms they so skillfully managed.

Writes Reeves: “Whatever goodwill there was for Issei and Nisei after Pearl Harbor was soon gone as news arrived daily of seemingly invincible and brutal Japanese armies running wild through the Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. Tolerance of any kind was replaced by fear and by the greed of white merchants and farmers who wanted to eliminate competition from California’s six thousand Japanese-operated farms, which totaled at least 250,000 acres and were worth more than $75 million. More than 40 percent of California’s produce was from American Japanese farms that often stood on land white farmers ignored as too poor for cultivation.

“In the cities. Many white businessmen coveted the stores, businesses, and fishing boats of Japanese competitors.”

I should add that it wasn’t just the “greedy whites” that benefited from the internment of the Japanese Americans; but, as my friend, the apple seller, pointed out to me, that many of those nice homes black Americans were now living in in South Central Los Angeles, were once owned by Japanese Americans.

When the roundup came they were given just 24 hours to get everything in order and could only take what they could carry. Their houses and businesses and property went for a song

***

In addition, there was also a Colonel Adolf Eichmann type, lurking, who provided the legal groundwork for sending the Japanese Americans to concentration camps: Colonel Karl Bendetsen.

Author Reeves has absolutely no use for this man, who was “a brilliant pathological liar, drove the process, grossly exaggerating the dangers posed by West Coast Japanese.”

In one of the great ironies, given what was happening in Germany at the same time to Jews, Colonel Bendetsen was from a prominent Orthodox Jewish family that had emigrated from Lithuania. and his last name was Bendetson.

“But in 1929 he denied all that, claiming to be a Christian to get into a Stanford fraternity, Theta Delta Chi, which barred Jews from membership. As the years went by, he created a new biography under the name Bendetsen, saying that he was from a Danish logging family and that a fictional great-grandfather had come from Denmark to America in 1670,” writes Reeves.

***

All of this set the stage for one of the most infamous acts in American history as on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt, feeling pressure from wherever he turned, signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the mass incarceration of 120,000 West Coast American Japanese.

***

We see how all of this plays out in Richard Reeves" wonderful book Infamy. This, however, is not a pleasant book to read. There is just too much suffering. But the book does speak profoundly to the idea of America, whether the author realized it or not.

Most of the Japanese Americans face their unfair fate with much fortitude because they believed deeply in the idea of America, not the America that then existed.

My friend, the apple seller, at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market, taught me that.

This is a must read book.



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