Book review: Infamy - how Japanese Americans came to be interned in war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 May, 2015, 10:52pm


 "How could this have happened here?" That's the question Richard Reeves asked himself every time he drove by a faded sign in the desert between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The sign marked the site of the Manzanar War Relocation Centre, one of 10 concentration camps where more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans were locked up during the second world war.

As a group, these first- and second-generation Americans were fiercely patriotic and committed to the "American way". They were successful farmers, businesspeople, students and community leaders. But in time of war, their racial connection to an enemy trumped their rights as citizens.

Infamy tells their tale with energy, compassion and moral outrage. Reeves, a veteran journalist, answers his own question with meticulous care - documenting the decisions made in Washington by the world's most powerful men, and how those decisions affected the lives of ordinary Americans whose only crime was to be of Japanese descent.

Within 10 weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, all Japanese living on the west coast and in the Pacific northwest were ordered out. The given reason: they were a threat to security, potential saboteurs whose loyalty would lie with Japan rather than America.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt kept a low profile on the issue, letting others whip up emotion in favour of internment, then signing off on it after public and official sentiment had made it inevitable.

As the US wrestles once again with its never-ending questions of assimilation and immigration, Reeves reminds us that the nation has always been formed by "the almost blind faith of each wave of immigrants - including the ones we put behind barbed wire".

"We are a nation made by immigrants," he writes, "foreigners who were needed for their labour and skills and faith - but were often hated because they were not like us until they were us."

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment During World War II by Richard Reeves (Henry Hold and Co) 

Tribune News Service