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August 16, 2011 8:43 am

AMEND CORNER: Remembering history

Written by Don Amend

There is an old warning that we should not forget history, lest we repeat it.

It really isn’t that simple, of course. Remembering history isn’t always a guarantee that we will learn from it, and if we do learn from it, we’re probably just as likely to learn the wrong lesson as the right one.

History, after all, isn’t just “the facts.” It’s about what the facts mean, and determining that meaning always opens debate — especially when the facts of a historical situation are something we would rather forget.

Since it is so important to remember history, I was somewhat troubled when my daughter told me that a member of her book discussion group said that she did not know Japanese-Americans had been relocated from their homes and interned in places such as Heart Mountain during World War II. She had heard of the camps, but thought they were the invention of novelists. My daughter, the mother of two Asian-American children, quickly corrected her.

This weekend, several hundred people will come to Park County to remember the reality of those camps, and there will be some who can give first-hand accounts. For them, and for many living in the Big Horn Basin, the relocation was, and is, all too real.

When all those visitors leave, the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center will remain as a place to study the historical incident, and, more important, to consider questions of racial and ethnic prejudice, as well as civil and human rights, and to examine what equal justice is all about.

As with most historical debate, there is a wide range of opinion about Heart Mountain and other relocation camps. There are those, even among the World War II generation, who see the internment camps as a grave injustice. My mother, for example, often expressed her belief that the Japanese Americans were unfairly treated. Others are adamant that it was a necessary action, both for the country’s safety and for the safety of the Japanese-Americans themselves.

A woman about my mother’s age once told me during a Sunday School class that I had no right to comment on the Japanese removal because I wasn’t there, and didn’t know what Americans were going through at the time. She had a point, of course. It is always easy to make judgments of historical people and events in hindsight, especially when you’re sitting in a nice safe church half a century later.

But that point has limits, because examining why something happened and whether it was right or wrong is what history is all about. The internment took place in a period of fear and anger, and those emotions are not conducive to rational thinking. An objective evaluation can only be made when all the facts are known, and it may take years for some facts to be discovered and their meaning determined. Just this year, for example, it was revealed that the U.S. solicitor general at the time,  while arguing a civil rights lawsuit challenging the internment, suppressed some evidence. He didn’t reveal intelligence reports that discounted the danger posed by Japanese-Americans and FBI and Federal Communications Commission reports that discredited reports of Japanese-Americans communicating by radio with off-shore Japanese submarines.

The fear and anger Americans felt after Pearl Harbor is understandable, but the racial and ethnic bigotry toward Japanese-Americans that it triggered was not. Those attitudes had developed over several decades, and are evident in laws that forbade immigrant Japanese from ever becoming citizens or owning property, and in many states — Wyoming included — prohibited marriage between Caucasians and Asians.

That bigotry, coupled with fear in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, caused Americans to turn the phrase “innocent until proven guilty” on its head, and to forget that liberty and justice for all is what we are all about as a nation, not just words we mouth prior to school days, meetings and basketball games.

The world has changed considerably since that war ended. That became clear to me 20 years after the Heart Mountain camp closed when I rose one evening at the University of Wyoming for the playing of the National Anthem to begin a concert. When it was over, the audience remained standing for another national anthem as the National Orchestra of Japan played their own. I was not yet 21, yet in timespan shorter than my lifetime, Japan had gone from sending kamikaze pilots our way to sending a symphony orchestra. In retrospect, the featured piece of the concert, Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” was entirely appropriate. It really was a new world.

Now, more than 40 years later, there has been more change, and in many ways our society is much more tolerant and open than ever.

But attaining liberty and justice for all is still a dream just out of reach, and it is always threatened by the same fears that threatened it in 1942. Not long ago, for example, a lawyer acquaintance of mine in another part of the state told me he wasn’t sure we should allow Muslims in the U.S., regardless of their citizenship, and there is plenty of political rhetoric about “real Americans” out there that tells me it is not a given that everyone wants to attain that dream of justice for all.

In that context, I am excited to celebrate the opening of the Heart Mountain center this weekend, and I hope its existence will trigger more study and reflection on the history, not just of the relocation, but the whole issue of civil rights and justice in America.

And though they are much too young to understand it all, I will take my two Asian-American grandchildren to see the exhibits and begin exposing them to that history, which is part of theirs as well. For the sake of their futures, they need to remember that history.

So do we all.

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