A Bubble Off Plumb

Don’t view historical wrongs with today’s lens

Posted 12/3/20

In our short stint here in Wyoming, we have begun to enjoy some of the benefits of residency. Of course, before the family joined me, I took advantage of being so close to Yellowstone and spent a day …

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A Bubble Off Plumb

Don’t view historical wrongs with today’s lens

Posted

In our short stint here in Wyoming, we have begun to enjoy some of the benefits of residency. Of course, before the family joined me, I took advantage of being so close to Yellowstone and spent a day there. It was a bit of a wake-up call for the East Gate attendant to tell me how quickly the snow promised for that afternoon could shut down the road back to Cody, but that didn’t materialize and all was well.

Right after we spent Thanksgiving in our new abode, my son and I visited the Heart Mountain Relocation Center and the museum there. Last time we went, he was a toddler and there was no interpretive center, just a few derelict buildings.

The time we spent there was mind boggling. Even though I was slightly familiar with the location, I had no idea it was so large — more than 14,000 Japanese-Americans were housed there during WWII. The housing was rough, quickly constructed barracks with a single room allotted per family.

Yet the internees somehow made a life there. Some of the recollections included sadness on losing their homes and businesses, even though their only “crime” was being of Japanese descent.

It is tempting to look at that time in our history with righteous indignation, rage, even. But that is a fallacy on two fronts.

One, those who were forced to live there are perhaps the only Americans who have the right to that anger. They were the ones who suffered, yet they accepted it as a way to show their loyalty to the nation they loved. Many were first or second generation citizens, but for the most part any animosity they felt was held in check because they wanted to show they were loyal Americans, not homegrown spies.

Secondly, we would commit a serious error to judge the actions of yesterday through the lens of today. The way we think, feel, reason, has the advantage of being more than 75 years removed from the war. People in the war years were working in the shadow of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the longstanding distrust between the two nations. Those emotions must have been similar to what New Yorkers experienced in 2001. Many families had lost members at Pearl Harbor. Neither group should be judged for how those horrible losses affected them. It does not justify the action of placing Japanese-Americans in relocation centers, but outrage at the action is not ours to hold. Of course, the federal government didn’t have to wait until 1988 to say the action was wrong and make reparations.

Another part of the Heart Mountain story I did not know was how poorly most of the residents were treated once the war was over and they sought to restart their lives. Many communities banned them from purchasing homes, and the household goods they might have placed in storage had been looted or damaged beyond repair. They started over with little besides the $25 given them as they left the camp. Again, a real reason for rage and indignation. Yet, instead, they continued to love America, pursue the opportunities for which it is famous, and worked until better days arrived.

While the story is one of sadness, wrongs perpetrated on peaceful people, it is also a story of an amazing response to an awful situation. Treated badly, the response was one of humility, acceptance, hard work and intense loyalty. It is a lesson we would do well to take to heart today.    

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