A Concentration Camp in California: The Past Haunts the present.

This post was drafted in 2016, after an accidental visit to Manzanar.  I was riding through the vast  flat openness of  east central California, with family. The Sierra Nevada peaks rimmed this area. The  mountains and the sky were brilliant; but they were far away. The land was tundra that seemed to stretch on forever.

We were on the way to either Reno or Yosemite, or maybe both. I knew vaguely that Manzanar was out here somewhere; but there’s so much “somewhere”/nowhere here, I wasn’t expecting to see it.

I was half-dozing; we’d been driving for several hours, with several more to go.

But then this sign flashed by, out of the blue. And as soon as I saw it, I sat up, wide awake, and demanded that we stop.

So we did. And it was an amazing, too short visit. Here are some glimpses of what we found there; Manzanar is now a national historic site, to preserve the memory of a shameful story that at least two presidents, Gerald Ford in 1976, and George H.W. Bush in 1991, declared was a horrible injustice and “will never be repeated.”

Their vow was backed up by payment of several billion dollars in reparations. Thousands of families had been rounded up and penned in here and ten other sites, held prisoner without having been charged or convicted of any crime.

But these presidents, however sincere, were wrong in their predictions. Something very like it is happening again. Which makes this visit more than history. I look at it from the standpoint of a Quaker, for reasons that will soon be clear enough; but Manzanar is a matter for all Americans.

Let’s Salute the Flag & Stand for the Anthem — Oh, Wait!


This flag was flying over the Manzanar relocation camp in California in 1942. Manzanar, as well as nine other camps were packed with more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans, who were taken from their homes shortly after the U.S. entered World War Two against Japan & Germany. Most lost everything they had owned.

Manzanar is now a National Historic Park. And it’s one that Quakers have a lot invested in, though not many of us know that.

At the Manzanar site online, there are a series of photos, quotes, and discussion questions, for use in schools and for inquirers. One of these quotes caught my eye:


Two questions for discussion and reflection: why would Miyo’s friend have questions about saluting the flag, or singing the anthem? And, is this just a historical, 75-year old issue?

It wasn’t “just history” on the West Coast in late 1941 and early 1942:


(BTW — there was NO evidence of actual sabotage or spying produced involving Japanese-Americans in the western U.S.)



Ten thousand of them were crowded into a camp called Manzanar, in the remote Owens Valley of California. Owens Valley could serve as a good definition  of the “middle of nowhere.”

It’s almost 120 miles north of Death Valley in California, and 100-plus from the eastern entrance to Yosemite. Owens Valley is home to bands of Paiute-Shoshone Indians, some hardy fruit farmers, cattle ranchers, and not much else on two legs.


From here it’s 336 miles to San Francisco, 226 to LA, and almost 250 to either Reno or Vegas. “Manzanar” is Spanish for “apple orchard.”

This is high desert, at nearly 4000 feet, so it’s hot in the summer, freezing and snowy in winter, and whipped by strong winds at any season. Twenty miles or so west are the Sierra Nevada mountains, usually capped by snow and fantastic slow-swirling cloud formations.

Conditions were tough in the camps. Legal challenges to the internment were turned aside, even by the Supreme Court.  Most Japanese-Americans were kept in the camps until late 1945, when the war ended, ad some for months afterward.

quiet-heroes-cover-clrThere was a dogged handful of white Americans who protested the internment and worked to end it. Prominent among them were Quakers and the American Friends Service Committee. A book, Quiet Heroes, by Tsukasa Sugimura, describes and celebrates this support.

There are many powerful stories about Friends in this book; but those are for another time. This post is about why someone in the camp, an American citizen, might have questions or resistance to saluting the U.S. flag or singing the national anthem.

Manzanar in April 2016. Not much to see here outside, except sometimes magnificent cloud formations.

And whether the queries posed on the National Park Service study site are still apt:


PS. Most of the internees did stay loyal to the U.S.; many of the young men volunteered for combat  in Europe. Eventually, the U.S. government apologized for the internment, and paid reparations.


Wikipedia motes that, following the discovery of the European Holocaust there was a vigorous debate about whether these internment centers should be called “concentration camps.”  That debate also is again timely, and I quote from the Wikipedia summary of the “Terminology debate”:

Since the end of World War II, there has been debate over the terminology used to refer to camps in which Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents, were incarcerated by the United States Government during the war. These camps have been referred to as “War Relocation Centers”, “relocation camps”, “relocation centers”, “internment camps”, and “concentration camps”, and the controversy over which term is the most accurate and appropriate continues.

In 1998, use of the term “concentration camps” gained greater credibility prior to the opening of an exhibit about the American camps at Ellis Island. Initially, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Park Service, which manages Ellis Island, objected to the use of the term in the exhibit. However, during a subsequent meeting held at the offices of the AJC in New York City, leaders representing Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans reached an understanding about the use of the term.  After the meeting, the Japanese American National Museum and the AJC issued a joint statement (which was included in the exhibit) that read in part:

A concentration camp is a place where people are imprisoned not because of any crimes they have committed, but simply because of who they are. Although many groups have been singled out for such persecution throughout history, the term ‘concentration camp’ was first used at the turn of the [20th] century in the Spanish American and Boer Wars. During World War II, America’s concentration camps were clearly distinguishable from Nazi Germany’s. Nazi camps were places of torture, barbarous medical experiments and summary executions; some were extermination centers with gas chambers. Six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Many others, including Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political dissidents were also victims of the Nazi concentration camps. In recent years, concentration camps have existed in the former Soviet Union, Cambodia and Bosnia. Despite differences, all had one thing in common: the people in power removed a minority group from the general population and the rest of society let it happen.

The New York Times published an unsigned editorial supporting the use of “concentration camp” in the exhibit. An article quoted Jonathan Mark, a columnist for The Jewish Week, who wrote, “Can no one else speak of slavery, gas, trains, camps? It’s Jewish malpractice to monopolize pain and minimize victims.”  AJC Executive Director David A. Harris stated during the controversy, “We have not claimed Jewish exclusivity for the term ‘concentration camps.'”

On July 7, 2012, at their annual convention, the National Council of the Japanese American Citizens League unanimously ratified the Power of Words Handbook, calling for the use of “…truthful and accurate terms, and retiring the misleading euphemisms created by the government to cover up the denial of Constitutional and human rights, the force, oppressive conditions, and racism against 120,000 innocent people of Japanese ancestry locked up in America’s World War II concentration camps.”

A story based on the work of one intrepid Quaker who labored to end the internment and empty the concentration camps is here.

3 thoughts on “A Concentration Camp in California: The Past Haunts the present.”

    1. All who believe in vigilance as the price of liberty for all need to take note of the latest version of “concentration camps” right here in our own country. Folks, including women and children, some even unaccompanied, are being warehoused in conditions unfit for human habitation only because they seek a better home than that of danger and persecution they would face at home. This is a deliberate construct of the US administration, which means to erect all possible barriers, however extreme their inhumanity, to asylum-seekers as a political deterrent to legitimate immigration across our southern border.

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