History repeats itself, relentlessly. Not because of any grand design, but because — in my opinion — human nature does not advance very rapidly.
I am thinking about this because of the recent visit to Garden Grove Regional Library by Jeanne Wakatsuti-Houston to talk about her classic memoir, “Farewell to Manzanar.” Although she was not a former resident of Garden Grove, her story evoked a time when there was a large Asian population here, and not from Vietnam or Korea.
Some folks lament the idea that the Big Strawberry is no longer a “white” community, as it was predominantly in the boom years of the Fifties and Sixties, as if that’s the way it always was. The truth is more interesting.
For much of our history, Garden Grove (and the surrounding area) had substantial Japanese, Mexican and even Chinese populations. A look at a Garden Grove High School yearbook (for many years, the only high school in the area) from, say, 1940, shows more than a sprinkling of Asian and Hispanic faces.
Our “non-white” populations featured in two of the great events in American history. One, of course, was the relocation of Japanese from the coastal areas, often to drab and desolate areas. The other was the case of Mendez v. Westminster, in which the practice of segregating non-English-speaking Mexican students from “white” kids into a separate school was overturned by the state Supreme Court, which helped serve as a precedent for the more famous federal Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled that all segregation based on race was unconstitutional.
Although the name of the Westminster School District is on the court case, other parties involved the Garden Grove School District, which also segregated Mexican kids. In fact, the GGSD superintendent testified in court that the Latino youngsters simply were not smart enough to be in the same system as whites. Ouch..
The relocation did take place during a time of fear and hysteria. But given what we know about human nature, it was not at all an unpredictable reaction. There had always been suspicions about the Japanese population. Whites regarded them as insular and too anxious to cling to ancient loyalties. There is certainly some truth to this; many Americans overseas make a bee-line to the nearest KFC or Burger King, and learn as little French or German as possible.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, there were widespread reports that the large Japanese population in Hawaii helped to gather intelligence for their “homeland” that made the attack possible. That was not just speculation by the rabid Hearst press; some military men (who should have known better) said that sort of thing publicly, and it ratcheted up public anxieties in California.
The so-called “Battle of Los Angeles” a few days later, when anti-aircraft guns fired hundreds of shells at a probably imaginary aerial formation, added to the stew of fear, and the quite-real shelling of an oil field in Santa Barbara by a surfaced Japanese submarine brought it all to a boiling point.
Japanese-Americans (including mostly people who were American citizens) were given just a few days to dispose of their property and be forcibly moved to remote locations in the desert and mountains. The idea was that it was too difficult, and the crisis too urgent, to take the time to sort between the loyal and the disloyal. Ship them off and sort it out later.
It’s probably true that the relocation saved some Japanese from mob violence at the hands of angry (and probably intoxicated) whites. It’s probably also true that it was an overreaction that paid scant attention to simple human decencies.
Some contemporary writers have compared the relocation camps to the concentration camps run by the Nazis. There are some similarities, to be sure, and the image of American citizens forced to live in a compound surrounded by barbed-wire and machine gun-equipped towers is pretty jarring.
But the similarities end there. The “residents” were not abused, forced to labor, tortured, murdered or otherwise terrorized. Uncle Sam provided, in the case of Manzanar in the Owens Valley, a high school, a gymnasium, athletics, etc. The accomodations were spartan, to be sure, but so were a lot of the barracks and other facilities for American soldiers, sailors and Marines during that time.
It’s also worth pointing out that thousands of German and Italian nationals living in the U.S. were also relocated, although they were more scattered and fewer in number. Additionally, it was only West Coast Japanese who were moved; S.I. Hayakawa, for instance, who later became a U.S. Senator from California, was unaffected because he was living in Chicago at the time.
I am not trying to excuse the wartime relocation of citizens into camps; it was clearly a hasty and panic-inspired move not in the best traditions of American society. But as the danger of invasion (real or imagined) receded, guilt began to set in, and some Japanese were released from the camps as early as 1943, and all by 1945. The relocation did shatter the Japanese community in Garden Grove; although some did return, most scattered across the West Coast, and things were never the same. A Japanese face, once so familiar on these streets, became by the Sixties, a curiosity.
Division based on race or creed is never a good idea. Everyone has something to contribute. Who knows what this community lost when the federal government expelled some of its best and brightest?
As one Garden Grove High School student said when the Japanese were ousted, “There goes the Honor Society.” At a time when nearly all the valedictorians at local schools are Asian scholars, it sounds a bit like it’s deja vu all over again.