Whitewashing Manzanar : Various veterans groups want to (bully) the government into denying the site of its historic meaning.

How often have critics described Southern California as a place without history, a peculiar region where each new day is writ clean, like a child scribbling on a tide-washed beach? Many times, surely. And usually the critics have been right.

But now comes an opportunity for Southern California to get down with a dirty-dog, historic controversy. We have the chance to take sides, to defend our past.

The squabble grows out of a few dusty acres near the town of Independence in the Owens Valley. If you ride up Highway 395, it's easy to miss those acres. You can fly by them, headed toward Mammoth or Reno, and never know you just passed a spot heavy with the past.

On that site, at the beginning of World War II, the government built one of its largest internment camps for Japanese Americans. The camp was named Manzanar, which means "apple orchard" in Spanish. At its height, the government held about 10,000 Japanese Americans there behind barbed wire and guard towers.

After the victory over Japan, the camp was dismantled and the remains sank back into the sagebrush. We had won the war, after all, and history is written by the winners. In this case, we decided to let Manzanar fade from memory, as if it didn't really happen.

Then, in 1992, Congress named Manzanar a National Historic Monument and gave the National Park Service the job of restoring the site. The old camp was about to be reborn through the auspices of "official" history. And the ugliness began.

As described last week by Martin Forstenzer in The Times, the park service has handled Manzanar like an unwanted guest at dinner. After four years, the government has no visible presence at the site. Rangers do not offer tours, nor has a visitor center opened. The park service has assigned exactly one employee to the job of converting 500 acres of ruins into a usable national monument.

Much of this malingering can be laid to the eternal budget crises and downsizing of government. But not all. On top of everything else, Manzanar has become the target of the same wrath that was directed last year at the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay exhibit.

As you will recall, veterans groups of World War II hated the Smithsonian's plan to use the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as an opportunity to discuss nuclear weapons and the impact of the nuclear threat in the postwar years. The veterans wanted a "clean" exhibit that showed the plane merely as a symbol of America's technological might.

And they got it. Now the same threat is being made at Manzanar. Various veterans groups want to do an Enola Gay at Manzanar by bullying the government into denying the site its historic meaning.

According to Bill Michael, director of the local museum in Independence and a member of the Manzanar Advisory Committee, letters have flooded the park service demanding that Manzanar be portrayed not as a prison camp but as a guest housing center for the Japanese Americans.

If these demands are not met, the groups have threatened to start dismissal campaigns against Michael and Ross Hopkins, the lone park service employee. Thus far, Michael and Hopkins have declined to comply.

In a typical letter from the history-cleansing crowd, William Hastings of Bishop wrote to the park service saying that the portrayal of Manzanar as an internment camp amounts to "treason."

"The park service is heading in the wrong un-American direction that will wind up in several resignations along with another Enola Gay incident," Hastings wrote. "The momentum towards this end result has already started and will continue to get stronger and stronger."

Another wrote on American Ex-Prisoners of War letterhead to say that Hopkins "sneers at patriotism and has nothing but contempt for veterans. This is the prevailing attitude reflected in the Enola Gay fiasco."

Lest you think that the job threats, explicit and otherwise, represent mere hot air, recall that the Enola Gay episode concluded not only with the gutting of the exhibit but with the resignation of the museum director who oversaw its planning.

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What does the clean history crowd really want at Manzanar? First, they want the United States portrayed as the kindly benefactor of the Japanese Americans--a provider of wartime "housing"--rather than a jailer. Second, they want the camp itself described as a sweet refuge from the war where Japanese "guests" could come and go as they pleased. They want to delete all references to barbed-wire fences and guard towers with machine guns.

It's bunk, of course. But recently the park service proposed a broadening of the Manzanar project to include Native American encampments and farm communities that came and went before the war. Is the park service bending before the wind of the veterans groups, offering a dilution of the war camp story? It's hard to say.

If so, the park service is playing the game all wrong. Because at Manzanar they have a much stronger hand than did the Smithsonian.

The Enola Gay exhibit, after all, had its weaknesses. The planned presentation probably dwelt overly long on the horror of The Bomb and not enough on the horrors that led to its being dropped.

Such weaknesses do not exist with the Manzanar project. The camp did intern Japanese Americans. The residents were prisoners, not "guests." The barbed wire and guard towers did rim the camp.

So the fight at Manzanar is winnable. It represents our past, warts and all, but a past that is true and valuable nonetheless. Here's a chance to prove that Southern California does have a history and that we who live here will fly to its defense. Just this once.

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