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Opinion

Editorial: The ugly history of Japanese internment at Tule Lake

Tule Lake internment camp jail

The jail at the Tule Lake Segregation Camp, located in Newell, Calif., where Japanese-Americans were held as prisoners during World War II.

(National Archives and Records Administration)

The story of the incarceration of some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast of the U.S. — nearly two-thirds of whom were American citizens — is familiar, if not as broadly known as it should be. Most were imprisoned after the onset of World War II in 10 remote camps, the best-known of which today is Manzanar, which was designated a national historic site in 1992. In 2004, a visitor center was built at the site to memorialize people who lost their freedom simply because of their ethnicity.

As emblematic as Manzanar might be, the story of the Tule Lake camp has its own resonance. It was there, beginning in 1943, that the government sent internees of Japanese descent whom it deemed “disloyal,” based primarily on their refusal to go along meekly with the government’s denial of their civil liberties. Many answered no when asked whether they would they swear allegiance to the U.S. or serve in the military. The answers for some were not simple. Would a noncitizen who swore allegiance to the U.S. be left stateless? Some sought to qualify their answer to the military question: Yes, if their families were released. At its peak the maximum-security camp at Tule Lake held 18,000 people secured by 1,200 guards (many with machine guns) monitoring fences from 28 watch towers, and backed up by eight tanks.

Like the other internment camps, Tule Lake closed down after the war. Many of the barracks were repurposed by nearby residents, and are still used on local farms or as parts of houses. But other buildings are part of what is known as the “World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument,” a multi-site confederation of war-related locations anchored by Pearl Harbor. It is an inapt merger of sites. The U.S. actions at Pearl Harbor were undeniably valorous. What happened at Tule Lake was an embarrassment.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill to designate Tule Lake a national historic site, which would help sharpen the focus on a too-often overlooked episode. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), whose district includes Tule Lake, plans a similar measure in the House. Although the U.S. belatedly acknowledged its horrendous treatment of Japanese Americans during the war, giving Tule Lake an enhanced status would be a welcome tribute to the people who were so egregiously mistreated by their own government. It would also serve as a rejoinder to those, amid the current anti-Muslim hysteria, who may have forgotten the lessons of those terrible mistakes.

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