Barracks building at internment camp


Japanese internment camps are something we’re aware of, but may not fully understand. Photo historian and author Richard Cahan talks about the history of the camps, what makes them so “un-American,” and why he says we shouldn’t look back at the camps as precedent or a blueprint, but as a black eye we should avoid repeating at all costs.

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Story by Evan Rook


  • Richard Cahan, photo historian, former Chicago Sun-Times editor, and author of Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II

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Internment camps

Gary Price: On November 17th, 2016, prominent Trump supporter Carl Higbie suggested America could use Japanese internment camps as precedent for a national registry of Muslims in America. Such a registry was previously mentioned by Kris Coach, a member of the Trump transition team, and these statements worried a lot of people, especially those familiar with what Japanese internment camps really were.

Richard Cahan: When Carl Higbie said there was precedence, I think many people in the Japanese-American community, and many Americans, their jaws just dropped.

Price: That’s photo-historian Richard Cahan, a former Chicago Sun-Times editor and co-author of the book Un-American: the incarceration of Japanese American in World War II.

Richard Cahan: If this is precedence, if this is the road we want to go down, and the road really helped destroy tens of thousands of families and it was deemed illegal and it was certainly not moral, I guess you could say it happened in the past, but as precedent no, it’s not, and it’s interesting that Japanese-Americans are very aware of aligning themselves with Muslims who may be forced to sign a registry.

Price: Japanese internment is one of the topics America looks back on with shame. But do we really understand the history of the camps? They’re brushed over in schools, and you almost never see them covered in hit movies, but they’re an important piece of our country’s history to look back on and learn from, now more than ever.

Cahan: What happened during World War II, the incarceration of 110,000 Japanese-Americans was an un-American act, it was different than what our country stands for. And we wrote the book because we know that we’re at a time now that is not dissimilar from the early days of World War II. Security is first on our mind, and we look around the country and we fear the idea that our country might be attacked or sabotaged.

Price: And Cahan says he and his co-author Michael Williams were inspired by that tendency the country has to brush over this dark cloud in our history books to show people, without bias or exaggeration, just what this injustice looked like.

Cahan: A friend of mine, after the book came out, took me aside. He’s 35, 40 years old, and he said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’ve never even heard this story before.” So it does slip through our knowledge base and that’s one of the reasons why this book I think is so important. There’s been great books of both nonfiction and fiction written about the incarceration, but this gives people a visual look, photographs are evidence. We’re not just making this up, you can see these pictures, you can see the conditions of the camp and being a photo book, it’s the first time a comprehensive photo book like this has ever been put together, and I think that’s really important.

Price: So let’s jump into the facts of Japanese incarceration. According to Cahan, one thing people are always shocked to hear for the first time is exactly how many people the U.S. Government put into these camps.

Cahan: 110,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes. In America at the time there were about 125,000 Japanese-Americans living in America, so basically nine out of ten people were picked up, and of that 110,000, 70,000 of them were born in the United States.

Price: And with all those people living in close quarters, comfort and privacy were not paramount considerations.

Cahan: Families were put into small, barrack-like rooms, and the rooms were oftentimes shared inter-generationally, so we literally have people who are just married living with their grandparents. Most of the camps were in the middle of deserts. The conditions were harsh. They weren’t going to give them prime real estate. The wind blew through the very light, barrack-like structures. There was one light bulb per room. There was a small stove per room. Food was served in mess-hall-like settings. At first, there was no accommodation to the Japanese diet, and so many people were having problems that the menus did switch so there were kind of American foods and there were more traditional Japanese foods. Each barrack had toilet facilities and showers. The toilets oftentimes were not separated, there was no privacy in the toilets. People were very traumatized by this.

Price: Cahan says most people hear these details, shudder at the thought of it, and begin to ask, “How could this have happened right here in America?”

Cahan: It came 11 weeks after Pearl Harbor, so not very long afterwards, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President, decided that he would give the Army the final decision of what happens to Japanese-Americans. And on the surface, it makes a little bit of sense because the Army is in charge of security in the country, but it’s important to realize the Army didn’t care about the civil liberties or the rights of these people. They just simply cared about the security of this country. So it’s very important that decisions like this don’t get taken over by the military.

Price: And giving the military the power to suppress rights in the name of security is one of the things Cahan says he hopes America can avoid repeating.

Cahan: Of course one of the concerns that I think many people have is that this new cabinet that’s being announced, there’s so many generals in the cabinet. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with the military, and there’s nothing wrong with generals, but the military thinks about security issues and doesn’t consider all facets and I think we’ve got to realize that and that’s one of the lessons that I learned from doing this story.

Price: Cahan says once the decision was made by the military and President to open the camps, there wasn’t a whole lot of resistance, which leads us to one of the major ethical dilemmas of this history: should we always blindly follow the laws of the land?

Cahan: The Japanese-Americans that went did it because they felt that this was their contribution to the war effort, and they felt that it was proper to follow the higher-ups in the government. They went, I won’t say willingly, but I will say that they went in an obedient manner. And I think since the war there’s been great discussion in the Japanese community of whether they should’ve put up more of a fight. Of course, there is no answer. It’s easy to sit here 75 years later and come up with an answer, but if you recall how America changed within the couple of days before we started the Iraq war, you realize that fear and hysteria sweeps through and makes decisions difficult.

Price: As the war was ending in 1945, the constitutionality of these internment camps was being considered by the Supreme Court.

Cahan: Right when the Supreme Court was going to decide, and everyone knew that they were going to decide that this was illegal, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that the camps should be opened and people could return.

Price: Once the camps were closed, the Japanese-Americans that had been forced to spend years of their lives living as prisoners were forced to go begin again somewhere else.

Cahan: Many returned to California, many didn’t want to go back to California because of the bad memories and because they had lost their homes and their farms and their property, so they started to spread out and settle all over America. Chicago was a big destination, people went all the way to New York, and interestingly, they were told that they could resettle but they were encouraged greatly to separate, that the idea of coming together as small communities was frowned upon.

Price: Cahan says it was during this reintegration process that many of the heroes outside of the camps began to be known.

Cahan: A man by the name of Bob Fletcher who lived in California and he worked for the Agriculture Commission, and when he saw this happening, he saw his friend’s family farms were going to go down the drain because the families were picked up and taken away from their farms. So he decided that he would farm this land, and in 1945 when these three families came back to their farms, he gave them back the keys and and he gave them back the money that he owed them. And years later he was honored, and when he turned 100, just a few years ago, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying, they asked him about how much courage it took, and he said, “I don’t know about courage, but it took a devil of a lot of work to do this.” So we were hardened by those stories and I thought as an individual person how important it is to take a stand when I see things that are un-American.

Price: Ultimately, he hopes his book can do two big things. First, he wants this unfortunate history to be seen for its real ugliness, and for that ugliness to prevent history from repeating itself by way of a Muslim registry.

Cahan: This is not ancient history. This happened 75 years ago in America, and the people that went through the incarceration, many of them are still alive, and we had a chance to contact them and talk to them and they’re very worried about it. I think it’s important to remember that, as strange as it seems, it’s hard for us as Americans and probably it’s hard for people all over the world sometimes, to actually figure out who their enemy was. In World War II, our enemy was not the Germans or the Italians or the Japanese who were living in this country, but it was the government of Germany and Italy and Japan. But somehow we transferred that fear of a country and we looked at our own country and we connected the two. And I think that’s something that we may be doing now. We look at Muslim-Americans and we’re worried about them and these are not the people who are really our enemies. Hysteria makes us make bad decisions and irrational decisions. This fear of the other makes us un-American, it makes us do things that decades later we look back at and we scratch our head and we say, “How in the world could we have done that?”

Price: And, of course, Cahan says he hopes his book can honor everyone who was forced into the camps.

Cahan: One thing we wanted to show was just how American these people were, not only by their birthright, but the way they looked: their checked shirts and their boots and their leather belts. These were people just like you and I. And the book starts out with a quote by Lawson Inada, who was a camp survivor and he was the former poet laureate of Oregon and he wrote Only What We Could Carry. Only What We Could Carry was the rule that Japanese-Americans were given when they were told what they could bring with them, that shows you how little it was. And he wrote, “Only what we could carry was the rule, so we carried strength, dignity, and soul.”

Price: You can buy Richard Cahan’s book Un-American: the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II now online. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.