Midway between Independence and Lone Pine along Highway 395 in the eastern Sierra is Manzanar.
It sits at 3,900 feet in the Owens Valley below the rugged Sierra that gain 8,000 feet of elevation in mere miles. For centuries it was where the Paiute — Native American Indians — lived in villages that bordered the creeks that crisscross the region. In 1910, miners and ranchers founded a town there appropriately naming it Manzanar, the Spanish word for “apple orchards” that once blossomed on what today looks like god-forsaken land.
That’s because 19 years later Los Angeles’ naked thirst led to that city’s water and power department to clandestinely buy up virtually all of the groundwater rights in the area drying up wells and sucking creeks dry forcing residents and business to flee.
Manzanar is remembered today for a third forced relocation — Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. This semi-forbidden stretch of Inyo County where the winters are bitterly cold with high winds whipping off the snow-covered Sierra and the summers can bake in 90 degree plus heat with brutal dust storms tossed into the mix is where the National Park Service oversees the national historical site designed to remember what happened — the 120,000 American citizens rounded up and shipped to 10 “relocation” camps during World War II — and to educate the nearly 100,000 annual visitors.
Educate about what, you might ask.
There is the obvious. There were 17,000 American citizens incarcerated in a place that can be as inhospitable as the middle of the Mojave Desert at times in government-built barracks that were barely a few notches above more elaborate homeless encampments of today.
How bad where the buildings? Winds blew dust between wall boards. They were freezing in winter and stifling in summer. Furniture was fashioned from discarded remnants.
It was a hard life. But there was a touch of civilization. There were weekly dances in the school gym. There were jobs where internees could make money including, ironically, parachutes for American airmen for use in the war effort.
Hysteria led to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive order 75 years ago this month that sent 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry that were living along the West Coast to internment camps.
They were allowed to take very few personal belongings. Pets were left behind. The fate of homes and businesses depended upon their neighbors. In areas like Placer County many foothill orchards near Penryn, Loomis, and Lincoln were overseen by neighbors until the owners returned. Other Americans of Japanese descent were not as lucky.
The hysteria wasn’t the sneak attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor three months before FDR issued his executive order. It was spawned by isolated incidents fanned by fearful speculation. Had social media been in place back in 1942, the odds are the executive order would have been issued within days of the attack on the United States instead of months later given how fast we now spread innuendo.
The “excuses” to justify the order ran the gamut from a Japanese submarine that shelled a Santa Barbara oil complex on Feb. 23, 1942, and the fact Japanese schools in the Golden State during the 1930s emphasized loyalty to the Emperor of Japan, to intercepted cables that referenced reliable Japanese spies around San Diego and San Pedro.
There is also another lesson that is being misconstrued by those unhappy with President Trump’s original travel ban order. The executive orders by FDR and Trump are not both ducks as they do not sound alike although they were rooted in a concern about national security. They do the share the common thread of suspending the rights of a narrow group of Americans. In Trump’s case it wasn’t as sweeping as it involved the right of travel to those conferred protection of American citizenship by our nation’s laws without being citizens who had legally valid visas. FDR’s action was the outright suspension of the citizenship rights of actual citizens who happened to have been Japanese.
The lessons you can soak in from careful exploring of the Manzanar National Historical Site some 5½ hours and 273 miles away from Manteca center around not making rash and blanket judgments of others.
One exhibit tells of a highly decorated American of Japanese descent that fought in the European Theatre riding public transit in Los Angeles and being told to get off the bus who had fellow soldiers come to his defense.
Other exhibits touch on the garden variety of hysteria fanned by skin tone, language, and culture.
Manzanar stands as a reminder of how dangerous the reckless application of executive orders can be regardless of how justified they seem to be in the moment. From that aspect there is a strong correlation between the executive orders of FDR and Trump. But that is where they split.
Trump’s much ballyhooed Travel Ban 2.0 executive order we are told will exempt those with legal visas from the travel ban involving seven countries. It comes down to whether the President of the United States has the authority along with that of Congress to limit what foreigners can enter this country whether they are travelers, refugees, or those that want to immigrate.
Do not dilute the power of the lessons taught by Manzanar by stretching it beyond elasticity to include those that have no standing as American citizens.
There is — and always has been —a difference under the constitution of the rights conferred by this nation on its own citizens and those extended near-equivalent status through the issuances of visas — and citizens residing in other countries that want to travel here.
The right of an American should never be weakened within our borders regardless of the reason. That is the lesson of Manzanar. The lesson is not that everyone around the globe has the right to be an American or has the right to travel here without being granted the right to do so.
There is a big difference.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.