Thursday, January 5, 2017

It Can’t Happen Here - Executive Order 9066 Revisited

Book Cover, Executive Order 9066 (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1972)
California Historical Society

The purpose of this exhibit would not be to point an accusing finger at those responsible; nor should the exhibit strive for a tone of scholarly or historical impassivity. Rather, the effort of the exhibition should be to strengthen a viewer’s appreciation for the precariousness of our rights and freedoms. And hopefully the viewer would come away with a deeper, more personal interest in the human rights of others.
                                     Richard Conrat, author and curator, Executive Order 9066, 1972
On the day after Pearl Harbor in 1941, Berkeley resident Charles Kikuchi expressed his concern for the Japanese Americans known as Issei, pre-1924 Japanese immigrants to the United States, also called “first generation”: “I should have confidence in the democratic procedures, but I’m worried that we might take a page from Hitler’s methods and do something drastic towards the Issei. I hope not. I don’t give a damn what happens to me, but I would be very disillusioned if the democratic process broke down.”

In fact, the democratic process—the Constitution itself—did “break down,” and nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent—most of them U.S. citizens—were forcibly removed from their homes along the West Coast and sent to domestic concentration camps.

Assembly Centers and Internment Camps, 1942–46
Courtesy Japantown Atlas

December 7, 2016, was the 75th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This year many institutions, including the California Historical Society, are planning exhibitions and programs to mark the 75th anniversary of events that followed Pearl Harbor—most notably the relocation and incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent following Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.

Interior Page, Executive Order 9066 (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1972)
California Historical Society

As a new U.S. administration prepares to assume governance, cultural institutions across the country are assessing how to address the changing—and fear-provoking—political climate, with many turning their attention to the history of civil liberties and civil rights in the United States. The imprisonment of nearly 120,000 individuals from 1942 to 1945 is often part of the conversation.

On this day in 1972 the California Historical Society launched a landmark exhibition and accompanying book, both titled Executive Order 9066, which documented these events through photographs by well-known photographers, most notably Bay Area photographer Dorothea Lange.

Dorothea Lange, Grandfather and Grandchildren Awaiting Evacuation Bus,
Hayward, California, May 8, 1942

Many of the photos are familiar to us now: California residents, tags around their necks, awaiting the buses that would take them away from their homes and communities; horse stalls turned into temporary living quarters until the camps were ready; the sign “I am an American” posted the day after Pearl Harbor by a Japanese American storeowner awaiting evacuation.

Dorothea Lange, Horse Stall Barracks at Tanforan Assembly Center, San Bruno, California, April 29, 1942
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

Dorothea Lange, I Am an American, Oakland, California, March 1942
Courtesy Library of Congress

But before 1972 most Americans had not seen these images and were even unfamiliar with the events they documented. Through CHS’s exhibition Executive Order 9066 the images of Japanese incarceration were widely displayed for the first time. Curated by Richard and Maisie Conrat, the show toured the country to widespread acclaim.

Consisting of duplicate exhibits, each with over 60 photographs and accompanying archival material, the show opened simultaneously on January 5, 1972, at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco and the University Art Museum in Berkeley. Culled from thousands of photographs taken for the War Relocation Authority (WRA) by Lange, Ansel Adams, Clem Albers, Charles Mace, Toyo Miyatake, and others, the exhibitions appeared at major museums across the country, including the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Exhibition Announcement, Executive Order 9066, 1972
California Historical Society

In the Bay Area, record-breaking numbers of people attended the two exhibits. At the de Young Museum, 20,000 viewed the photos within the first week, and over the course of their relatively brief runs attendance at both museums approached 220,000 visitors. The exhibits also traveled to smaller venues, reaching audiences at the University of Nebraska, Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey, Grossmont College in El Cajon, California, the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, and at venues in Idaho, Connecticut, Arizona, Missouri, and Utah, among other states. It even traveled to three sites in Hawai‘i as well as to Japan.

A. D. Coleman, reviewing the exhibition for the New York Times wrote, “It is not a pretty picture, but it is a major document, all the more painful for its gentleness and grace.” Writing for the San Francisco Examiner, Dexter Waugh noted, “Museums generally tend to capture the past under glass, darkly and dustless, but this exhibit . . . is painfully fresh, as alive as many of the people who once lived out the war in muddy Tule Lake, bleak Manzanar in the Owens Valley, or one of the eight other relocation centers.” And Paul Allman, in the Richmond, California, Independent wrote, “I cannot urge you to see this show. I am too involved to see the show clearly. It makes me too angry and too ashamed. Maybe that is the best recommendation I can give it.”

In addition to the widely reviewed exhibition’s appeal, all 10,000 copies of its accompanying book of photographs, also titled Executive Order 9066, sold out by March 1972.

Los Angeles Times Book Review Featuring CHS’s Executive Order 9066, February 27, 1972
California Historical Society 

There were objections to the exhibition. Some in the Issei (“first generation”) community were uncomfortable with the public exposure aspect of the photos, while Richard Conrat noted that members of the Nisei (“second generation”) community “wanted me to leave well enough alone.” Others felt that the exhibition characterized the Japanese American community as too passive.

The San Francisco Examiner received negative letters, one accusing CHS of “running down our country.” In Los Angeles, following an interview with Richard Conrat, the NBC-TV affiliate received over 50 “nasty hate calls” questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans during the war and likening them to Japanese soldiers. Host Robert Abernathy noted that “Sometimes, even when you are forewarned, you can’t help but gag at the cesspools of prejudice that bubble up from time to time into sickening view.”

Today, however, the exhibition and book are universally lauded for helping to break new ground—both within and outside of the Japanese American community, both locally and nationally. Executive Order 9066 appeared a couple of years after 1970 exhibition Pride and Shame at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle, Washington, and during its five-year showing throughout that state and a year before the 1973 publication of Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s renowned memoir Farewell to Manzanar.

Farewell to Manzanar, Children’s Book Edition (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1942)
California Historical Society

As the Densho Encyclopedia, which documents Japanese American life during WWII, observed, it was “part of the changing attitudes to the Japanese American wartime experience in the early 1970s that led to the Redress Movement of the 1980s.”

Today, on the 45th anniversary of CHS’s Executive Order 9066, the exhibition and book are also seen as a vivid and graphic warning about the fragility of civil liberties. In the book’s epilogue, retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Tom C. Clark, who was also Civilian Coordinator for the forced relocations during the war wrote: “Let us determine to abide by the lessons that Executive Order 9066 teaches us—first, that the mere existence of a legal right is no more protection to individual liberty than the parchment upon which it is written, and second, that mutual love, respect, and understanding of one another are stronger bonds than constitutions.”

Dorothea Lange, Pledge of Allegiance at Rafael Weill Elementary School, San Francisco, a Few Weeks Prior to Evacuation,” April 20, 1942
Courtesy Library of Congress

Alison Moore
Guest writer

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

“Executive Order 9066” (Exhibition), Densho Encyclopedia;

Maisie Conrat and Richard Conrat, Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans (San Francisco: California Historical Society and Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1972). Reprinted, Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1992.


Don’t miss this CHS event commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066:
Thursday, February 23, 2017, 6:00pm
Celebrating the California Historical Society’s 1972 Landmark Exhibition and Book, 
Executive Order 9066
Please join the California Historical Society as we celebrate our landmark 1972 exhibition and book of historic photographs, Executive Order 9066. The first to exclusively explore the World War II incarceration of Japanese American citizens and people of Japanese descent, the exhibition premiered at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor and UC Berkeley’s University Art Museum before it traveled nationally. Our program will include individuals and descendants of those who visited the exhibition along with the curator of the Dorothea Lange collection at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). The program will be moderated by historian Charles Wollenberg.

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