The children are no older than seven. They're standing in a schoolyard, hands on their hearts. The picture is black and white—which, by the paradox of photography, exposes emotion more sharply than color could: Their faces are serious, innocent, luminescent.
The place is San Francisco. The date is April 20, 1942. The children are Japanese American. They are about to be shipped with their families to incarceration camps. For how long, they cannot know.
A young man sits on an upended piece of firewood. He's in shadow; the farmyard beyond is in light. He has turned mostly away from us, face down. It's a perfectly composed shot of pastoral America—except that the caption tells us his bags are packed for the journey to the camp.
The pictures are part of the exhibition, “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II,” currently at New York's International Center of Photography. Some of America's outstanding camera artists created the visual record of this dark chapter. Purely for the aesthetics of how a master's lens can frame life, the exhibition would be worth seeing.
But of course, what in the frame matters even more: Three-quarters of a century ago, 120,000 people were rounded up in America and imprisoned—by order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and at the urging of the then-governor of California, Earl Warren, among many other people.
And at this moment, in Donald Trump's America, that act of nativism does not feel entirely like history. As William Faulkner wrote, the past isn't dead; it's not even past.
The two photos I describe above are by Dorothea Lange, the outstanding documentary photographer of the Depression's misery. Strangely, someone in War Relocation Authority, the agency responsible for the operation, hired her as part of the crew that was supposed to show how humane it all was.
Instead, Lange captured the absolute American normalcy of the people being rounded up. In Woodland, California, outside Sacramento, she had a nervous breakdown. “She was just in a paroxysm of worry about what was going to happen to these people,” an exhibition quotes her assistant, Christina Gardner, as writing. “Our government was doing this. She saw the greater fabric in a way very few people did at the time.”
After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government actually required all citizens of enemy countries—Germany, Italy, and Japan—to register. And under Roosevelt's executive order, some 11,000 people of German ancestry and 3,000 of Italian ancestry were interned during the war. Those were people who'd been identified by the FBI as potential fifth columnists. A standard explanation of why the entire German American and Italian American communities weren't treated the same as Japanese Americans is that they were simply too large.
But of course this is the crucial point: Japanese Americans were considered separately. For them, the criterion for being considered dangerous was race.
Among the 120,000 were people who were U.S. citizens by dint of the 1898 Supreme Court decision establishing that under the 14th Amendment anyone born in American must receive citizenship. As for the immigrant generation, most had their path to citizenship blocked by another Supreme Court decision, 24 years later, according to which only Caucasians or people of “African descent” could be naturalized. “Scientific authorities,” the court ruled, had established that Japanese were neither.
That reference to the “science” of race connected the exhibition for me to another angle on history. As it happens, the research on World War II that led me to the photography museum during my sojourn in New York also brought me to read historian Joseph Bendersky's book, The “Jewish Question.”
Bendersky's main topic is pervasive anti-Semitism in the U.S. Army officer corps up through World War II. First, though, he lays out the social and intellectual backdrop: In the “first decades of the 20th century,” he says, army officers were “primarily” middle and upper-class, Protestant, and descendants of people who'd come from Britain or elsewhere in Northern Europe.
Their military education, especially for the older officers, had included works of “scientific” racial theory. At least till World War I, the West Point curriculum included texts on how Darwinist survival of the fittest had created biologically distinct races, of different intelligence and moral quality, practically separate species of humanity. At the top of the evolutionary ladder, naturally, were northern Europeans, who were supposedly superior to other Europeans and certainly to non-Europeans. Books such as Racial Realities in Europe and Rising Tide of Color by race theorist Lothrop Stoddard were still being assigned at the Army War College into the 1930s.
As Bendersky writes, the idea of “Anglo-Saxon racial superiority” came first, before the Darwinist theory. The theory provided a veneer of biological truth and transformed prejudice into seeming scientific fact. And while Bendersky's topic is the military, the book is a window into views held by a much larger piece of society—which saw itself as the real America.
The rising tide of nativism, the racist fear that Anglo-Saxon and Nordic America would be overwhelmed, drove passage of 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which drastically reduced immigration from all but Northern Europe, and blocked Asian immigration completely. Indeed, the nativist wave included particular fear of “the danger in which the white race now stands before the yellow,” as one general wrote in 1919. The same stink of racist fear hung over the decision in 1942 to treat all Japanese Americans as a threat.
Let's leap across seven decades: A man pushes himself onto the political stage by becoming chief proponent of the idea that a mixed-race president couldn't possibly be American, or legitimately president. He begins his presidential campaign with a tirade against immigrants, including the "rapists" he says are coming from Mexico. Elected president, he immediately tries to block Muslim immigration—using the “war on terror” to label an entire group as enemies. What this presidents wants are immigrants from Norway. Nordic people who can qualify to be real Americans.
It's not that Donald Trump ever read Stoddard's Rising Tide of Color or similar treatises; they are longer than 280 characters. But ideas spread much more widely than the group of people who have read the books or know their names, and in any case these books were just the shiny wrapping on a story about America that is the opposite of the lines written on the Statue of Liberty.
I don't mean to suggest that the nativist story is the one true story, and the other American story—the one about equality and huddled masses yearning to breathe free—is a myth for fifth graders. That's too cynical, and too simple.
Rather, countries—like people—are best understood by their contradictions. Their biggest, most painful contradictions are where they really live.
The Great American Contradiction is between equality and race, between democracy and white Christian ethnocracy. The question is always which side is winning. But the other side of a culture doesn't vanish. It flows underground. It can erupt again, as in Trumpism.
At “Then They Came for Me,” two more photographs caught my eye. One, taken by veteran photojournalist Clem Albers, shows a truck in a convoy leaving San Pedro, California, in April 1942. It looks like it was built for livestock. The back is enclosed by horizontal wooden rails, rising to a tarp roof. Through the rails, you can see eyes peering out, the eyes of people being taken to camps.
The other, also by Albers, from the same day and place, shows a crowd on the side of a street watching the convoy pass. Men and women and children stand, arms folded or hands in their pockets, watching.
If somewhere people objected, protested, insisted this was unnecessary for the war effort, they didn't make it into the visual record. There's no photo roughly equivalent, say, to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf warning last week of looming raids by the ICE men unfettered by Trump.
The past doesn't die. You have to look at it, as these picture help you do, and then fight it, and put it back in its cage. It doesn't have to be the future.