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Fall 1998
Shame of a Nation
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A daring new CD-ROM by the Film and Television Archive takes us inside -- and face to face with -- the horrors of America's concentration camps.
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By David Greenwald
Photography By David Greenwald

Hurtling down U.S. 395 through the high desert on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, it takes an observant driver to catch a glimpse of the stone pagoda-roofed sentry posts rising amidst the endless desolation of sage and scrub. There, for the seeming edification of the local population of jackrabbits, lizards and buzzing insects, rests a marker bearing the inscription: "May the injustices and humiliations suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again."

Welcome to California Registered Landmark No. 850: Manzanar, the first of America's 10 "relocation centers" scattered throughout remote areas of the country to which more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry - two-thirds of them U.S. citizens - were forcibly evicted and imprisoned during World War II.

Spread among Manzanar's 813 acres were the trappings of Everyday America - churches, post offices, schools, recreation facilities, gardens, stores, a cemetery - but these attempts at normalcy couldn't hide the fact that the centers were concentration camps. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire, with guard towers. The guns of armed soldiers on patrol pointed inward, toward the people living there, U.S. citizens who had not been tried or convicted of any crimes, who were put there only because of their ancestry. There were instances when those soldiers did not hesitate to use their weapons with deadly effect against those who vainly tried to flee.

No similar camps were established for people of German or Italian descent. What happened to the Japanese-American community as its population was rounded up and shipped off in the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor was the mournful culmination of a tide of anti-Asian sentiment that had been building since the late 1800s.

The tar-paper barracks are now gone, and except for the small cemetery with its whitewashed obelisk memorial set against the backdrop of the saw-toothed mountains, little is left among the dirt and sand roads to remind postwar generations of the story of Manzanar or Poston, AZ, or Minidoka, ID, or Jerome, AR.

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