DAYS OF INFAMY
by Larkin Vonalt
It’s the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base today. 2,458 people were killed; 68 of them were civilians and 55 were Japanese. Though we weren’t officially at war, we’d heard the drumbeat coming since 1938, with the Japanese invasion of China and the aggressions of Nazi Germany in Britain and other allied countries.
Franklin Roosevelt called December 7th “a date which will live in infamy” and promptly declared war on Japan. Hawaii, 2400 miles off the coast of California, was a protectorate of the United States and wouldn’t become the 50th state for 18 more years.
Fewer than 200 Pearl Harbor survivors are still alive today, most of them in their 90s. Yet, every year, on December 7th, we stir up our old nationalist outrage, revisiting this “sneak attack” by the “Japs”, picking at the long-healed wound.
Let us consider for a moment a few instances of our retaliation for the bombing of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base that killed 2,335 servicemen.
Beginning in 1942, 110,00 American citizens of Japanese descent were moved from their homes and businesses to internment camps in the most Godforsaken and isolated places in the United States. At the time there were only 127,000 Americans of Japanese descent in the country. It didn’t matter if your family had been in the United States for many generations. It didn’t matter if you were as little as 1/16th Japanese. Orphaned infants with “one drop of Japanese blood” (a letter from one official explains) were included in the program.
Lt. General John L. DeWitt, who administered the internment program said in testimony before Congress: “I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
DeWitt was more colloquial with newspaper reporters, repeatedly telling them “A Jap’s a Jap.” The Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial explaining why the internment program was “essential”: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched.”
We sent 110,000 of our own people to live in rudimentary barracks in the desert, we took their businesses and their homes and we never gave them back. There was an attempt at redress 40 years later, when survivors of the camps were each offered a $20,000 payment. On the sites of each camp, there is a monument to the sons of internees who died in service to the United States Armed Forces in World War II.
Three and a half years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on August 6, 1945– after six months of intense fire-bombing against Japan, we dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, immediately killing approximately 80,000 people, almost all of them women, children and the elderly. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing more than 40,000, again almost all of them women, children and elderly.
Of the women, children and elderly killed on those two days, 72,000 died from flash burns, 36,000 percent from falling debris and 12,000 from other causes. In the next two months, more than 120,000 more Japanese civilians would die from burns, radiation sickness and injuries. The cities were obliterated, the whole country- about the size of California- was poisoned.
The fact that we have a reasonable and cordial relationship with Japan today has a lot more to do with them and their capacity for forgiveness than it does with us.
Before you say, “Oh, well, that was 70 years ago, and things were different then,” I will leave you this to ponder. Remember our invasion of Baghdad, where we were going to be “seen as liberators,” “freeing” Iraq from the oppression of Sadaam Hussein? Remember watching on television the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Baghdad at night? Iraq didn’t have a beef with us. In fact, some administrations had enjoyed friendly relations with Hussein. There were, of course, no weapons of mass destruction, and no involvement in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. My husband and I happened to be in Canada the weekend those airstrikes occurred and their newspapers, in 64 pt. headlines reported it (perhaps more accurately) as “Attack on Iraq!” In that initial unprovoked military action against another country, with whom we were not at war, more than 30,000 Iraqi civilians died.
So, before we ever talk about “Days of Infamy,” let us first look in the mirror.