Students assembled in the Skylight Lounge on April 7 for the concluding lecture in a series presented by the South City Campus Community Institute Project. This culminating lecture focused on the Japanese American internment at Topaz, Utah, during World War II (WWII).
The lecture started behind schedule as a medical emergency involving a keynote speaker forced a short delay. Once the lecture was underway, students learned of the 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in the U.S. shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Speaker Cherstin Lyon, a history teacher at UVSC, posed the question of whether the internment was justifiable or not. She answered the question by explaining the Supreme Court position that such actions were validated during times of war.
With the Supreme Court’s approval, hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were sent to internment camps. They were told the camps were to protect them from violence and racism. Yet the barbed-wire fences that were supposedly keeping prejudices out, were keeping Japanese Americans in.
“Clearly, it was not justified,” said Jane Beckwith, Director of the Topaz Museum.
Beckwith said the underlying fact is the U.S. Government feared sabotage during World War II. The government held the misconception that Japanese Americans were living in sensitive areas and might collaborate with the enemy (Japan). Beckwith believes the U.S. Government’s fears were completely unfounded.
“There was no chance they would be disloyal,” said Beckwith. Beckwith pointed out that not one of the interned Japanese Americans were convicted or even charged with a crime.
When Beckwith, a native of Delta, Utah, first began to explore the issue, she quickly realized she was delving into a complicated ordeal.
“I knew that the situation was very complex,” said Beckwith.
In her research, Beckwith discovered the government used carefully selected terms such as “non-alien” instead of “citizen” to slip things by the public.
Topaz was one of ten internment camps used to hold Japanese Americans during WWII. The population in Topaz varied from a minimum of 8,130 internees to a maximum of 11,212. Between 1942 and 1945 Japanese Americans were shipped 500 people at a time by train to Topaz.
Brady Ripple, a Salt Lake Community College student who attended the lecture tried to tackle the issue in his own mind. “In a certain sense,” said Ripple, “if they’re not a citizen it would make sense to investigate.” But Ripple couldn’t fathom the idea of interning U.S. citizens in U.S. camps.
The reparation process was long. Finally, in 1990, President George H. Bush signed a formal letter of apology to the Japanese Americans affected by the WWII internment. Along with the apology, a monument in Washington D.C. admits the government’s error with internment.
Both Beckwith and Lyon expressed why they feel it’s important to learn about Topaz, even a half century after it took place.
Beckwith believes the valuable study of Topaz will help rising generations be more understanding and accepting of diversity.
Lyon believes the study of the constitutional issues surrounding Topaz is very relevant in our day. Lyon emphasized that the law allowing internment is still in place. She said in this climate of terrorism and mistrust it is important to realize that great injustices could still be done.
The Topaz Museum website (www.topazmuseum.org) warns readers that these events must never be forgotten.
According to the website, “If we can understand what occurred and why, we can insure that a similar denial of civil rights will never happen to any future generation of Americans.”