Detour: Tule Lake National Monument

A grave personal injustice was done to the American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.

Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

As the afternoon of September 18 progressed, Sean and I drove over from Petroglyph Point at Lava Beds National Monument to nearby Tule Lake National Monument, one of the newest in the system. In 2008, George W. Bush had established WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which was subsequently abolished by Congress in March 2019. Its three sites each became their own park units: Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Aleutian Islands World War II National Monument, and Tule Lake National Monument.

Tule Lake National Monument preserves and interprets Tule Lake Segregation Center, the largest and most controversial of the ten internment camps in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, just over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It empowered the U.S. Army to designate areas from which “…any or all persons may be excluded.”

Ultimately over 110,000 Japanese Americans (the designation included anyone with 1/16 Japanese ancestry) and Japanese citizens residing in the United States were removed from their homes in western Washington, Oregon, and California and southern Arizona. They were interred in ten concentration camps called War Relocation Centers in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.

Although the executive order was broad enough to include virtually anyone (itself deeply troubling), no Americans of European descent (no German Americans or Italian Americans) were removed from their homes and interred in camps. The internment was uniquely race based and built on a century of anti-Asian racism in the United States generally and in the American West in particular.

Families lived in barracks ranging from 320-460 square feet lit by a single bulb, heated by a coal stove, and furnished with up to eight cots. In the wake of the sudden forcible removals, the interred citizens and resident aliens lost an estimated $3 billion (in 2020 dollars) of personal property, land, and business value over and above an incalculable impact on mental health, emotional wellbeing, and community and family cohesiveness.

Tule Lake Segregation Center, the last of the camps to close, ceased operations in March 1946. In the decades after the war, the incident was largely forgotten as those who were imprisoned tried to return to their lives and reintegrate with their communities. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, in the midst of that decade’s waves of activism for civil rights, that calls emerged for the U.S. government to take responsibility for the blatantly unconstitutional treatment of Japanese Americans.

In 1981, Congress created a landmark Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which issued a sweeping, comprehensive report in 1983. Its findings were absolutely unequivocal:

In sum, Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions that followed from it—exclusion, detention, the ending of detention and the ending of exclusion—were not founded upon military considerations. The broad historical causes that shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance about Americans of Japanese descent contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan.

Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

Per the bipartisan commission’s recommendations, the United States issued a formal apology and created a reparations fund that both compensated the victims and their families and explicitly funded education efforts about the wartime internments so that the incident would not be forgotten.

The camp at Tule Lake began as a War Relocation Center like the other nine, but it eventually was designated a Segregation Center, meant to function more as a prison for those internees who were deemed disloyal to the United States. Internees at all ten camps were made to fill out loyalty questionnaires. Questions 27 and 28, which essentially asked resident aliens to renounce their Japanese citizenship, were notoriously controversial because of the implications of U.S. immigration law at the time.

On the surface, the loyalty questions seemed innocent enough, but for foreign-born Japanese, who for 17 years prior to WWII were not allowed by law to become citizens of the United States, they were being asked to give up their citizenship to Japan and become nationless people, having no legal ties to any country. For their children, who were citizens by birth, the question became a decision between country and family. Many felt pressure from their parents to answer with the family, even if it meant expatriating and moving to a country they had never seen.

National Park Service Brochure

As a consequence, internees from other camps who refused to become nationless people were moved to Tule Lake Segregation Center where the population swelled to almost 19,000 people, over 4,000 more than its intended capacity. Despite so many supposedly disloyal internees, by the time the segregation center closed in 1946, only 406 prisoners actually faced deportation. All others were allowed to return to their communities and resume their lives.

Image: Sean M. Santos

While the camp was largely demolished after its closure, the National Park Service owns a small section of the property near where the stockade had been. We pulled off the highway and stopped beside the chainlink and barbed-wire fence to read the interpretive signage. The other NPS portion of the Monument is Camp Tulelake, which had been originally built by and for the Civilian Conservation Corps, but during WWII had been used to inter Italian POWs. We had driven past it that morning on the way into Lave Beds. The final of the three units is monumental Castle Rock, which looms over the vicinity. Originally part of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, it is still managed by the Fish & Wildlife Service.

Before becoming a National Monument, Tule Lake Segregation Center was a California State Historical Site. We stopped and had a look at its designation signage.

Image: Sean M. Santos

I sent this sign via text to Aimee, John, and Patrick also. It just says it straight up and admirably.

We continued up the highway into the town of Tulelake, California to see if the visitor center was still open. Located in the administration building of the county fairgrounds, it was a bit confusing to find. As we drove into town, Sean played a short episode of “The Memory Palace” about the Washington Monument and Vietnam, which felt emotionally fitting.

Inside, we stamped our passports, collected the informational brochures, and had a look at the exhibits. A Ranger was getting ready to lead a small group on a pre-organized (non-public) tour. That would have been neat to join.

For a small Park in administrative transition, it packed a heavy punch.

Image: Sean M. Santos

It was also fascinatingly juxtaposed against small town Western life, particularly because it was connected to the fairgrounds. I’m glad that presumably the “WWII Valor in the Pacific” part of the name will be removed.

There is nothing valorous about a concentration camp.

With that, we climbed back into the car and headed northwest out of California for the final time this trip.

Ruminating on the day, we agreed that Lava Beds National Monument and Tule Lake National Monument were hugely powerful units of the National Park System.

“Anyone who finds themselves in this part of the country should visit here,” Sean observed.

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