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JOSEPH N. BELL

Unrewritten History Is Available to All Who Are Interested

September 09, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

One of the more common human frailties is the tendency--and sometimes the need--to rewrite history to make us look better. Usually we do that in small, personal ways, such as typing up a job resume or exaggerating our own bravery or inventing sports conquests. This is a fairly innocuous human trait (and usually rather easily seen through) until it gets painted on a broader canvas, as it has for many years in countries where history has been twisted and revised to square with official catechism.

We don't do it as much--and certainly not as successfully--in the United States for two reasons: First, our Puritan ancestry prods us to err more on the side of self-flagellation, and, second, in our open society, it's too easy to get tripped up by records that are more or less freely available to anyone who wants to look at them.

That's why it was surprising when Newport Beach Republican state Assemblyman Gil Ferguson challenged history two weeks ago on the Assembly floor in Sacramento. Under discussion was a resolution calling for California schoolchildren to be taught that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was a violation of human rights rather than an act of military necessity and that it came about largely because of "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

Ferguson, who was a Marine Corps officer in World War II, didn't like that one bit--although he was politically selective in his criticism. He was perfectly willing to turn the heat on President Franklin Roosevelt for "failure of political leadership," but he was outraged that the Assembly laid racism and war hysteria at the doorstep of those of us who were around then.

Ferguson told his associates: "What you're saying is that the brave men and women of this country--your fathers and mothers and your grandfathers--were a bunch of racists. And that's why they did this."

Later, fuming over "this liberal trashing of America," he said, "Yes, we did make some dumb decisions, but who are you to sit here and call your parents racist because they made a decision that they thought was important and needed at the time?"

This brouhaha in Sacramento intrigued me on two counts in particular. First of all, I'm one of the "parents" in Ferguson's collective "we" and apparently--by his lights--should be equally outraged at this attack on our probity. And I'm not. And, second, because of some research I'm doing on a writing project, I've been reading a lot of contemporary accounts of the period Ferguson is talking about: the first six months of 1942.

The obvious riposte to Ferguson is that to carry his reasoning out to its logical end, we shouldn't refer to our great-grandfathers who owned slaves as "racists" either, because they were brave men and women who had good reasons to consider other human beings as their personal property.

But that cavil aside, I think the most effective way to evaluate the legitimacy of Ferguson's anger is to read the newspapers of the day and make your own judgments on the basis of what was happening and what was being said about it at the time.

I've been doing that, and I'll share a few tidbits with you here today. But I urge you to go to the newspaper microfilm section of the UC Irvine library and see for yourself. It's fascinating to read history as it was being reported--and, besides, you'll learn about such things as the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard during the same period.

The fear that Japanese-Americans would not only be disloyal but would undermine our war efforts began to surface a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Early in February, 1942, the immediate internment of all American-born Japanese unable to prove that they didn't hold dual citizenship was urged by the Los Angeles County Defense Council. Gradually in the weeks that followed, this demand grew to include all Americans of Japanese ancestry.

The fear was quite real and was fueled--especially in Southern California--by a series of events, both real and imagined, that made invasion of our mainland seem a real possibility. The only confirmed real event was the lobbing of 16 shells from a Japanese submarine into an oil field 12 miles north of Santa Barbara. The imagined events were much more exotic.

The most famous, of course, is the alleged Japanese "air attack" on Los Angeles of Feb. 25, 1942, that Stephen Spielberg made into a movie four decades later. Five people were killed and scores injured in the blackout caused by the "attack" that never happened. Army Secretary Henry Stimson first claimed that there were 15 planes operated by enemy "agents," then a week later modified that to "three to five light planes launched from Japanese submarines." He never explained how these launches were accomplished.

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