Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz.
By Sandra C. Taylor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. $35.00.
Reviewed by Richard W. Steele, Professor of History, San Diego State University and author of The First Offensive, 1942, (1973) and Propaganda in an Open Society (1985).
A great deal has been written about the Japanese-American relocation and internment. This book is unique in that it traces a single group of Japanese-Americans (those whose homes were in the San Francisco Bay area) from life in their communities before the Second World War, through their effort to re-establish themselves after the disaster that was internment. Sandra C. Taylor, a Professor of History at the University of Utah, focuses on “the network of associations and institutions” that held the group together, and the “complex interaction” between the Japanese-Americans (Nikkei) and the Caucasians who served as their captors and custodians. Much of her account is based on interviews with the victims and government officials, many of them conducted and compiled by the author herself. She also uses the detailed reports of the War Relocation Authority’s (WRA) Community Analyst stationed at Topaz, the detention facility in the Utah desert, to which most of the Bay area evacuees were sent.
Professor Taylor emphasizes that the Japanese-Americans of the Bay area constituted a “community.” But while the group had many of the attributes of community, organizations and communal institutions apart from family seemed to play a minor part in the lives of the Nikkei who, from her account, were far from united in their responses to relocation, resettlement, and even in
their quest for redress. Ironically, though not unexpectedly, the government’s actions while at first exacerbating the divisions within the groups, eventually encouraged solidarity as the Nikkei’s universal resentment at what their government had done to them helped generate a new sense of ethnic identity and pride.
Taylor provides a thorough, fair-minded, and engrossing discussion of life at Topaz. But if anything her account belies her repeated reference to Topaz as “in every sense of the phrase–a concentration camp.” (p. 88.) True, circumstances were reminiscent of a concentration camp in that a large number of innocent and bewildered people were selected for confinement under harsh and humiliating conditions solely because of their racial background. But in so far as “concentration camp” conjures up images of Auschwitz, the term, as applied to Topaz is misleading. The situation into which inmates and keepers were thrust is better characterized as “bizarre,” than “evil.” Topaz was enclosed by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards with their guns pointing in. But from the very outset the WRA and the camp administration vigorously encouraged the residents to leave–to relocate themselves elsewhere in the country (save on the West Coast). Indeed, as Taylor notes, by 1944 one third of the camp’s 9,000 had resettled. Moreover, the stories recalled by the participants make it clear that though some whites were racist, callous, and incompetent, there were at least as many who went out of their way to help the Japanese-Americans before, during and after the relocation and detention. The WRA administrators themselves were by and large sympathetic toward their charges, and cognizant of the injustice of internment. Moreover, as bad as camp conditions (and the idea of a camp itself) were, most of the “residents” chose to stay. Many (particularly the elderly) preferred the security of Topaz to the uncertainties, prejudices, and insecurities that freedom in wartime
America promised. Many Americans, then and since, were ashamed of the episode and with the encouragement of government officials the affair ultimately had the effect of both diminishing racist attitudes and neutralizing the power of the once powerful anti-Japanese minority.
This is a thoughtful and thought provoking book and a valuable reminder of the insanity that war historically entails.