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How California's oligarch farmers put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps
California’s anglo oligarchs saw the nativist panic that gripped America after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor as an opportunity.
Dorothea Lange. Her photographs were censored by the U.S. military.
Jeffrey St. Clair has a great essay in Counterpunch about visiting the ghost town of Manzanar, California. Deep in the High Sierras, it was the site of a U.S. government concentration camp for about 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.
There are ghost towns, abandoned ranches and mining camps all over the Owens Valley. But Manzanar was wiped clean after the prison closed. The tarpaper barracks were chopped up and sold as cheap housing to returning GIs. The watchtowers were torn down, the spotlights and machine guns returned to Army bases in California and Nevada. They didn’t even leave the hospital, which could have served the local residents of Lone Pine and Independence and the few Owens Valley Paiute who hadn’t been uprooted by the government and relocated to Fresno, LA and San Francisco. It’s as if they wanted to wipe the memory of what happened here off the surface of the desert.
That whole Owens Valley area is pretty interesting — and I’ve written about it before. It’s high up surrounded by majestic mountain ranges and has one of the tallest mountains in the United States looking over it. The place would normally be a barren desert, if it wasn’t for the snowmelt that gushed down from the mountains and made the land lush and full of life — or, at least, that’s how it used to be. Today it is a barren, dry place.
As Jeffrey points out, the was the site of a series of plunders: First, white settlers cleansed the local Paiutes off the land, which was being irrigated and used for agriculture. Next, the white farmers — who had established themselves as farmers and ranchers on stolen real estate — were themselves pushed off the land by the money grubbing founding developer-fathers of Los Angeles. They raided the Owens Valley water supply so they could divert it to the San Fernando Valley and develop it into the giant suburban blob that it is today. From then on, the Owens Valley would be kept dry and lifeless for the benefit of LA.
Today, the Owens Valley lake is a toxic plateau of sand and mud. When Rowan and I went there last summer to do some shooting, our rental got stuck and we needed a tow. We were one phone call away from Gerry.
Owens Valley, 2019.
One really fucked up — and mostly forgotten — aspect of this whole Japanese-American imprisonment story is that it was largely driven by the lobbying efforts of California’s powerful (and very Anglo) Oligarch Farmers.
Japanese-American family farms were huge players in California agriculture before the World War II — producing nearly half of the state’s vegetable crop, for example. They also owned some of the best, most productive farmland in the state — some of it in and around today’s ritzy Silicon Valley.
California’s anglo oligarchs saw the nativist panic that gripped America after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor as an opportunity to despoil these Japanese-Americans of their property. Some even bragged about it publicly!
Here’s a 1992 Washington Post opinion piece exploring this forgotten history:
Based on an accumulation of evidence, we now know that the government's action was partially initiated by California corporate agribusiness interests hoping to satisfy their own lust for land while ridding themselves of competition from the state's most productive family farms…The story is grim.
Only hours after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7. 1941, Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of California's powerful Salinas Valley Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, was dispatched to Washington to urge federal authorities to remove all individuals of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. In an interview for the May 1942 Saturday Evening Post, Anson told how he drew a frightful scenario for the War and Navy departments, the attorney general and every congressman he could get to listen to him: an invading army coming ashore in Monterey Bay and advancing into the Salinas Valley while Japanese residents blew up bridges, disrupting traffic and sabotaging local defenses.
Many in Washington, caught up in the war hysteria, believed Anson. But officials at the Justice Department and the attorney general's office did not. Some 42 years later, Edward Ennis, director of Justice's Enemy Alien Unit, said on CBS's "60 Minutes," "We told the president we didn't believe there was any need to remove these farmers who were helping feed the civilian population and the military, and it was really nonsense."
The commander of the Western Defense Command, he added, probably believed he was protecting the country from possible sabotage, espionage and even invasion by taking such action, "but he didn't move in that direction until he learned by political events -- not military events, political events -- that he would be supported . . . ."
Those "political events" and the motivation behind them were apparent to Ennis: "The farmer-growers association going to Congress asked for getting rid of these people. This was very largely a movement by a lot of different people to use the opportunity to get the Japanese farmer off the West Coast . . . . They got all their land, they got thousands and thousands of acres of the best land in California. The Japanese were just pushed off the land!"
Anson unabashedly admitted as much to Taylor in the Saturday Evening Post: "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work and they stayed to take over."
In her 1965 book "Exile of a Race," Anne Reeploeg Fisher wrote that "the 'farmers' for whom Anson spoke were the 'Montgomery Street Farmers' -- Montgomery Street, San Francisco, being the Wall Street of the West -- considered one of the most powerful aggregations of wealthy corporations in the U.S."
Other organizations lent support, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the California Farm Bureau and its close ally, the quasi-facist Associated Farmers, who in large part were financed by the Montgomery Street Farmers and upon whose executive committee Anson served. On Feb. 2, the day of the FBI raids, a meeting was held in California Attorney General Earl Warren's office to map Japanese-American properties and demonstrate they were ideally located for espionage and sabotage.
Only a fraction of the Japanese-Americans got their land back after the war. And memory of this episode has been zapped pretty much into non-existence. I think it’s a good example of how some immigrant victimization stories are repressed and forgotten, while others are promoted and circulated without end.
Update: Seems like they have a similar problem up the state of Washington. This just happened.