Topaz, Utah: Let It Never Happen Again

by Sean Means, Reporter [1]

Topaz, [Utah] for those who didn’t learn it in history class, was one of 10 internment camps built by the government of the United States of America during World War II. More than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes on the West Coast and moved into these camps, based on a policy rooted in fear, racism and political expediency.

The Barracks at Topaz during World War II

The Barracks at Topaz during World War II

In the panic that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on Feb. 19, 1942, signed Executive Order 9066. In it, he gave the Secretary of War broad powers to declare “military zones” from which people could be excluded. The order’s wording doesn’t specify Japanese Americans, but the intent was clear — and led to the forced evacuation of thousands of people from the West Coast.

Standing on one of the broken concrete slabs at Topaz on Monday, the Fourth of July, I thought about the people who once lived there.

They were Americans (two-thirds of them were citizens, having been born here), struggling to raise families and run businesses and claim a small piece of the much-vaunted “American Dream.” And they did so while enduring a thousand slights from racist laws and attitudes.

These Japanese Americans were forced to sell their homes and businesses, at low rates to opportunistic white buyers, before being transported to the middle of nowhere. And all this because of a government order motivated by racism and xenophobia. (In 1983, a commission created by Congress determined the internment program had no legitimate military or security justifications.)

After walking around the site for a while, my family and I drove into Delta, a few miles east, and visited the Topaz Museum. The tiny, still-in-development museum features a re-creation of typical living quarters for a family, and numerous pieces of artwork created by people who lived in the camp — indications of how the unwilling residents tried to make the best of a horrible situation.

Behind the museum is a rebuilt barracks, made from tarpaper walls and a plywood floor. I couldn’t stand inside the barracks for more than a few minutes before I started sweating from the July heat. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live there, through sweltering summers and snowy winters, for three years.

Topaz is a reminder that, even in “the land of the free,” Americans and their leaders can be driven by the worst impulses to do awful things. And if you think such actions are relics of a less-enlightened past, you haven’t been keeping up

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[1] sltrib.com, 6 July 2016

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