Japanese Internment Camps, Wendell Willkie and Nicolas Bouvier (3 cents)

1. Japanese internment camps.

A new exhibit has opened up at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Museum. The good news is that it won’t close for another nine months, until January 2011.
It is an exhibit of works of craft and art created at the several internment camps which the United States government operated between 1942 and 1946, in which over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were imprisoned.

OK, we’ve all heard of these camps, and we now know that they were, so to speak, un-American. But how much do we really know? That they affected only people of Japanese ancestry? That they only affected people living in California, western Washington, western Oregon and southern Arizona? That 2/3 of the people interned were American citizens? That they included entire families, as well as the elderly? That those affected were given one week to relocate to transit camps, and that they could only take with them what they could carry?

The rationale was national security. (Sound familiar?) Of course, there were security considerations after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and declared war on the United States. There were Japanese spies in the United States, but there were far from 120,000 of them. And (just as an aside), why would it be assumed that Japan, if it lost its California based spies, would not have been able to go to New York or Illinois or somewhere else to get Japanese Americans to help them? And, further, what about the 100,000+ Japanese-Americans living near the heart of the beast, in Hawaii? They were not affected at all.

What did those who were caught in this terrible situation do while in these camps? One of the things they did was to engage their creative talents. They painted, carved, sculpted, made baskets and ash trays, and prints, and furniture, and religious objects, and boat models, and dolls. They used equipment that they purchased, that were given to them, and that they scrounged – scrap wood and scrap metal, for example. There were professionals (including at least one University of California studio art professor), and amateurs. Some of them continued to create after they were released; some of the most talented never painted or sculpted again.

The exhibit of these works of craft and art at the Renwick is a must-see. Both because the pieces on exhibit are, every one of them, a treat to look at (and I am not exaggerating), and two, because of the history that you learn and the emotions that flood you while you are slowly, slowly walking through this fascinating and unusual group of objects.

2. Wendell Willkie. Needing a change of pace, I read Charles Peter’s 2005 book about Wendell Willkie, which is somewhat inaccurately titled “Five Days in Philadelphia”. Once again, I learned something by seeing a bit of history from a slightly different perspective.

It is 1940. Roosevelt is deciding to run for a third term (a controversial thing to do, and not something that even all of his friends supported). World War II is underway in Europe (Germany had attacked Poland in September 1939). But the United States is, and has been since the end of World War I, substantially isolationist.

The Republican presidential convention is about to start. Robert Taft, Thomas Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg, the three most likely nominees, are all strongly isolationist. And then there’s Wendell Willkie, whose foreign (and in fact domestic) policies were closer to Roosevelt’s than to the other Republicans. Willkie, a lawyer and utility company executive who had never held public office, who was a Democrat until he disagreed with the administration on its support for TVA, was a very attractive fellow, whom everyone liked. And he had come out of nowhere to become a dark horse at the convention, but after the first ballot, became the front runner and eventually the unanimous nominee.

Willkie lost the election, and then alienated the Republican party even more, when he joined Roosevelt (a) in supporting Lend-Lease, to get military equipment into the hands of Britain (a very controversial matter, for fear that we were going to send equipment abroad that we might ourselves need), (b) in working for military conscription (something that became more and more popular amongst the populace), and (c) in strongly supporting a post-war international organization (as outlined in his popular book, “One World”).

Willkie died of a heart attack in 1944 at the age of 52. Had he enjoyed another 20 or 30 years of active life, he would have contributed a lot to this country. But probably not as a Republican office holder.

But how was it that the conservative Republican party nominated him in the first place. As Peters puts it, the starts were just perfectly aligned at exactly the right time.

3. I don’t know much about Nicolas Bouvier, a Swiss travel writer, who, as a young man in the early 1950s, set out with a friend and a small Fiat to drive to Turkey, to Iran, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to India and eventually (having given up his car) to Ceylon. In 2004 or so, a young Swiss photographer/director named Gael Metroz decides to replicate the journey. Well, he can’t really. The world has changed – good and bad – but a lot. The roads are too dangerous and he needs to set out on foot for months at a time. He took a much different journey.

And a weird one – his trip was bizarre at best, and hard to piece together for the viewer (oh, yes, it became a documentary movie called “Nomad’s Land”). He seems to have rushed through large areas, but then stopped for months with a fascinating group of non-Moslems in the mountains of northern Pakistan called the Kalash, and months with a poor gypsy family in a slum ridden, crowded city. What is clear: he didn’t spend much time with Muslims. I don’t think he liked them very much; and I don’t think they liked him very much. The Kalash and the Gypsies, on the other hand, were very open and each had some very attractive young women on whom he focused much of photography.

Oh, yes, the photography. It is beautiful and, in spite of the oddness of the movie overall and its limitations, the visual images make seeing the film very worth while.

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