America's most shameful action during World War II surely was the blanket incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the West Coast.
Granted, it was a frightening time. But instead of rising to the occasion and setting a high standard, the American government resorted to a policy based on "fear itself."
But not everybody colluded.
"In Defense of Our Neighbors" is the story of Walt and Milly Woodward. The book, written by one of the couple's daughters, gives a personal account of their fight to defend the civil liberties of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The Woodwards were the new owners of the Bainbridge (Island) Review when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Even as relative newcomers to the island, they knew that Bainbridge had a community of a couple of hundred Americans of Japanese descent and they used their newspaper to counsel against a xenophobic reaction.
Unfortunately, their pleas for restraint were drowned out by more strident calls for preemptive action on the domestic front. Less than four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded to a potent mixture of suspicion, racism and fear by ordering that Japanese-Americans up and down the West Coast be removed from their homes and forced into exclusion.
The first American citizens of Japanese descent to be taken from their community were the ones on Bainbridge Island. Under armed escort, they were delivered to Manzanar, a dusty makeshift camp located in the California desert. And, as it turned out, they were the last to regain their freedom three years later.
But unlike many others in their situation, these people had a place to come home to, and that was largely because of the efforts of the Woodwards. During the war, they kept in close touch with the goings-on in the internment camps and regularly published news in the Bainbridge Review about their displaced neighbors. They ran stories about the conditions of the camps and about the heroics of the young men who had enlisted right out of those camps and fought for the U.S. armed forces.
The Japanese-Americans of Bainbridge Island were not allowed to fade in memory or be lumped into an "enemy" stereotype, because the Woodwards kept treating them like part of the community. And that meant that when the war was finally over, they had a community to come back to.
"In Defense of Our Neighbors" is a handsomely produced book, graced with a foreword by best-selling author David Guterson, who modeled his principled newspaperman in "Snow Falling on Cedars" after Walt Woodward. It is stuffed with historical photos and also contains many old articles and editorials from the Bainbridge Review - although these are reproduced at a reduced scale and are somewhat tough to read.
Imbued with daughter Mary's special insights into what made her parents tick, this account of the Woodwards' crusade for civility and social justice in a world gone topsy-turvy is a lesson for all time.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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