RABBIT RAMBLINGS: Documentary on Roosevelts glosses over wartime injustice

It was with great anticipation that I watched Ken Burns’ new documentary called “The Roosevelts, a Personal History.” Burns has become the TV chronicler of American history, the one who has tackled so many of the big themes of our country’s existence.

I remember being enthralled with his series on the Civil War, and looked forward to viewing most of his productions. His style sometimes seemed a bit stodgy and formulaic after a while, but he seemed to be a careful and caring historian. He had a knack for picking the right personalities and anecdotes to illustrate the stories, and I was most impressed with his understanding of how big a part race played in our past, how it informed so much of what happened and underlaid the formation and building of our country. He made it clear that an understanding of racial issues was crucial to an understanding of our history. The land of the free and the home of the brave wasn’t quite what our country was about.

In his appearances on TV talk shows talking about this new series, Burns said things like, we now have access to huge troves of information, yet most of us actually know so little about our history, and he felt that it was his mission to inform the public, to get people interested and drawn into the stories of our past.

Certainly, the Roosevelts were a natural for the TV screen. Two presidents, Theodore and Franklin, and then Franklin’s wife, Eleanor, had such an impact on our country that their lives and their accomplishments merit hours of TV time, 14 hours, to be exact. Given our busy lives, we all don’t spend time reading history books and studying the past, so the documentaries that Burns has produced have been one of the ways that we get our history. Whether this is good or bad is another question, but certainly, bringing historical figures to life by way of pictures and archival footage is one way to command our attention.

Under these circumstances, we depend on him to give us a fairly accurate depiction of what really happened, how it happened and what it meant. That’s a tall order, and I applaud his efforts on taking on these immense and complicated stories. It is clear that great amounts of time and money are spent in digging out just the right anecdote, the bit from a diary or letters, the telling image, the meaningful snippet of film to illuminate these sweeps of history.

With the Roosevelts, there certainly is no end of fascinating details to, so to speak, “flesh out” — the personalities, the conflicts, the drama in their lives. With commentary from a wide array of historians and journalists, this is riveting viewing.

And I was particularly interested in what Burns and his writer, Geoffrey Ward, would say about our incarceration during World War II. After all, it is because of Franklin Roosevelt that I spent three and-a -half years of my adolescence in a concentration camp in the middle of a desolate desert in Arizona. Franklin Roosevelt had signed an executive order that called for the

imprisonment of around 120,000 of us Americans of Japanese ancestry, without charging any of us for anything. For a man who was supposed to be so compassionate about underdogs and the common man, this was unprecedented and unusual and it is understood that this was one of the great mistakes in our history. Why did he do this? It was a total violation of the laws of the land and the constitution itself. It ruined the lives of many persons and almost crushed the JA community.

I know that Burns knows this area well. He included it in his series on World War  II by telling the story of a young Japanese American from Sacramento and his experiences during that war, so I expected to see some emphasis on this in the Roosevelt story. Well, February, 1942 came up, and here we are in the beginning stages of World War II, but the sequence goes by with no mention. In fact, it only comes up when Eleanor visits the camp at Gila River, Ariz. and reports back to her husband that she thought we should all be freed. Apparently, we are told, she thought that it was a necessary move at the beginning but then believed that there was no more need to keep us in the camps. That’s all. No mention of the executive order, no reasons given for why it was done, and no explanations for keeping the camps in operation beyond the war’s end. 

Historian Jon Meacham, in a summing up at the end of the series, does say that it was wrong, with an accompanying picture of a Toyo Miyatake picture of young boys behind barbed wire, but no more than that. 

Again, our story is marginalized, made to seem like it is hardly worth mentioning, that we were sort of collaterial damage and hardly worth examining. What a disappointment. 

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly. 

 

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