In June, the country hit a boiling point after revelations that thousands of children had been separated from their parents as the Trump Administration implemented a new policy. It would criminally prosecute parents who entered the country illegally and place them in a federal prison, where children aren’t permitted. Later that month, the administration backtracked slightly, replacing the separation with indefinite family detention. The situation has invited comparisons to another dark period in American history: when the US Government interned hundreds of thousands of Japanese-descended Americans in camps, under the guise of national security.
This spring, American Public Media collaborated with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to produce a podcast called Order 9066, named for the infamous executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942, just two months after the US Naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by Japanese forces. The order cleared the way for the US to force Japanese, German, and Italian Americans into internment camps throughout the United States, where many remained until 1946. APM’s Order 9066 is hosted by two actors, Sab Shimono and Pat Suzuki, who cover the underlying racism that the Japanese community faced before the war, and their treatment in the camps, through the use of recorded oral histories.
A couple of years ago, APM produced Historically Black, a podcast in collaboration with The Washington Post in conjunction with the opening of the National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC. Kate Ellis, the podcast’s co-producer from APM, said that they wanted to do something with the 75th anniversary of the signing of executive order 9066, and partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “We … really [wanted] take a look at this largely untold part of our nation’s history,” she told The Verge.
That history was made all the more relevant in the last couple of years following the election of President Trump, whose administration cited the camps as precedence for a registry of Muslims in the country in the days after the election in November 2016, and more recently, when the Supreme Court condemned a 1944 decision from the time that had justified the internment.
Stephen Smith, APM’s other co-producer, said that working with the Smithsonian was an incredibly useful partnership. “For the 50th anniversary of the incarceration, the Smithsonian mounted a major exhibition on that history,” he told The Verge. That effort brought broad attention to the issue at the time, and collected a trove of oral histories and established deep connections with the Japanese-American community, which the podcast drew on for material.
Like the Historically Black podcast, they also solicited pictures and stories from listeners with personal connections to the internment, using them to supplement the episodes. “We’ve been thinking about objects as a way into history and the way into people’s stories,” Ellis says, “So it was an early way for us to connect to the history by exploring their own.”
Both Ellis and Smith noted that many in the generation of Japanese citizens and immigrants who were interned have since died, and that as they do so, the connection to their experiences will die with them. The huge collections of oral histories, and projects such as this podcast help to keep their stories alive for the generations that follow. Those stories will help us know how to act, right when we need it the most.