It Can Happen Here: The 75th Anniversary Of The Japanese Internment (Part I)

Tracing the history of one of the most unconscionable tragedies in American history.
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Americans sometimes forget what we as a nation are capable of. It is important to remember. Unless we are vigilant, we can repeat the mistakes of the past, mistakes we too often try to forget. The Japanese internment during World War II was a tragedy we should never forget. As it should remind us, “it” –- whatever nightmare of government abuse and misconduct we might imagine -- can, indeed, happen here.

In this three-part essay, I will trace the history of one of the most unconscionable tragedies in American history.

War fever often translates into xenophobia. This is understandable, for in wartime individuals with a connection to the enemy are more likely than others to pose risks of espionage, sabotage, and subversion. But how a nation addresses these concerns speaks volumes about its values, its sense of fairness, and its willingness to judge individuals as individuals.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, killed more than two thousand Americans and destroyed much of the Pacific fleet. Within the next few days, the United States declared war against Japan, Germany, and Italy. Two months later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order no. 9066, which authorized the Army to “designate . . . military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” Although the words “Japanese” or “Japanese-American” never appeared in the order, it was understood to apply only to persons of Japanese ancestry.

Over the next eight months, almost 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were ordered to leave their homes in California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona. Two-thirds of these individuals were American citizens, representing almost 90 percent of all Japanese-Americans. No charges were brought against these individuals. There were no hearings. They did not know where they were going, how long they would be detained, what conditions they would face, or what fate would await them. They were ordered to bring only what they could carry. Many families lost everything.

On the orders of military police, these men, women, and children were initially assigned to temporary “detention camps,” which had been set up in converted racetracks and fairgrounds. Many families lived in crowded horse stalls, often in unsanitary conditions. Barbed wire fences and armed guard towers surrounded the compounds.

From there, the internees were transported to one of ten permanent internment camps, which were located in isolated areas in wind-swept deserts or vast swamplands. Men, women, and children were confined in overcrowded rooms with no furniture other than cots. They once again found themselves surrounded by barbed wire and military police. There they remained for three years.

All this was done even though there was not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage, or treasonable activity by an American citizen of Japanese descent.

Why did this happen? Certainly, the days following Pearl Harbor were dark days for the American spirit. Fear of possible Japanese sabotage and espionage was rampant, and an outraged public felt an understandable desire to lash out at those who had attacked the nation. But this act was also very much an extension of more than a century of racial prejudice against the “yellow peril.” Laws passed in the early 1900s denied immigrants from Japan the right to become naturalized American citizens, to own land, and to marry outside their race. In 1924, immigration from Japan was halted altogether.

Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, there was no clamor for the mass internment of persons of Japanese-descent. Attorney General Francis Biddle assured the nation that there would be “no indiscriminate, large-scale raids” on American citizens, Eleanor Roosevelt announced that “no law-abiding” Americans “of any nationality would be discriminated against by the government,” and Judge Jerome Frank, a distinguished federal judge and close friend of the President, observed that “if ever any Americans go to a concentration camp, American democracy will go with them.”

Moreover, on December 10, just three days after Pearl Harbor, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reported that almost all the persons of foreign ancestry that the FBI had identified as possible threats to the national security had already been taken into custody.

In the weeks that followed, however, a demand for the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry reached a crescendo along the West Coast. The motivations for this outburst of anxiety were many and complex. Certainly, it was fed by fears of a Japanese invasion. Conspiracy theories abounded, and neither government nor military officials effectively allayed these concerns. By mid-January, California was awash in unfounded rumors of sabotage and espionage.

General John DeWitt, the top Army commander on the West Coast, reported as fact rumors that a squadron of enemy airplanes had passed over California, that there was a planned uprising of twenty thousand Japanese-Americans in San Francisco, and that “Japanese Americans were aiding submarines by signaling them from the shore.”

The FBI and other government agencies debunked all these rumors as false, but on January 2, the Joint Immigration Committee of the California legislature falsely charged that American citizens of Japanese descent could “be called to bear arms for their Emperor,” and that Japanese-language schools were teaching students that “every Japanese, wherever born, or residing,” owed primary allegiance to “his Emperor and Japan.”

On January 14, Congressman Leland Ford insisted that the United States place “all Japanese, whether citizens or not,” in “inland concentration camps,” and the American Legion demanded the internment of all 93,000 individuals of Japanese extraction then living in California. A few days later, the influential journalist Henry McLemore wrote a column in the San Francisco Examiner calling for “the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast.” He added, “Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

On February 4, California Governor Culbert Olson declared in a radio address that it was “much easier” to determine the loyalty of Italian and German aliens than of Japanese Americans. “All Japanese people,” he added, “will recognize this fact.” In a similar vein, California’s attorney general and future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren argued that whereas it was relatively easy to find out which German or Italian Americans were loyal, it was simply too difficult to determine which Americans of Japanese ancestry were loyal and which were not. In Warren’s words, “if the Japs are free no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap.”

General DeWitt initially resisted demands for “wholesale internment,” insisting that “we can weed the disloyal out of the loyal and lock them up, if necessary.” He condemned the idea of mass internment as “damned nonsense.” But as political pressure mounted, DeWitt changed his tune. As crudely racist sentiments increasingly permeated the debate over the “Japanese problem,” DeWitt came to the view that “the Japanese race is an enemy race and the racial strains are undiluted.”

Throughout this period, Attorney General Francis Biddle strongly opposed internment as “ill-advised, unnecessary, and unnecessarily cruel.” In late January, the California congressional delegation attempted to pressure Biddle to support internment. Biddle replied that he knew of no way in which “Japanese born in this country could constitutionally be interned.”

In the first two weeks of February, Biddle continued to argue the point. On February 7, over lunch with the President, he told Roosevelt that “mass evacuation” was unthinkable because the army had offered “no reasons” that could justify it as a military measure.

Two days later, Biddle wrote Secretary of War Henry Stimson that the Department of Justice would not “under any circumstances” participate in the evacuation of American citizens on the basis of race. Stimson himself had grave doubts about the constitutionality of a plan based on the “racial characteristics” of a particular minority group. He confided to his diary the absence of any persuasive “military necessity” for evacuation and his belief that the evacuation of all Japanese-Americans from the West Coast would “make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system.”

But the public clamor on the West Coast continued to build. The American Legion, the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, and all the West Coast newspapers cried out for the prompt removal of all persons of Japanese-descent. The attorney general of Washington chimed in that he favored the removal of all “citizens of Japanese extraction,” and the attorney general of Idaho announced that all Japanese-Americans should “be put in concentration camps, for the remainder of the war,” adding pointedly, “We want to keep this a white man’s country.”

On February 14, General DeWitt officially recommended that all persons of Japanese extraction be removed from “sensitive areas” on the West Coast. In a last-ditch effort to stave off mass internment, Attorney General Biddle spoke with President Roosevelt by phone. At the end of that conversation, a dejected Biddle had received his marching orders -- he was no longer to challenge the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans. According to Biddle, his Justice Department lawyers were “devastated.”

Five days later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order no. 9066.

In Part II of this series, which I will publish tomorrow, I will discuss the reasons for this decision and its constitutional consequences.

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