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Japanese Internment Camps
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

A Clear and Present Danger:

Japanese Internment During World War Two


Apparently if you rip the United States Constitution into small pieces and wad it up, you can shove it in your ears to effectively limit hearing about another individual’s rights.  This does not sound very American does it?  Nor should it—but we have historically done just that in time of war or whenever we feel a great threat.  Historically, we wait until the danger subsides and then quietly redact the law.  In 1789 the Federalist controlled Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which were then signed into law by John Adams.  These were passed to counter a potential French threat and allowed the government to deport aliens and make it difficult for recent arrivals to vote and openly carry croissants.  The reality was that it made public opposition to the government illegal allowing the arrest of twenty non-French but Republican editors.  In 1917 the government passed a series of acts collectively titled the Espionage and Sedition Acts.  These acts were meant to help the government fight The Great War.  Citizens were not allowed to interfere with recruitment or provide enemies with information regarding national defense.  Speaking out against the government could earn a $10,000 fine and twenty years in prison.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes sided with the majority and declared that in times of war free speech can be limited due to the reality of a “clear and present danger.”  But that was years ago.  We have grown as a country since then right?


Well, in 2011 President Obama extended parts of the Patriot Act that allowed the FBI expanded wiretap abilities, access to business (and library) records, and the ability to surveil “lone wolves.”  I get the idea of watching individual terrorists and wiretapping but I get lost on the word surveil.  Basically, if the government thinks you are a terrorist—you lose your right to Habeas Corpus (The hallmark of our legal system).  The Patriot Act has the best name for any act in American history.  It actually stands for Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (Act).  Our government passed this in 2001 as a direct result of the attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent Anthrax Scare.  Is the power given to the Federal Government by the Patriot Act balanced by the U.S. Constitution?  That is an interesting and fundamental question for historians to decide to write about later.


So what does this history lesson have to do with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two?  I will dispense with the political abuses of the previous acts and go straight to the meaning that has the most impact on your average American and that is fear.  Fear makes us do things that we otherwise would not do.  Fear allows us to take away the rights of others because we are not (fill in the blank with the appropriate term of the day like Japanese or a terrorist).  It is a normal human reaction and goes back to Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” style of governance.  


After the attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbor the nation was in an understandable state of shock.  Sure, we had knowledge that the Japanese were probably going to attack somewhere because we had broken their diplomatic code but we still held out hope for peace.  In fact, there was a peace delegation currently in Washington D.C. and maybe they could hammer out a deal and avoid conflict.  Unfortunately, the attack fleet had already sailed and the delegation was a farce.  Japanese commanders actually told their pilots that the war had been declared so as not to offend their Bushido-like code of ethics.  No such declaration had occurred and the attack was viewed as a real stab-in-the-back dirty trick.  The trustworthiness of the Japanese was called into question. Wait a minute! There were large numbers of Japanese concentrated in Hawaii and along the Pacific Coast in California.  How many of them were spies? They weren’t just at our door step--they were in the living room crashing on our couch. One can understand thinking there may have been a legitimate “clear and present danger?”


The first question that needs to be addressed is why the Japanese?  Why not the Italians or Germans or Bulgarians?  Three reasons: first, I cannot pick out a Bulgarian in a crowd.  Second, Germany did not attack Pearl Harbor.  Third, while there were clusters of Italians living in the U.S. they did not live near the Pacific Ocean where a possible invasion might occur.  Of the 127,000 people of Japanese origin living in the United States in 1941, 80% lived near the coast of the Pacific.  80,000 of these individuals were Nisei or second generation U.S. citizens.  First generation Japanese were disbarred from citizenship altogether.  30,000 or so were children and they all tended to live in close-knit groups (Ethnic Islands) and this facilitated their removal.


FDR signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.  This act allowed regional military commanders a great deal of latitude in controlling their respective areas.  This was particularly so in Military Area #1--the west coast of the country.  The decision was made that the Japanese posed a significant threat to the United States and should be moved away from the coast and its vital military installations.  Japanese who lived in Military Area #1 were told they would be forced to move inland and their assets would be frozen.  Whoa there…Is this even constitutional?  The answer is “yes” because the case went to the Supreme Court which was conveniently filled with eight FDR appointees.  The decision in Korematsu v. United States made it clear that the U.S. government had the right to suspend Habeas Corpus and the Fifth Amendment due to the threat of espionage on the part of people of Japanese decent residing in the U.S.  The court looked to the Alien Enemies Act that came out of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 for precedent in this case.


The government quickly established the Wartime Civilian Control Administration (WCCA) to organize the movement of Japanese to the interior of the country.  Some had as little as six days notification to report for relocation.  When they arrived at makeshift racetracks and fairgrounds that had been repurposed for this activity they were separated into groups according to threat level.  Most went to Internment Centers in Utah, Colorado and Idaho.  But some were taken over by the newly established War Relocation Authority (WRA) and sent to Detention Camps.  The former were for people the government suspected of being spies, troublemakers, or Japanese.  The last one is not true.  


Life in the camps depended on where it was located and who was in charge.  Some of the camps were less dangerous than others.  While all had armed guards some offered hospitals, sports, and even schooling with the amazing teacher to student ratio of 1:48.  These camps were not like German Concentration Camps and only seven inmates were shot during the entirety of the detention but it was not meant to be pleasant.  These were desolate locations and the Japanese were reminded that they were not trusted.  In fact, they were offered the chance to renounce their American citizenship if they wanted.  Some were allowed to leave if they moved away from the coast and about 25% eventually did so but forfeited any claim to property.  A few families were able to move away if good American families offered to sponsor them to ensure their continued loyalty.  The most interesting part was that the army found the camps to be fertile recruitment zones.


As many as 20,000 Japanese fought for the United States during World War Two.  Most were recruited from the camps.  The units were not integrated and many fought with distinction in the European Theater, particularly the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.  Man for man and considering time served, this unit was the most decorated of the war.  I bet the Nisei soldiers that helped liberate Dachau in 1945 thought a bit about the irony of their family situation back home in the states.


We have yet to even mention Hawaii.  Hawaii was not a state at the time but Pearl Harbor was where it all began and there were large numbers of Japanese living on the island.  Were they interned?  It seems that their continued efforts on fruit farms as cheap labor was considered important to the war effort so they were spared relocation.  Imagine being forced to move from Hawaii to Idaho.  I am not bad-mouthing Idaho but I would rather be currently on fire, but in Hawaii, than in many other states right now.


When the war ended and (Spoiler Alert) we were victorious, the camps had to be dismantled and the occupants sent somewhere.  The last of the camps was closed in April of 1946.  By 1948 the government decided to open up discussion regarding the claims Japanese internees had regarding lost wages and property.  The “American Japanese Claims Act” was created to pay damages but the IRS destroyed the tax forms of these individuals from 1939-42 making it difficult to ascertain their property before their internment.  This convenience allowed the government to deny most claims.  It was not until 1980 when President Jimmy Carter set up a commission to look into Japanese-American claims that they issue was again even recognized.  The report was titled “Personal Justice Denied” and suggested a payout of $20,000 to each surviving internee.  Eight years later Ronald Reagan made good on that deal to the tune of 1.6 Billion dollars and an apology.  In 1992 the former Manzanar War Relocation Center was designated a National Historic Site.  I do not anticipate Guantanamo Bay ever receiving that distinction.   But it is interesting to see the continued trouble the government has applying Constitutional rights to people many Americans don’t think deserve them.


Actor George Takei recalls his experience of relocation.

This guy says it all about the attitudes of many Americans towards Japanese-Americans

Shameful History


Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor the FBI raided the homes of Japanese-Ameriricans, froze their assets, and confiscated priceless family heirlooms. 



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