Why Did the U.S. Intern the Japanese During WW II?





Originally published on 7-8-02

Jonathan Dresner is, as of 2012, Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.

It is sixty years since the biggest case of racial profiling in U.S. history. February 19, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, usually referred to as the"Japanese Internment Order." The order actually called only for the creation of security zones over which the military had control of access and residence. That Japanese residents and Japanese-American citizens were the intended target was no secret: Roosevelt had been suspicious of this population since at least 1936.

In this case he was reacting to specific reports of evidence of Japanese espionage activity, false reports by a particularly anti-Japanese general. A month later the actual exclusion order was released, giving"all persons of Japanese ancestry" barely a week to collect a few necessities, put affairs in order and report to" control centers," where over a hundred thousand citizens and long-term resident aliens were cataloged and put on trains to ten internment camps. The camps were isolated, with primitive barracks and facilities. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, then a child, was interned at Heart Mountain camp.

To add insult to injury, the internees were forced to answer a questionnaire regarding their loyalty to the United States. Over one-fifth of draft-age Japanese-American males surveyed answered"no" to questions about their willingness to serve in the military and about their"unqualified allegiance to the United States." This group, known as the"'no, no' boys" was singled out for persecution during the years of internment, as were internees who initially answered yes but resisted being drafted. Japanese-American men, like Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye, who did serve in the military, did so with great distinction: the Hawaii-based 100th Battalion was known as the"Purple Heart Battalion" ; the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which included interned citizens, was instrumental in liberating Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

What is perhaps more remarkable than the gross injustice of the dislocation and internment camps is the fact that the United States, which rarely apologizes for anything, in 1988 apologized and offered payment to surviving internees. This act of Congress (Democratic) and the President (Republican) was the result of a long process of activism and oral history, primarily by Japanese-American activists, with the support of Japanese-American politicians including Norman Mineta and Daniel Inouye. Though there was little discussion of the internment in the years following WWII, the next generation of Japanese-Americans, in the process of investigating their heritage, uncovered this atrocity and began to collect stories and make public objections. In the wake of the genocidal racism of the Nazis, and the civil rights struggle in the U.S., it became clear to almost everyone who heard this history that what the U.S. did was racist, short-sighted, unfair and very damaging.

What is the lesson of this history? Jumping to conclusions about individuals or groups based on limited information is dumb. If we violate our own principles, we will regret it. We can admit mistakes, and learn from them. Apology doesn't make things right, but it can make things better. Our success in destroying evil in WWII is tarnished more by denying or ignoring the full range of history than it is by admitting errors and making amends. But that success is only fully realized when we make a commitment not to make the same, or similar, mistakes again.

SOURCE: Much of this account is based on Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (Penguin, 1989).


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RIck Everingham - 9/7/2007

I suggest you read the MAGIC intercepts regarding Japanese espionage that we decoded before Dec 7, 1941, very telling about their desires.

"[The intelligence material] reproduced here, describes systematic recruitment of Japanese residents, citizens and noncitizens into networks designed to provide information to Japan both before and after the outbreak of war."

http://www.athenapressinc.com/


Joe Michael Glidden - 6/25/2005

February 22 - Report of the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), entitled Personal Justice Denied, concludes that exclusion, expulsion and incarceration were not justified by military necessity, and the decisions to do so were based on race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.


Joe Michael Glidden - 6/25/2005

I found your statement about Hap Arnold intriguing. So far, I have determined there was no 'Camp Dodson' and General Arnold was in the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in 1942 (and not likely to have direct command of line troops). Can you give me any references that I can verify?

As for the US being "racist" the answer is a resounding yes. "Jim Crow" laws, inforcing segeration, were not dismantled by the Supreme Court until 1948 thru 1956. As for the Internment, I'll let the CWRIC do the talking:

February 22 - Report of the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), entitled Personal Justice Denied, concludes that exclusion, expulsion and incarceration were not justified by military necessity, and the decisions to do so were based on race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.

By the way "SEPARATE DEVELOPMENT" sounds like a hollow echo of "Separate but equal" of the Plessy v Ferguson decision (1896)


leo galang - 9/11/2004



Sorry, I made another mistake again. I meant that Yamamoto believed that Japanese industrial might at that time was not comparable to that of the United States.



leo galang - 9/11/2004

Michelle,

I am sorry for saying that MAGIC was derived from the Enigma transcriptions at Bletchley Park. MAGIC was different from the Enigma decryptions. The Japanese naval code " Purple " was broken by William Friedman. Let me repeat again that I felt that the Japanese - American population at that time probably felt the same bewildering array of feelings from frustration to helplessness when faced with the detention order, the same kind of feelings that the Pilipino population felt at the initial onslaught of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto in his writings believed strongly that the swift massive destruction of the American Pacific naval fleet would force the Americans to engage in some kind of negotiations for peace. He did not believe that Japanese industrial might at that time was not comparable to that of the United States and a prolonged war would only be a detriment in the long run for Japan. In his view , the massive strike at Pearl Harbor would bring the Americans to the peace table. What that probably means is that an invasion of the West Coast by Japan was not likely and that it could be done only at an enormous cost to the Japanese.


leo galang - 9/11/2004



Michelle,

I am a Tagalog in other words, a Pilipino like you are. I had not read the full transcript of your interchange with the Canadian professor, i skimped through
it, I shall try to read it more fully. Let me offer a few observations though. The MAGIC documents were part i believe of the Enigma decryptions from Bletchley Park.
I am sure that the American military made attempts to break thru Japanese codes diplomatic, naval or otherwise,
Purple is an example whose responsibility for codebreaking was done by William Friedman. I had read historical accounts of some Nisei and Kibei who had indeed participated in gathering intelligence work for the Japanese military. There is also the story of the cashiered American major who sold American intelligence data to the Japanese embassy in Mexico City. Do you however have detailed evidence that MAGIC actually talked
about Japnese intelligence agents among the NISEI population in the US at that time? You also mentioned that Japanese subs sunk many American ships in the West Coast, this might be nitpicking but I know that Japanese subs sank the American Carrier " Wasp " , " Saratoga " in the naval battles of Pacific. I guess the " Saratoga " was torpedoed at least. However. I barely know of any
American ships of the civilian type that were sunk off the West Coast by Japanese subs. I am sure that there were several American merchant ships that were sunk in
Southeast Asia at the outbreak of the 1941 war, because that was the main theater of operations. I suggest that you read ADM. Isoroku Yamamoto's and the Imperial Naval
General Staff 's view about the prospect of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast so that you can create adequate conclusions. Michelle, war is a terrible thing,
it does many things, all kinds of things to people. Its effects are not only material but psychological and mental. Let us take a look at the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. If the Japanese military ordered the Pilipino populace to gather in concentration camps ( or whatever you want to call them ), would they comply? Some probably will and some will not. It is hard to say. Some will comply out of fear and some might take to the hills as asignificant number of Pilipinos ultimately would do. The order for the Japanese - American population to gather
in detention camps would probably create the same kind of
dilemna for the Japanese- American population. In an atmosphere of hysteria. fear , distrust and all other miseries created by the Pandora box of war, it would be interesting to know what was in the mind of every individual Japanese - American when faced with that order of detention. Should they go the Sierras and wage guerilla war against the US government, should they file lawsuits, writs of habeas corpus as some of them ultimately would do? Should they engage in street demonstrations to protest the order of detention.? Should they go back East to New York even if it will pose a monetary burden on them? I am sure many of the Japanese -
Americans faced all kinds of feelings from bewilderment
and helplessnes when faced with the detention order, the same kind of feelings I am sure that the Pilipinos experienece at the initial onslaught of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

As always
Leonardo Jorge R. Cruz


Joe Tomei - 9/9/2004

I believe you are mistaken. I believe only German and Italian enemy aliens were interned. This sometimes necessitated that their familes, who may have included American citizens were also interned. All those of German and Italian ethnicity were given an individual loyalty hearing. In some cases, if the evidence was sufficient, citizenship was stripped. Some have (as you are doing) take this to mean that there was no racist intent. However, the all encompassing nature of the Japanese-American evacuation and internment, when compared to these individual tragedies, makes it difficult to make this claim.


Kenneth T. Tellis - 3/26/2004

Not being an American I can speak without prejudice. Why is it that any country other than the US is cited as racist, when in fact even the US itself is racist? While in the British merchany navy in 1963, I saw the bad blood between the Nesei and other Americans aboard the SS Pen Transporter.
On talking to the Nesei did I learn a lot of their suffering in a pseudo democracy called the United States of America.

If I left this alone, I would be party to racism. In 1942, the massacre of 300 odd Black American Soldiers on orders from Hap Arnold at Camp Dobson has never been openly discussed. Germany was not the only racist country in the world as we were led to believe.

Just in case people think they know it all, it was Horatio Lord Kitchener who Introduced racism and discrimination to SOuth Africa during the Boer War. Apartheid which has deemed racism is actually SEPARATE DEVELOPMENT.


Kenneth T. Tellis - 3/26/2004

Not being an American I can speak without prejudice. Why is it that any country other than the US is cited as racist, when in fact even the US itself is racist? While in the British merchany navy in 1963, I saw the bad blood between the Nesei and other Americans aboard the SS Pen Transporter.
On talking to the Nesei did I learn a lot of their suffering in a pseudo democracy called the United States of America.

If I left this alone, I would be party to racism. In 1942, the massacre of 300 odd Black American Soldiers on orders from Hap Arnold at Camp Dobson has never been openly discussed. Germany was not the only racist country in the world as we were led to believe.

Just in case people think they know it all, it was Horatio Lord Kitchener who Introduced racism and discrimination to SOuth Africa during the Boer War. Apartheid which has deemed racism is actually SEPARATE DEVELOPMENT.


Christian Jadot - 8/28/2003

I would debate it the internment was "racist" so to speak. The US also had internment camps for Italian-Americans and German-Americans for national security reasons, not racist reasons. These countries were the enemy and the US was taking security precations. Am I saying it was right? No. It did not matter what color of skin was, the only thing that mattered was what nationality they were.


Christian Jadot - 8/28/2003

I would debate it the internment was "racist" so to speak. The US also had internment camps for Italian-Americans and German-Americans for national security reasons, not racist reasons. These countries were the enemy and the US was taking security precations. Am I saying it was right? No. It did not matter what color of skin was, the only thing that mattered was what nationality they were.


Arielle Kline - 11/27/2002

any body know where i can find out more about the no no boys?
please writing a paper on it. e-mail me at Klinea@seattleu.edu

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