Internment of Japanese Americans (1942-45)


Figure 1.--World War II concentration camps often conjure images from Europe. Less well remembered are the American children behind barbed wire. These children were not emaciated and brutaliszed, but they were subjected to one of the greatest violations of civil rights in American history. The long-term consequences of thecexperiebce are not easy to measure. These 6th graders are playing baseball at the Manzanar Internment Camp in 1943. Notice the tar-paper shack barracks in the background and the absence of trees and grass.

Japanese American children were severly affected by the war. Those living in Pacific coast states were move into concentration (internment/relocation) camps. Although not separated from their parents, Japanese Americans in Pacific coast states were interned in concentration or relocation camps as they were called. Italian and German families were also interned, but only aliens or those whose parents have been involved or suspected of involvement in subversive activites. The Japanese were treated differently in part because of Pearl Harbor, but racial factors were a significant factor. President Roosevelt in February 1942 signed the order "evacuating" Japanese, most of whom were American citizens, from the West Coast. The internees were give only a few days notice and could take only what they could carry. Like the Germans, American authorities developed euphenisms for what was done to the Japanese. About 127,000 Japanese Americans were interned. It was one of the most grevious violations of the civil rights of American citizens in United States history. While the internment of Japanese Americans was a terrible injustice, depriving them of their property in many instances and their freedom for several years, the camps were quite different than the the NAZI and Japanese concentration camps. The internees were given adequate food and the children attended local schools. Japanese Americans formed Boy Scout troops such as at the Gila River Relocation Center, Arizona, during 1943. One of the most moving images at the camps were interned Boy Scouts behind barbed wire raising the American flag, a daily ritual. You wonder what those boys were thinking each day as they did this.

Public Relations Campaign

A press campaign appeared in late 1942 demanded that people of Japanese ancestry be expelled from the West coast. Civic, business, and agricultural groups supported the effort. I do not know if the origins of this campaign have ever been throughly investigated. California politicans were deeply involved. Among them was no only California Governor Culbert L. Olson and of all people, California Attorney General Earl Warren who later was to become as Chief Justice one of the most notable champion of civil rights in America. Another voice demanding internment was Walter Lippman with an enrmous radio audience. [Black, p. 720.] one of our HBC readers will perhaps know of a detailed study of the campaign for interment. Pearl Harbor and racial prejudice were factors. Some reports suggest that agricultural and business concerns competing with Japanese was another factor.

Government Action (February-March 1942)

General John L. DeWitt, commanded the U.S. Army's Western Defense Command. He asked for the authority to relocate enemy aliens from the area around strategic West Coast military and civilian installations. DeWitt had a report prepared to assess the danger. The "Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast" did not include any substantiated evidence of sabotage or espionage carried out by Japanese Americans. DeWitt maintained, however, that "there were indications that these [Japanese] are organized and ready for concerted action at a favorable opportunity. The very fact that no sabotage or espionage has taken place to date is disturbing and confirming indication that such action will take place." The Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Naval Intelligence all conducted studies and found no evidence that eviction and internment were necessary. Nonetheless DeWitt's recommendations were accepted by the Army. Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, a thouroghly decent man, and other military commanders as well as the civilian leadership of the War Department reviewed and approved DeWitt's recommendations. The Justice Department (DOJ) had not promoted the relocation of Japanese Anericans. DOJ lawyers thought the mass evacuation of American citizens unconstitutional. Other officiald thought that the Army was not up to the substantial logistical task involved. The DOJ, however, acceed to the Army and suggested some changes to the text of the order drafted by the War Department. The final test was presented to President Roosevelt. I am not sure to what extent President Roosevelt considered the issue. President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 signed Executive Order 9066 "evacuating" Japanese, most of whom were American citizens, from the West Coast. Eleanor was horrified. The discussion between them apparently was heated. The President had to ask her never to raise the issue again. [Davis, p. 419.] The Order authorized the Army to "designate military areas" from which "any persons may be excluded." The Army established Military Areas #1 and #2 in the Pacific-coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California as well as and southern Arizona. Congress passed Public Law 503 (March 9, 1942). This provided the legal authority to enforce EO 9066 and criminal penalties for its violation. The Army began issuing military decrees (March 28). These set curfews on Japanese Americans and were followed by actual exclusion orders.

Special Treatment of the Japanese

The actual words "Japanese,"or "Japanese Americans" were not included in the text of EO 9066. The intent was that the order be used specifically against Japanese Americans. Actions to relocate German and Italian Americans were never undertaken.Italian and German families were also interned, but only aliens or those whose parents have been involved or suspected of involvement in subversive activites. The Japanese were treated differently in part because of Pearl Harbor, but racial factors were a significant factor.

One-Week Notice

The internees were given only 1 week to prepare and dispose of their property. They could bring with them only what they could carry. Tis of course affected life at the camps wear the amenities were very basic. It also essentially meant that the Japanese had to abandon their property or dispose of it at give away prices. This is one aspect of the intrnment that is not given adequate attention. The Government not only deprived the Japanese of their liberty, but also their property. While the conditions in the internment camp were very differen than NAZI or Japanese concentration camps, the loss of propert was not very different thn what the NAZIs did to the property of the Jews.

Temporary Camps

The Army issued "evacuation" notice orders. Japanese Americans were put on trucks, buses, and trains. They were initially transported to "Assembly Centers". The Army set up 15 transit detention camps. Barbed wire and armed guards were use to convert facilities like racetracks and fairgrounds. Here they had to wait facing search lights, watch towers, and barbed wire. Families were allowed to stay together. Families sought what ever shelter was availavle such as horse stalls. Sanitary conditions were terrible. Toilet and bathing facilities were very basic. There were open sewers. Many lived in barracks quickly contructed. There were lines for everything. The food was inadequate and medical attention was almost non-existent. The inernees spent only a few months in these temporary camps. As soon as possible, the Army moved the internees to permanent camps. By October 1942 they had been moved to permanent camps.

Permanent War Relocation Authority Camps (April-October 1942)

The Army set of 10 permanent camps in isolated areas in the Western states. The internees in the temporary camps were quickly moved to these camps (October 1942). The camps were administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), a civilian agency under the Department of the Interior (DOI). The DOI was given the responsibility because the camps were established on Federal lands. They were located at sites selected for their isolation. As a result they were sited in sime of the most desolate areas imaginable. This included deserts, moutenous areas, and swampy land. The climate were also severe ranging from freezing winters and intense summer heat. Japanese Americans coming from Pacific-coast areas with mild climates were unprepared for this. The internees found very little in these camps when they first arrived beyond very basic barracks--essentially tar-paper shacks. Gradually conditions improved as the WRA began to organize the camps, facilities constructed, and deliveries of food and medical supplies organized. The Japanese themselves played a major role in organizing camp life. Soon canteens, mess halls, hospitals, and schools were set up. The Japanese staff at these facilities received wages, although very small. Most internees arrived at the camps with only clothes. In the barracks families found bascially cots and basic stove for heating. The internees set out furnishing their quarters. Some of the more skilled built basic furniture. They also were allowed to order items from mail-order catalogs. While the internment of Japanese Americans was a terrible injustice, depriving them of their property in many instances and their freedom for several years, the camps were quite different than the the NAZI and Japanese concentration camps. The internees were given adequate food and the children attended local schools. Japanese Americans formed Boy Scout troops such as at the Gila River Relocation Center, Arizona, during 1943. One of the most moving images at the camps were interned Boy Scouts behind barbed wire raising the American flag, a daily ritual. You wonder what those boys were thinking each day as they did this.

Children

Juveniles composed more than half of the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned in camps during World War II. We are not entirely sure just how they were affected. The children clearly had less comfortable childhoods than they woukd hve had. They were taken away from comfortables homes and lived in drafty, barren barracks. As far as we know, howver, there were no health consequences. They were adequately clothed and fed. In fact the food at the camps was better than what many American families endured during the Depression. As far as we know there was no weight loss orr negative growth consequences. These are physical attributes that can be measured. There may have been long-term heakth consequences. Accordingto one report, "Survey information found former internees had a 2.1 greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality, and premature death than did a non-interned counterpart. California Nisei-age individuals, the proxy for internment, died 1.6 years earlier than Hawaiians who represented non-interned status. I concluded traumatic stress has life-long consequences even in the presence of efficacious coping strategies." [Jensen] Apparently the stress experienced had health consequences. I do not know if other researchers have confirmed this observation. The children y attended local schools so their education was not interupted unless they were of university age. We do not know to what extent the internment was discussed in classes or on the playground. Another question is the psycological impact. Some authors have mentioned a loss of self esteem. The younger children may not have fully understiod what was happening, but the olfer children certainly did. One authorwrites, "Trauma may directly or indirectly affect the children of trauma victims. The multiple pathways of its effects create a variety of consequences. Despite the silence, or perhaps because of it, the Sansei who had a parent interned felt the effects of that experience in numerous ways. They are sad and angry about the injustice and attribute a number of negative consequences in their own lives to their parents' internment. These include feelings of low self-esteem, the pressure to assimilate, an accelerated loss of the Japanese culture and language, and experiencing the unexpressed pain of their parents." {Nagata] One can certainly see how the oldr children and teenagers may have experiebced aoss of seld esteem in that they were being so obviously treated as second class citizens. Psycological impacts are, however, very difficult to sess and measure. There is no evidence that the experience affected school performance, although I supose onc could argue that the children may have performned even better if they had not been interned. We get the impression that researchers out of sympathy seem to what to find adverse impactsand are disappointed that they have been unabke to do so. Of course thecchikdren were adversely impacted by the financial losses their parents experienced when shops, g=farms, anbd himes had to be sold on short notice. Only this was more thn compensatd by the fact that following the war, the job market was thrown wide open. And thus Japanese Americans who previously found getting into collge and universities difficult and obtaining jobs in government and industry virtually impossible, sudenly found unwritten racial barriers evaporating. There appear to have been some sociolgical consequences. Although not separated from their parents, Japanese Americans in Pacific coast states were interned in concentration or relocation camps as they were called. One impact on the children was that the very-close knit family life characteristic of Japanese families were weakened. The camps were organized on a communal basis. This included meals. Thus families no longer set down in their own homes for meals. Children especially teenagers began spending more times with friends rather than with their family. The strong parental authority common before the War was weakened. This to an extent probably promoted assimilation.

Supreme Court (1944)

The issue of interning Japanese Americans was finally heard by the Supreme Court. Roosevelt of course had great difficifulty with the Court during his first two terms and was embarassed when his attempt to "pack" the court proved to be a public relations catastrphe. By his third term, however, his appointments had made the Court a more compliant body. The Court in Korematsu vs. United States declared the internment constitutional on the basis of military necessity (December 1944). The decession along with the Dread Scott case (1857) and Plessy vs Fergusson (1896) are seen by constituntional historians as among the Court's most flawed pronouncements. The vote was six to three. Owen Roberts, Robert Jackson, and Frank Murphy disscented. Jackson after the War would serve as Chief U.S. counsel at the Nuremberg war criminals trial.

Assessment

Like the Germans, American authorities developed euphenisms for what was done to the Japanese. About 127,000 Japanese Americans were interned. Various accounts estimate the number at 110-130,000. It was one of the most grevious violations of the civil rights of American citizens in United States history. The Army appears to have been the primary culprit, but it is one of the most negative aspects of the Roosevelt's presidency. Of course it is easy for us to criticze today. The atmosphere after Pearl Harbor was very different. At the time any request from the military was granted. Congress which had severely limited military spending, wrote a blank check for the War. Roosevelt himself was not a noted civil libritarain. Many other policy onjectives were much higher on his order of priorities. He also had to consider the public outcry if he had tirned the army down and there were acts of sabotoge. We now know that Japanese-Americans were not disloyal, but this was not known at the time. More deplorable I think is the Supreme Court which had time to study the issues than the President did in early 1942. Of course President Roosevelt did sign the order and has o be held responsible for this terrible enfringement on the rights of American citizens.

Reparations

It did not take long after the War for recriminations to begin. Congress passed the Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act (1948). The Act provide limited compensation to those who had lost homes and businesses. Congress again opened the internment issue (1980). Japanese americans were called to testify about their internment. They movingly described the hardships and trauma. The resulting Congressional report Personal Justice Denied (1983) not only presented the experience in personal terms, but concluded that there was no military necessity for the removal of Japanese Ameticans. The report found that the Supreme Court decisions had been "overruled in the court of history." The Federal Gocernment in 19?? officially apologized for the internment, calling it a "grave injustice" and paid symbolic reparations.

Sources

Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt:Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs: New York, 2003), 1280p.

Commission on Wartime Relocation, Personal Justice Denied (1983).

Davis, Kenneth S. FDR: Vol. V The War President, 1940-43 (New York: Random House, 2000).

Jensen, Gwendolyn M. The Experience of Injustice: Health Consequences of the Japanese American Internment (1997).

Nagata, Donna K. Legacy of Injustice: Exploring the Cross-Generational Impact of the Japanese American Internment (1993).






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Created: 3:45 AM 11/16/2004
Last updated: 6:12 AM 5/24/2012