[HISTORY] Japanese American Internment Camps in California
- The Japanese Camps in California
by Mark Weber
In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many
expected an immediate attack against the West Coast. Fear gripped the
country and a wave of hysterical antipathy against the Japanese
engulfed the Pacific Coast.
The FBI quickly began rounding up any and all "suspicious" Japanese
for internment. None was ever charged with any crime. Almost all were
simply Japanese community leaders, Buddhist or Shinto priests,
newspaper editors, language or Judo instructors, or labor organizers.
The Japanese community leadership was liquidated in one quick
Men were taken away without notice. Most families knew nothing about
why their men had suddenly disappeared, to where they were taken, or
when they would be released. Some arrestees were soon let free, but
most were secretly shipped to internment camps around the country.
Some families learned what had happened to their men only several
years later. The action also included the freezing of bank accounts,
seizure of contraband, drastic limitation on travel, curfew and other
severely restrictive measures. But this FBI operation merely set the
stage for the mass evacuation to come.
In February 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, Commanding General of the
Western Defense Command, requested authorization from Secretary of
War Henry L. Stimson to evacuate "Japanese and other subversive
persons" from the West Coast area. On 19 February, President Franklin
Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 authorizing the Secretary
of War or any military commander to establish "military areas" and to
exclude from them "any or all persons. A month later, President
Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9102 establishing the War
Relocation Authority, which eventually operated the internment camps.
Roosevelt named Milton Eisenhower, brother of the future president,
to head the WRA.
Without a murmur of dissent, the Congress quickly affirmed Executive
Order 9066 with the passage of Public Law 77-503.
Beginning in March, the Army organized the evacuation of some 77 000
U.S. citizens of Japanese origin ("Nisei") and 43 000 mostly older
Japanese citizens ("Issei") from California and parts of Washington,
Oregon and Arizona.
Posters appeared the length of the West Coast ordering the Japanese
to evacuation points. "Instructions to all persons of JAPANESE
ancestry," read the bold headline on a typical poster. The text
read: "All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be
evacuated from the above designated areas by 12:00 o'clock noon
Tuesday, April 7, 1942." The evacuees were told to report for
internment with bedrolls and only as much baggage as could be carried
by hand. (A postwar survey showed that 80 percent of the privately
stored goods belonging to the interned Japanese were "rifled, stolen
or sold during absence.")
The 23,000 Japanese living on the West Coast of Canada, three-fourths
of whom were Canadian citizens, were also rounded up. They were not
permitted back into British Columbia until March 1949, seven years
after the evacuation and three and a half years after the end of the
The State Department told the Latin American countries to round up
their Japanese. The United States paid for the cost of the
hemispheric evacuation. Over 2000 Japanese were shipped from more
than a dozen Latin American countries to detention camps in the
United States. Most were sent by Peru, which wanted to permanently
eliminate all Japanese and refused to allow reentry of those held in
the U.S. after the end of the war.
Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay set up their own internment camp
programs. To their credit, Argentina and Chile did not break
diplomatic relations with the Axis until late in the war, and only
then under tremendous U.S. pressure. As a result, their Japanese were
not rounded up. The rationale for the West Coast evacuation
was "military necessity." But that claim was inconsistent with the
fact that the Japanese living on Hawaii were not subject to mass
incarceration. Hawaii was in far greater danger of invasion than the
West Coast. The population of Hawaii was 38 percent Japanese, as
compared to only about one percent in California. All except a small
percentage of the Hawaiian Japanese remained free to keep the
important island economy functioning.
The evacuation, ostensibly to protect against possible sabotage and
espionage, moreover included babies, orphans, adopted children, and
the infirm or bedridden elderly. Children of mixed blood, even from
orphanages, were included if they had any Japanese ancestry at all.
Colonel Karl Bendetsen, who directly administered the program,
declared: "I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese
blood in them, they must go to camp."
It should be noted that throughout the war, members of the Communist
Party actively worked to promote the interests of a foreign power and
an international organization committed to the overthrow of the
constitutional government of the United States. But the Communists in
America were not only not restricted, they were openly encouraged and
The U.S. government told Americans that our detention centers had
nothing in common with the horrible concentration camps established
by the enemy in Europe. The Army public relations agency continually
referred to the centers as "resettlement camps" and "havens of
refuge." The State Department denied that the centers were
concentration camps, " but are on the contrary areas where
communities are being established in which the Japanese may organize
their social and economic life in safety and security under the
protection of the central authorities of the United States." In a
public relations piece which appeared in the September 1942 issue of
Harper's, a military official writing under a false name told
Americans that "In the long run the Japanese will probably profit by
this painful and distressing experience."
A total of 120,000 were ultimately detained in the ten permanent mass
detention camps built by the government. Were these internment
centers really concentration camps? Chief Judge William Denman of the
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals described the Tule Lake camp this way:
The barbed-wire stockade surrounding the 18 000 people there was like
that of the prison camps of the Germans. There were the same turrets
for the soldiers and the same machine guns for those who might
attempt to climb the high wiring
The buildings were covered with tarred paper over green and shrinking
shiplap-this for the low winter temperatures of the high elevation of
Tule Lake No federal penitentiary so treats its adult prisoners. Here
were the children and babies as well.
To reach the unheated latrines, which were in the center of the
blocks of fourteen buildings, meant leaving the residential shacks
and walking through the rain and snow- again a lower than
penitentiary treatment, even disregarding the sick and the children.
So also was the crowding of the 18 000 people in the one storey
shacks In the cells of a federal penitentiary there is no such
crowding. (Weglyn, p156)
The Army used six tanks and a battalion of military police (899 men
and 31 officers) to guard the Japanese at Tule Lake, California.
Several camps had electrically charged fencing, which made little
sense since all the camps were invariably located in deserts or other
remote and desolate areas. Every camp had searchlights which played
over the living quarters at night.
Dozens of inmates were shot and wounded. Eight were killed by guards.
Japanese were sometimes brutally beaten and seriously injured without
reason. At Tule Lake, guards beat inmates with baseball bats.
When Japanese organized a protest demonstration at Manzanar camp in
California, soldiers threw tear gas grenades on the crowd and fired
into it. One inmate was killed instantly and another died later. Nine
Some Japanese committed suicide out of despair and many more died
prematurely due to harsh conditions.
Three generations often lived in a single bare room, 20 by 24 feet.
which comprised a "family apartment." Sometimes two or three families
were crowded into a single such room. The only fixture was a hanging
light bulb, except for whatever furniture the inmates could construct
for themselves. In some assembly areas, families were assigned to
rudely converted horse stables where the stench became oppressive in
the summer heat.
All incoming and outgoing mail was censored. All internal
communications were strictly controlled. The Japanese language was
banned at public meetings and Japanese religious services were
The inmates were forced to salute the flag, sing patriotic songs, and
declare their allegiance to "one nation, indivisible, with liberty
and justice for all."
One of the most significant aspects of this act of racist repression
is the fact the it was not the work of a clique of fascists and right-
wing militarists, who according to liberal dogma are invariably
behind such deeds. Rather, it was advocated, justified and
administered by men well known for their support of liberalism and
Given the almost universal condemnation of the Japanese internment
program today, it is hard to realize just how solid support was for
it at the time. The vast operation, as one writer points out,
was "initiated by the generals, advised, ordered and supervised by
the civilian heads of the War Department, authorized by the
President, implemented by Congress, approved by the Supreme Court,
and supported by the people." (Ten Broek, p325)
The first public call to intern the Japanese seems to have been made
at the beginning of January 1942 by John B. Hughes, a prominent radio
commentator of the Mutual Broadcasting Company. Shortly thereafter,
Henry McLemore, syndicated columnist of the Hearst newspapers told
I am for immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a
point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior
either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the
badlands. Let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it ...
Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them. (Ten
Popular movie actor Leo Carillo telegrammed his Congressman:
Why wait until (the Japanese) pull something before we act ... Let's
get them off the coast and into the interior ... May I urge you in
behalf of the safety of the people of California to start action at
once. (Ten Broek, p77)
In February a delegation of West Coast Congressmen sent a letter to
the President calling for the "immediate evacuation of all persons of
Japanese lineage ... aliens and citizens alike" from the Pacific
Speaking to southern California on a Lincoln's birthday radio
broadcast, Fletcher Bowron, reform Mayor of Los Angeles, denounced
the "sickly sentimentality" of those who worried about injustices to
the Japanese living in the United States. He told his radio audience
that if Abraham Lincoln were alive, he would round up "the people
born on American soil who have secret loyalty to the Japanese
"There isn't a shadow of a doubt," Bowron told his listeners, "but
that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with
almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the
Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm."
Walter Lippmann, probably the country's most influential liberal
columnist, strongly supported mass evacuation in a February
syndicated piece entitled "The Fifth Column on the Coast."
Conservative counterpart Westbrook Pegler followed suit a few days
Only a week after Pearl Harbor, Mississippi Congressman John Rankin
told the House of Representatives:
I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and
putting them in concentration camps and shipping them back to Asia as
soon as possible ... This is a race war, as far as the Pacific side
of the conflict is concerned ... The White man's civilization has
come into conflict with Japanese barbarism ... One of them must be
destroyed ... Damn them! Let's get rid of them now! (Ten Broek, p87)
Another member of Congress proposed mandatory sterilization of the
All of these statements were quite in keeping with popular sentiment.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Japanese were excluded from various
labor unions. Between 8 December and 31 March, anti-Japanese rage
resulted in 36 cases of vigilantism, including seven murders. And a
March 1942 national public opinion poll showed 93 percent in favor of
evacuating alien Japanese. While 59 percent wanted to evacuate U.S.
citizens of Japanese origin, only 25 percent disapproved.
A great deal was made of the fact that immigrants born in Japan, but
living for decades in the United States (the Issei), had not become
U.S. citizens-proof of their continued loyalty to the Emperor. But no
mention was made of the fact that long-standing American law forbade
them from taking out U.S. citizenship -- a ban that was not lifted
Since the war, the myth has been that powerful racist anti-Japanese
groups engineered the evacuation to remove their economic
competitors. But the truth is something quite different. While many
White small-businessmen urged evacuation, big business interests did
not. More importantly, the Japanese were evacuated at a moment when
the country was willing to support whatever measures the Federal
government authorized in the name of winning the war.
The fact is that the Japanese were sent to concentration camps not by
a group of West Coast racists seeking economic advantage, but by a
popular and powerful government run by democratic liberals. At the
top of the list of those responsible for not only authorizing the
program, but also for keeping it in operation was President Franklin
Before the President promulgated Executive Order 9066, Attorney
General Francis Biddle told Roosevelt that security interests did not
justify evacuating the Japanese. The Attorney General's office also
determined that the proposed evacuation would be a violation of the
The dean of American Revisionist historians, Prof. James J. Martin,
called the incarceration program "a breach of the Bill of Rights on a
scale so large as to beggar the sum total of all such violations from
the beginning of the United States down to that time." (Weglyn, p67)
Roosevelt authorized, supported and maintained an action which he
knew to be racist and blatantly unconstitutional. But this was only
one more sterling example of the gross hypocrisy which characterized
his entire regime.
The man responsible for implementing the evacuation, Lt. Gen. DeWitt,
In the war in which we are now engaged, racial affinities are not
severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while
many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil,
possessed of United States citizenship, have become "Americanized,"
the racial strains are undiluted ... It therefore follows that along
the vital Pacific Coast over 112 000 potential enemies of Japanese
extraction are at large today. (Ten Broek, pp4, 110, 337 n.6)
Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was more succinct: "Their racial
characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the
Another man, well known for his liberal outlook, who helped implement
the evacuation and internment was Assistant Secretary of War John J.
McCloy. For four years he served as War Department liaison with the
War Relocation Authority, the agency which ran the camps. After the
war, McCloy was named High Commissioner for Germany. As the highest
civilian allied occupation official, McCloy worked to impose
democratic rule on the defeated German people.
Chief of the civilian staff of the Western Defense Command and
liaison between the WDC and the Justice Department was Tom Clark, who
later became an Attorney General and a liberal Supreme Court Justice.
In 1966 Clark admitted: "I have made a lot of mistakes in my life,
but there are two that I acknowledge publicly, One is my part in the
evacuation of Japanese from California in 1942 and the other is the
Nuremberg trials." Abe Fortas was another liberal destined for the
Supreme Court who joined in the campaign to intern the Japanese.
Perhaps the most surprising advocate of evacuation was Earl Warren.
Considering his later career as a vociferous liberal, it is at least
ironic that, more than any other person, Warren led the popular
sentiment to uproot and incarcerate the Japanese. As Attorney General
of California, Warren cultivated popular racist feeling in an
apparent effort to further his political career. He was an
outstanding member of the xenophobia "Native Sons of the Golden
West," an organization dedicated to keeping California "as it has
always been and God Himself intended it shall always be-the White
Man's Paradise." The "Native Sons" worked "to save California from
the yellow-Jap peaceful invaders and their White-Jap co-conspirators."
In February 1942, Warren testified before a special Congressional
committee on the Japanese question. He would be running for Governor
of the state that year, and would be elected. Warren testified,
falsely, that the Japanese had "infiltrated themselves into every
strategic spot in our coastal and valley counties." In one of the
most amazing feats of logic ever performed by a lawyer, Warren next
claimed that the very fact that no Japanese had so far committed any
disloyal act was proof that they intended to do so in the future!
Later, when the government began to release Japanese whose loyalty
was above suspicion, Governor Warren protested that every citizen so
released had to be kept out of California as a potential saboteur.
Earl Warren played to popular racism to further his political career.
Later, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he presided over the
consummately liberal "Warren Court" which ushered in an era of
racial "equality" and unprecedented racial chaos following the 1954
After the Japanese had been evacuated, very few wanted them back.
Newspaper columnist Elsie Robinson threatened to "cut the throat" of
any evacuee who dared return. U.S. Representative Clair Engle of
California declared: "We don't want those Japs back in California and
the more we can get rid of the better." A poll conducted by a Los
Angeles newspaper in late 1943 showed that Californians would vote
ten to one against letting citizens of Japanese origin ever return to
normal life from the camps.
In the six months following the end of the evacuation program there
were some 30 attacks by West Coast people against returning inmates.
Near Fresno and other places, night riders shot into the homes of
newly returned families Anti-Japanese organizations sprang up in the
Northwest and in California.
Opposition to evacuation was virtually non-existent. J Edgar Hoover,
head of the FBI, strongly protested against the program. The man whom
liberals vilified as the personification of reaction and incipient
American Fascism believed that the evacuation hysteria was "based
primarily upon public political pressure rather than upon factual
data." The FBI, he said, was fully capable of handling the small
number of suspects then under surveillance. (Weglyn, p284, n.6)
Liberal California Governor Culbert L. Olson, Warren's predecessor,
had a special reason for opposing the program. He proposed instead
keeping adult Japanese men in state-run work camps in inland rural
areas to harvest crops. If the Japanese were removed from harvest
work, Culbert feared that " inundation of the state by Blacks and
Chicanos would be unavoidable" (Weglyn, p94)
Perhaps the only honest personality in this whole story was Norman
Thomas, the American socialist leader. He was at least non-
hypocritical, if not actually heroic. Thomas had been an outspoken
and effective leader in the movement to keep America out of the
Second World War. He was the only personality of national stature to
vehemently oppose the evacuation program. Thomas denounced the policy
of the American Civil Liberties Union, which he had cofounded. The
ACLU decided that the evacuation fell within the proper limits of the
President's power. "What is perhaps as ominous as the evacuation of
the Japanese," Thomas retorted, "is the general acceptance of this
procedure by those who are proud to call themselves liberals."
This rare "honest liberal" was dismayed at the general toleration of
the program. "In an experience of nearly three decades," Thomas wrote,
I have never found it harder to arouse the American public on any
important issue than on this. Men and women who know nothing of the
facts (except possibly the rose-colored version which appears in the
public press) hotly deny that there are concentration camps.
Apparently that is a term to be used only if the guards speak German
and carry a whip as well as a rifle. (Weglyn, pp111-12)
The Supreme Court ruled on three cases relating to the evacuation
program. In Hirabayashi v. U.S. (1943) the high court unanimously
upheld a conviction for violating a curfew directed against a
population group distinguished solely by racial-national ancestry.
The case of Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) involved a Nisei (U.S. citizen)
who refused to submit to evacuation. Chief Justice Hugo Black,
speaking for the majority of six, upheld the validity of the program.
Ignoring the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal
protection of the law, the Court decided that one group of citizens
may be singled out, uprooted from their homes, and sent to camps for
several years without trial based solely on ancestry.
Finally, at the end of 1944, in the case of Ex Parte Endo, the Court
ruled unanimously that the government had no right to detain
admittedly loyal U.S. citizens indefinitely. This decision ended the
entire program. Within 48 hours of the ruling, the government
announced that, apart from a few suspicious individuals, the Japanese
were free to return home.
Comparisons have often been made between the Second World War
concentration camps in America with those in Germany, although Topaz,
Poston, and Gila River have never become as well known as Buchenwald,
Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. Starvation and disease epidemics never
ravaged the camps in this country as they did in Germany.
In America, economic and social life remained basically intact
throughout the war. The great cities here were spared annihilation
under showers of bombs. No hordes of foreign invaders poured across
the American frontiers. The U.S. government could run its
concentration camps on a virtual peace-time basis.
The German situation was completely different. In the final months of
the war, Germany was waging a losing struggle for naked existence.
The social-economic system collapsed completely in the face of total
military defeat. The horrendous scenes photographed in the German
camps by the Allied conquerors and distributed as propaganda around
the world resulted from the starvation and disease that reigned
unchecked throughout Europe as a consequence of the military
At the Nuremberg show trials, the German defendants compared the
evacuation of the Jews of Europe and the deportation of the West
Coast Japanese. In both cases, the programs were allegedly based
upon "military necessity." The Nuremberg defendants cited the
Korematsu and Hirabayashi decisions. The latter Supreme Court
decision was specifically based "upon the recognition of facts and
circumstances which indicate that a group of one national extraction
may menace the safety more than others ..."
Actually, the Germans had far greater cause to intern the Jews of
Europe than the Americans did to incarcerate the West Coast Japanese.
The Japanese were sent to camps solely on suspicion of what they
might do. Not a single Japanese had committed an act of espionage or
sabotage. But many thousands of Jews throughout Europe had committed
countless acts of murder, destruction, sabotage, arson and theft
before the Germans began their general evacuation.
The Germans, moreover, had greater legal justification for their
policy. The great majority of the Japanese internees were U.S.
citizens and legally entitled to equal protection under the law. The
Jews of Germany had not been full citizens for several years before
the war began. Elsewhere in Europe, the Jews were evacuated from
militarily occupied territories or by countries allied with Germany.
The post-war mass media has spent years hammering away at the "guilt"
of the German people for generally doing nothing while the Jews were
being evacuated to the East. How does the German experience compare
with the American record of popular enthusiasm for evacuating the
West Coast Japanese?
Since the war, the Germans have paid over tens of billions of dollars
in restitution to Jewish organizations, the state of Israel and to
individual Jews around the world for "those who suffered in mind and
body, or had been deprived unjustly of their freedom." But no
American concentration camp inmate has ever received a penny for
hardship, humiliation or income lost during the years of internment.
That did not stop the United States government from recently
insisting that the East Germans must pay restitution to Jews who were
and are not even American citizens. The U.S. government designated a
private American Jewish organization to "negotiate" with the German
Democratic Republic for payments to Jews living around the world.
The German defendants at Nuremberg were declared guilty of "crimes
against humanity" for, among other things, victimizing members of a
group on the basis of ancestry. What responsibility did the
countries, including the United States, which set up the
International Military Tribunal have in upholding that principle in
their own territories? Why have no Americans ever been called to
account for committing the same "crimes" for which Germans were put
to death in Nuremberg?
Bosworth, Allan R., America's Concentration Camps, New York, 1967.
Japanese American Citizens League, The Japanese American
Incarceration: A Case for Redress, San Francisco, 1978.
Myer, Dillon S., Uprooted Americans (The Japanese Americans and the
War Relocation Authority During World War II) Tucson, AZ, 1971.
Petersen, William, "The Incarceration of the Japanese-Americans,"
National Review, 8 December 1972, pp1349ff.
Spicer, Edward H., A.T. Hansen, K. Luomala, M.K. Opler, Impounded
People (Japanese-Americans in the Relocation Centers), Tucson, AZ,
Ten Broek, Jacobus, E.H. Barnhart, F.W. Matson, Prejudice, War and
the Constitution, Berkeley, 1968.
Weglyn, Michi, Years of Infamy (The Untold Story of America's
Concentration Camps), New York, 1976.
Note: Although this statement was true at the time this article was
written, it is no longer true now. As Michael P. Stein
(mstein@...) points out, "... former Rep. Norm Mineta of
California, himself an internee, succeeded in winning passage of a
bill to grant an apology and $20,000 in compensation to internees ..."