Photograph of internment flyers

National Archives. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Internment of civilians from enemy countries was practiced by all sides in the Second World War. However, in the United States, both Japanese nationals and most Japanese-Americans were interned. The internment of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry, on the basis of their ethnicity, has been condemned by most American historians.

While ultimate responsibility for the internment rested with the Roosevelt administration, the commander of Army forces on the West Coast, Lieutenant General John DeWitt, also bore a large share of the responsibility. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, DeWitt kept soldiers and civilians in his command area in a high state of nervousness with his exaggerated fears of a Japanese strike against the West Coast. For example, in a report to the War Department dated 4 January 1942, he declared that

It could not be established, of course, that the location of thousands of Japanese adjacent to strategic points verified the existence of some vast conspiracy to which all of them were parties. Some of them doubtless resided there through mere coincidence. It seemed equally beyond doubt, however, that the presence of others was not mere coincidence. It was difficult to explain the situation in Santa Barbara County, for example, by coincidence alone.

Throughout the Santa Maria Valley in the County, including the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe, every utility, air field, bridge, telephone and power line or other facility of importance was flanked by Japanese. They even surrounded the oil fields in this area. Only a few miles south, however, in the Santa Ynez Valley, lay an area equally as productive agriculturally as the Santa Maria Valley and with lands equally available for purchase and lease, but without any strategic installations whatever. There were no Japanese in the Santa Ynez Valley.

California newspapers carried stories about alleged fifth column activities (all unfounded) that combined with racial bigotry to produce an atmosphere in which the local Japanese-American population was viewed with the deepest suspicion. DeWitt first proposed the internment on 19 December 1941, vacillated, then agreed to take responsibility on 19 January 1942. Roosevelt signed the executive order authorizing internment on 19 February 1942.

Sight justification for DeWitt's actions is provided by intelligence documents (VENONA) declassified decades after the war that indicated that the Japanese were running an active espionage network on the West Coast. Internment was effective in shutting this network down. However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who was not a notable civil libertarian, was opposed to the internment. He declared it "utterly unwarranted" (Smith 2007), believing that his G-men were capable of shutting down the Japanese network through good detective work. DeWitt's own subordinate, Joseph Stilwell, who commanded Army troops along the West Coast from San Francisco south, considered reports of Japanese fifth column activities to be "wild, farcical, and fantastic stuff" (ibid.) Regardless of the threat, the internment of so large a group because of suspicions about the activities of a few inverted the traditional Anglo-Saxon legal principle that it was better to let ten guilty men go free than to punish one innocent man.

Why then did such an ill-considered and unjust order receive Roosevelt's approval? Part of it was that public opinion was inflamed, with media opinion makers such as the liberal Walter Lippmann (founder of The New Republic) and conservative Westbrook Pegler (a leading opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal) declaring that the public safety took precedence over civil rights. On the West Coast itself, envy of Japanese truck farmers, who produced 40 percent of the crop on 1 percent of the land, played an ugly part. The manager of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association bluntly told The Saturday Evening Post that "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do" (Smith 2007).

Exaggerated fears of invasion also played their part. Stimson, the Secretary of War, was apparently caught up in the post-Pearl Harbor panic sufficiently to believe the Japanese capable of invading the West Coast. He referred the question to Roosevelt, who was preoccupied with the situation at Singapore (it fell four days later) and told Stimson to do whatever he thought was justified by military necessity. Stimson in turn put the matter in the hands of John J. McCloy, the assistant war secretary responsible for domestic security, who took this as carte blanche to proceed, stating that "If it is a question of safety of the country or the Constitution of the United States, why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me" (Smith 2007).

Aside from the civil rights issues involved, the internments hindered the war effort by forcing the relocation of the language school then being organized at the Presidio in San Francisco to Camp Savage in Minnesota, and by creating resentment among Japanese-Americans who had valuable language skills. However, nisei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) served with great distinction as soldiers in Europe, and nisei interpreters saw service in the Pacific and with Merrill's Marauders in Burma. Some 6000 nisei (along with about 780 Caucasians) graduated from the language school at Camp Savage or Fort Snelling and gave valuable service translating captured documents and interrrogating prisoners of war in the Pacific. However, nisei interrogators were sometimes hampered by a fear of appearing to be getting too close to the prisoners, while Caucasian interrogators felt no hindranceto empathizing with their charges.

Nisei draftees were occasionally subjected to highly demeaning treatment following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although those in the East and Midwest saw little or no change in their duties, nisei in California were sometimes disarmed and permanently assigned to kitchen duty or transferred to service battalions.

Ironically, a few nisei found themselves in the Japanese armed forces, often unwillingly. Japanese law regarded nisei as Japanese citizens, and those unfortunate enough to be in Japanese-controlled territory when war broke out were drafted into the armed forces on the same basis as other young Japanese men. Women nisei were not necessarily safe: Iva Toguri an American citizen who had been awarded a degree in geology by the University of California, was visiting in Japan without a valid U.S. passport at the outbreak of war. She refused to renounce her U.S. citizenship but was subsequently pressured into making (fairly innocuous) broadcasts for the Japanese. In 1949, she was convicted of one count of treason for broadcasting as Tokyo Rose, imprisoned for six years, and fined $10,000. In the 1970s, investigative journalists uncovered serious irregularities in her treason trial, and she received a presidential pardon.

Japanese-Americans who had spent some time in Japan in their youth before returning to the United States (kibei) were particularly prized for intelligence work, but faced an even greater assumption of possible disloyalty than other nisei. However, many gave invaluable service as instructors in the language schools, since they generally spoke much better Japanese than the average nisei or even many of the Caucasian instructors who had studied Japanese in a university setting.

The first nisei language team reached Guadalcanal in December 1942. Although the Army commander there, Alexander Patch, was initially skeptical, he subsequently became a strong supporter. Patch later commanded 7 Army in Europe, which included the all-nisei 442 Regimental Combat Team.

Internment was not pleasant, but morbidity and mortality rates in American internment camps were not significantly different from those in the general population, suggesting that living conditions were acceptable, if somewhat Spartan. Barracks in internment camps were built to the same standards as military barracks for active duty troops (and often by the same contractors.) There were even some instances of Japanese-Americans living outside the West Coast (who were not subject to internment) voluntarily joining their relatives in the internment camps. As the war progressed, many camp commanders gave the internees increased freedom to come and go from their camps, and some internees were able to find sponsors outside the West Coast and thereby secure their own release. None of these observations are meant to condone the internment; they are meant to put the internment in perspective at a time when Germany was systematically slaughtering millions of Jews and Japan was treating civilian internees with great cruelty.

In 1948 Congress passed the Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act permitting former internees to make claims against the United States Government for economic losses suffered as "a reasonable and natural consequence of the evacuation or exclusion." However, the standards of proof required to establish such claims were sufficiently strict that most claims were rejected, although about $37 million in compensation was granted. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, apologizing for the internment and granting $20,000 in compensation to nearly 90,000 former internees or their heirs.


Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (accessed 2008-4-19)

DeWitt (1942; accessed 2011-4-23)

Personal Justice Denied (accessed 2008-4-19)

Prados (1995)

Smith (2007)

Spector (1985)

Straus (2003)

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