On this day, 74 years ago: the racist internment of Japanese Americans

Feb. 19 is the anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which led to the internment of over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. It is commemorated by Japanese Americans and supporters of redress as a “Day of Remembrance.” The following article was originally published on this website on Feb. 15, 2008.

Japanese American family heading to an internment camp.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked the U.S. colonial naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing thousands of servicemen, and providing a pretext for overt U.S. involvement in World War II. While politicians and films have often commemorated the Pearl Harbor attack, rarely have they mentioned how this event was used to justify a racist terror campaign that ultimately led to the brutal internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin Americans.

Nor do they make connections with the racist profiling of immigrants, especially Arabs and Muslims, committed by the criminal U.S. government today. Modern capitalist-led xenophobia campaigns are rooted in the vicious racism fostered by the slave trade and continued through last century. One historical precedent is the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government during World War II.

Anti-Asian racism had been intensifying in the United States since the 19th century. Tensions between Asian immigrant workers and white workers had been high for decades as bosses forced them to compete for jobs and land.

In the late 19th century, U.S. Congress decided to discourage Japanese immigration, prohibit naturalization of Japanese immigrants and curtail land ownership by Japanese. By 1924, the U.S. government banned virtually all immigration from Japan. Several states including California banned marriages between white people and people of Asian descent, only permitting the latter to marry other people of color.

As World War II unfolded—and the battle against Japan intensified—the FBI began compiling information on citizens in a database called the Custodian Detention Index. The CDI contained intelligence on “enemy aliens” and foreign nationals who, based on demographic information, might pose a national security threat. Under these broad, racist parameters, all Japanese Americans—even second and third generation—were considered potential security threats to the United States.

In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Alien Registration Act requiring Japanese immigrants over the age of 14 to be registered, fingerprinted and to pledge loyalty to the U.S. government.

The road to internment

A 1941 State Department report concluded, “There is no Japanese ‘problem’ on the Coast.” But publicly, Washington justified its racist profiling as a necessity for national security. Japanese Americans were subjected to a strict curfew. Japanese Americans were subjected to a strict curfew, their bank accounts were frozen and many had their insurance policies cancelled.

After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Proclamation 2525, which authorized government raids on Japanese American homes. Under Presidential Proclamation 2537 signed the next month, Japanese immigrants had to report any changes of address, employment or name to the FBI.

The U.S. government encouraged anti-Japanese racism amongst the white working class. Many white capitalist farmers went along with the oppression of Japanese Americans because of deeply entrenched racism and xenophobia. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salina Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, spoke in support of internment in 1942:

“We’re charged with wanting to get rid of Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. …If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we’d never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don’t want them back when the war ends, either.” (Saturday Evening Post, May 9, 1942)

Public discrimination against Japanese Americans was commonplace, particularly on the West Coast, where the majority of the country’s Asian American population lived. A headline in a 1942 issue of the San Francisco Examiner read: “Ouster of all Japs in California near!”

‘Exclusion’ and internment

Then, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed local military commanders to “prescribe military areas” from which “any of all persons may be excluded.” The order authorized the exclusion of all people of Japanese ancestry from the entire Pacific coast, unless in an internment camp.

Lt. Gen. John L. Dewitt, who administered the internment program, justified the internment of Japanese Americans before the House Naval Affairs Subcommittee on April 13, 1943:

“A Jap’s a Jap. I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty. … But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.

In 1944, the Supreme Court rubber stamped the forced interment of Japanese Americans in Korematsu v. United States. The Court said that the internment was constitutional and even a “pressing public necessity.”

But the internment had nothing to do with national security, and everything to do with whipping up racist and patriotic pro-war hysteria. When the U.S. Army was questioned about whether Japanese American orphans would be interned, Col. Karl R. Bendetsen, the Army’s chief evacuation architect in Washington, D.C., answered: “I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must all go to an internment camp.” (Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1997) Over 100 orphaned children—some as young as six months old and some with as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry—were interned.

This was pure racism. The United States was at war not only with Japan but with the fascist government of Germany. Although German Americans were found in large numbers throughout the United States, there were no internment camps for Americans of German ancestry.

Around 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced out of their homes. About 62 percent were U.S. citizens. While about 10,000 Japanese Americans were able to relocate to other parts of the country, the remaining 110,000 were sent to internment camps.

Additionally, over 2,000 people of Japanese ancestry from 12 different Latin American countries were snatched up by the U.S. State and Justice Departments and sent to internment camps. About 1,800 people were Japanese Peruvians.

U.S. government authorities did not give internees an official explanation about why they were interned, nor did they tell them to where they were being transported. Internees were allowed to bring only as much clothing, toiletries and other personal affects as they could carry. Many Japanese American famers had to sell their property in a matter of a few days and suffered substantial financial losses while land speculators reaped huge profits.

Life in the camps

The camps were located in remote, desolate areas. Often, the camps were built on Native American reservations, without consultation with the affected tribes.

Internment camps were prison camps. They failed to satisfy the basic human needs of the locked-up internees. Health care and education at the camps were deplorable. Internees were housed in tar paper-covered barracks without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind. Families of two or three were assigned to rooms that measured 20 feet by 8 feet. Families of four to six were assigned to rooms that were 20 feet by 12 feet. Each room had one 40-watt light bulb. There were cots for beds.

Since internees were not told where they were being taken, they could not pack properly for the climate and many suffered through below freezing winters. Many internees died due to lack of health care and several others were killed by armed guards.

Some camps were turned into makeshift sweatshops. The imprisoned Japanese Americans were used as a cheap (nearly unpaid) labor force to make goods for the U.S. military. One camp in San Diego made camouflage nets commissioned by the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps. The fine residue of burlap used for the nets caused respiratory problems. Payment for the exploited labor of internees was delayed. In San Diego, internees went on strike to demand better food and prompt payment.

Young men in the internment camp were still subject to the draft. This was particularly preposterous considering that, according to Washington, Japanese Americans were being interned due to suspicions of sympathizing with the enemy.

Sixty-three young Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) men interned in Heart Mountain, Wyo. resisted the draft, stating that they would not serve the government until their rights as U.S. citizens were restored. They were tried for draft evasion in the largest mass trial in Wyoming’s history. The 63 men were sentenced to three years in prison. Another twenty-two Nisei were later convicted, bringing the total number of resisters to 85. This was the largest organized resistance to Japanese American interment. It has been virtually written out of “official” history books.

In December 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that the detainment of loyal citizens was unconstitutional. On Jan. 2, 1945—after three years of internment—the exclusion orders that banned persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast were rescinded. The war was almost over. Washington’s campaign of racist hysteria was toned down for the moment.

Freed internees were given a meager $25 and a train ticket to their former home. Many victims of internment returned home to find that their land had been taken and their jobs no longer existed. Sixty-three percent of the internees snatched from Latin America were not allowed to return home. Half of the internees from Peru were deported to Japan.

Movement for redress

Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, in the 1960s young Japanese Americans began the “Redress Movement.” They demanded an official apology and reparations from the federal government. In 1976, 34 years after the signing of Executive Order 9066, President Gerald Ford admitted that the evacuation and internment of Japanese Americans was “wrong.” After decades of struggle, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided $20,000 in reparations for each surviving victim of internment.

No amount of halfhearted apologies or symbolic monetary gestures will undo the suffering endured by Japanese Americans and Japanese Latin Americans during World War II.

Nor do such gestures rule out the possibility that such brutality will be repeated in the future.

Just as Washington developed racist policies against Asians to justify its imperialist aims in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, it has targeted the Arab and Muslim communities in its “war on terror.”

But the persistence of the popular redress movement was the only reason that Washington even acknowledged its culpability for its racist interment of Japanese Americans. The force of an organized people’s movement is the only way to push back the imperialists and thwart their future aims.

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