Melting pot notwithstanding, the United States has never received any immigrant group with unbridled enthusiasm. The Japanese have experienced nativism at perhaps its worst. In 1907, Japan and the United States entered a Gentlemen’s Agreement whereby Japan agreed to end Japanese immigration to the United States. It was superseded by the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred all Asian immigration. Just two years before this legislation, the United States Supreme Court had ruled that Japanese could not become naturalized citizens.
Pearl Harbor fanned anti-Japanese hysteria in California, Oregon, and Washington where Japanese-Americans were concentrated. The myth circulated that Japanese-Americans were part of a Fifth Column. The equally fake news was that Japanese-Americans had been informed of the attacks in advance and had kept silent. Comic strips circulated instructing how to distinguish Japanese-Americans from Chinese-Americans. Even Dr. Seuss contributed some blatantly racist cartoons. Never mind that no Japanese-American had ever committed any act of sabotage. Never mind that some Japanese-Americans were serving capably in the American army. Never mind that a report by Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Ringle, a military intelligence officer who had worked within the Japanese- American community, had emphasized that the danger had been magnified. Ringle stated that most Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, were absolutely loyal and should be recruited into the army to cement their loyalty. First-generation Japanese-Americans, the Issei, were in large part too old (average age 59) to be a threat. Only the Kibei, second-generation Japanese-Americans who had been sent back to Japan for education, according to Ringle, included many who might need to be incarcerated. And never mind that the Japanese themselves did not trust Japanese-Americans and pressed for recruitment of communists, blacks, and anti-Semites as spies.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, American authorities rounded up about 1,200 Japanese-American community leaders on a list of “suspected enemy aliens” compiled before the outbreak of war. (Much smaller numbers of Germans and Italians were rounded up. One example of the latter was Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza, who later starred in the movie South Pacific. He was imprisoned for three months. Incredibly he was asked whether he transmitted messages to Mussolini by varying the speed of his singing during radio broadcasts.) Setbacks in the Pacific exacerbated fears on the West Coast. Both civilian leaders, like California Attorney General then Governor Earl Warren (and still later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and the military personnel such as commander in the West, General Dewitt and his subordinate Captain Karl Bendetson called for the evacuation of Japanese-Americans, men, women, and children, 120,000 people in all, of whom 92,000 were Californians. On February 19, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the exclusion. Proponents rationalized that relocation would protect the Japanese-Americans from the hostility of their neighbors. The evacuees were allowed to take only what they could carry. Their bank accounts were frequently frozen. Often they had to sell their possessions on short notice for pennies on the dollar. Imprisonment of persons of Japanese descent took place throughout the Americas, from Latin America to Canada.
The leading Japanese-American communal association, the Japanese American Citizens League, encouraged peaceful cooperation, insisting that the sacrifice would be viewed as proof of loyalty. The prisoners were assigned to one of several camps located in the interior. Families shared barracks (a four-person family was placed in a 8 x 20 room, an 8- person family in a 20 x 20 room), communal toilets and dining halls but dedicated themselves to improving their condition by establishing schools, planting gardens, participating in baseball games and art classes, and organizing Boy Scout troops. Even so, prisoners assigned to desert camps suffered from oppressive daytime heat and intense nighttime cold. Medical care was inadequate.
Exhibiting the irrationality of the incarceration was the fact that Japanese-Americans in Hawaii were exempt not to mention Japanese-Americans east of California. Administrators grasped that the threat was a phantom one and starting in about August 1942 allowed prisoners to work outside the camp and to leave the camp altogether for college and jobs in the Midwest and East. More enlightened authorities understood that the internment was being used by the Axis powers as anti-American propaganda. The Japanese proclaimed to other Asian countries that the war was “a race war,” using the internment as Exhibit A. In early 1943, Japanese-Americans were permitted to enlist in the army provided they took loyalty oaths. Many did, serving as code breakers and translators on the Pacific Front and in a highly decorated segregated unit, the 442nd on the European Front. The 442nd famously rescued the Lost Battalion that had been cut off by the Germans. To be sure, the internment had embittered the prisoners, and among Issei and Kibei pro-Japanese sentiment intensified causing friction within the camps. Kibei gangs terrorized those whom they regarded as collaborators and frequently pressured other prisoners to renounce their American citizenship while renouncing it themselves–almost 5,600 prisoners renounced their American citizenship. Most Japanese-Americans who would not take the loyalty oath ended up at Tule Lake, a camp so vicious that it had a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
By early 1945, camp population was down to 90,000. The government announced that the internees were free to leave. The Nisei were enthusiastic. However, many Issei resisted leaving, having no homes to return to and fearful that they would be attacked if they returned to California. Some prisoners had to be removed forcibly. Everyone who left was given a train ticket and $25.
In 1980, Congress established a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The Commission concluded that the internment was not justified by military necessity. Eight years later, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Act represented a formal apology for the internment and authorized $1.2 billion in reparations, $20,000 for each of the camp survivors, far less than actual losses calculated for inflation. According to a government estimate, the evacuees lost $250 million, approximately 75% of their assets. Still standing is the decision in Korematsu v. United States, upholding the constitutionality of the exclusion provision of Executive Order 9066, not internment itself as commonly believed. Korematsu’s conviction, however, was ultimately voided in 1983 when it was discovered that the government had knowingly presented false evidence in the original proceeding.
For more see: Infamy: The Shocking Story Of the Japanese American Internment In World War II by Richard Reeves (2015)