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Internment of Japanese-Americans

The FBI had been monitoring Japanese American activity for several years before the war broke out, and right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor they swept into Japanese American communities and arrested possible subversives. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover told President Roosevelt that the West Coast was secure, and he recommended that the Japanese American communities be watched, but he did not recommend any mass arrests of Japanese.

U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle warned President Roosevelt that the forced removal of American citizens was unconstitutional. Although the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, there was no mass detention of German-Americans or Italian-Americans.

On the West Coast, some were busy describing not only the evil-doings of the Japanese of Japan but also the dangers emanating from Japanese-Americans. Some people feared that their vegetables, grown by local Japanese farmers, might have been injected with poison. And some white farmers disliked the competition they had from Japanese-American farmers.

The government always had the option of apprehending and prosecuting anyone caught passing damaging information to Japan's government or destroying property. But, for some, the chances of a Japanese taking action in support of Japan was so great that the Japanese had to be restrained collectively. A distinguished liberal journalist, Walter Lippmann, led the attack. Lippmann claimed that the fact that the Japanese had not yet been found committing treasonous acts meant that they were waiting for a later time to strike. He charged that in the interest of national security Japanese-Americans should be interned, and he criticized bureaucrats in Washington for being slow to act.

On February 10, 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, doing little damage, but it exercised excitable people in California. On February 14, General John L. DeWitt, commander of U.S. Army units west of the Mississippi, left his post at the Presidio in San Francisco and went to the capital in Washington DC to push for interning the Japanese. He described the Japanese as "an enemy race." "While many of them have become Americanized," he said, "the racial strains are undiluted." DeWitt feared that the Japanese might land on the West Coast, and, like Lippmann, he described no sabotage having taken place as an indication that the Japanese-Americans were waiting for the most opportunistic moment. He asked for the authority to remove from society all Japanese and other persons suspected of being "actual or potential spies and potential saboteurs or fifth columnists."

President Roosevelt considered the matter. He asked an expert at the State Department, Frank Schuler, his opinion whether Japanese in the United States were a danger. Schuler replied that some were a danger and some were not. "But how," he asked, "can you separate the good from the bad." Roosevelt decided to err on the side of security. He issued Executive Order 9066 to relocate all Japanese on the West Coast to detention camps inland. And California's Attorney General, Earl Warren, approved.

The Japanese in Hawaii were not interned, although they were closer to Japan and at the center of operations of the Pacific war. They benefited from the lesser bigotry of people in the Hawaiian Islands and from their number. As a third of the work force in the islands, removing them would have destroyed the islands' economy, and somehow the danger from sabotage failed to materialize as an issue.


Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, chapter 11, by Herbert P Bix, 2000

At Dawn We Slept, by Gordon W. Prange, 2001

Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath, by John Toland, 1991

Amercian Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, Chapters 4 and 5, by William Manchester, 1978

MacArthur and Defeat in the Philippines, by Richard Connaughton, 2001

Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: the American People 1939 – 1945, by Geoffrey Perrett, 1985

Japanese Foreign Policy on the eve of the Pacific war, a Soviet View, by Leonid N. Kutakov, 1972

"The Pearl Harbor Raid Revisited," by Alvin D Coox, Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Fall 1994

Day of Deceit, by Robert B. Stinnett, The Free Press, 2001

Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.