February 21, 2024
Japanese Internment Camps

Japanese Internment Camps in the United States

Just off of US Highway 395, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, motorists can find one of the black eyes of American history. There stands the Manzanar War Relocation Center in which thousands of Japanese-Americans were confined during World War II. It is a harsh reminder of civil liberties being restricted during wartime.

Manzanar was not the only internment camp; it is the best preserved of ten camps in seven states. These were constructed in response to President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Enacted on February 19, 1942, it stated that local military commanders could designate “military areas” as “exclusion zones”, from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This translated to the removal of all people with Japanese ancestry from within 100 miles of the west coast of the United States, except for those confined in camps. The order was supported by the Supreme Court when challenged in 1943 and 1944.

Some people were able to find new homes inland. These residents, whom the government referred to as having “enemy blood”, were required to file change of address forms. However, people’s assets were quickly frozen, and more than 100,000 Japanese- Americans and resident Japanese aliens were forced into camps. People had to quickly sell their homes and bring only what they could carry. More than 60% were US citizens.

The Japanese-Americans were also given the options to join the US Army or to renounce their American citizenship. (The Civil Liberties Union said that such recruitment and renunciations were coerced.) About 1,200 people joined the armed forces. About 6,000 gave up their US citizenship; approximately 1,300 were deported to Japan.

The federal government began compiling potential lists of detainees in 1940, but the internments were the culmination of long-standing tensions between whites and Asian immigrants, especially in California. Laws had already been passed to discourage Japanese immigration, prohibit citizenship, and even prohibit land ownership. California law also banned the intermarriage of Caucasians and Asians. Once internment began, it was supported on racist and economic grounds by white farmers who had competed with Japanese landowners.

After Japan attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Americans feared a west coast invasion. In California, people worried that Japanese-Americans would support an invasion by poisoning water supplies or setting brush fires. The round-up zones were later extended to include the west coast, however, as fear of Japanese spies grew. Approximately one third of the country’s territory was affected. A similar Canadian program was underway in British Columbia. The United States government also arrested more than 2,000 people of Japanese descent living in other countries, with the main focus being on Japanese Peruvians.

When the internment program began, its leader, General John DeWitt, revealed his fear and racism in stating, “American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… [W]e must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.” The government also had smaller camps for Italians and Germans.

Most internment camps were located on Native American reservations without tribal permission. The government provided only primitive shelter, and sometimes the prisoners had to construct the barracks themselves. Families lived in tarpaper-covered barracks. They did not have plumbing or their own cooking facilities. The food ration was less than 50 cents per meal, and people ate in groups of 250-300. About 2,000 college students were permitted to leave for campus.

President Roosevelt rescinded the internment order two and a half years later in 1944. The last camp closed in 1945. People were given just $25 and a train ticket to home.

The government has made a few attempts to redress the wartime situation. Some compensation was given for property loss in 1948. Forty years later, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act. This granted $20,000 to each of 60,000 survivors for their forced incarceration. Perhaps more importantly, it stated that the removal and incarceration were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. President George H. W. Bush issued a formal apology in 1989.