Personal Justice Denied
Government Printing Office, 1982.
For many people, the government’s current focus on Muslims and Arabs in the United States as "potential terrorists" is a chilling reminder of the persecution of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Today, in accordance with broadly-defined notions of "national security" and "fighting terrorism," Muslims and Arabs are being scrutinized in INS courtrooms, during routine traffic stops, and at airports. They are being selected by the Department of Justice for informational, not-so-voluntary "interviews." Hundreds are behind bars for alleged visa violations or are being held as "material witnesses." Due in part to the new police powers outlined in the USA-Patriot Act, non-citizens from dozens of countries are now threatened with detention without bail, closed hearings with secret evidence, and deportation. As a nation, we should have learned our lesson. We’ve been down this bleak road before. During World War II, we cruelly and needlessly imprisoned some 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry for up to four years. Profiling on the basis of national origin or descent was ineffective and unfair then, as it is turning out to be now.
Commission investigates WWII camps
In 1981, thirty-five years after the final internment camp for Japanese Americans was closed, Congress formed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to examine the policy that led to the creation of those camps. The Commission conducted a series of hearings throughout the nation at which more than 750 witnesses—including former detainees, former government officials, and researchers who had studied the internment—gave testimony, and compiled its findings in a 350-page book titled Personal Justice Denied (PJD). In PJD, the Commission concluded that the detentions had not been driven by military necessity, but by war hysteria, racial prejudice, and a lack of political leadership. "All this was done," stated the report, "despite the fact that not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast."
The Commission recommended that Congress pass a resolution apologizing for the grave injustice done to Japanese Americans, offer reparations in the amount of $20,000 to each of the 60,000 prison camp survivors, and expunge the records of persons of Japanese ancestry convicted of violating the West Coast curfew in 1942. In 1988 Congress acted on all of those recommendations with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act.
The internment’s racist background
By the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, people of Japanese descent in the United States had been suffering discrimination for decades. With Pearl Harbor, racist and nativist sentiments escalated to a frenzied pitch. Immediately after the bombing, several hundred Japanese nationals were arrested. People of Japanese descent were beaten on the streets and fired from their jobs (in several California counties, public employees were fired as a matter of policy). Law enforcement officers went door-to-door in Japanese-American neighborhoods, searching homes, fingerprinting people, and enforcing a curfew. Japanese-language newspapers were banned and U.S. servicemen of Japanese descent were discharged from the military.
To no avail, the Japanese American Citizens League declared its loyalty to the United States and stated its desire to aid the U.S. war effort. The sentiment that carried the day was that Japanese Americans were the "Achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort," and that "unless something is done it may bring about a repetition of Pearl Harbor," in the words of Earl Warren, then Attorney General in California and later chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox contributed to the clamor for control of ethnic Japanese, asserting immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that people of Japanese descent in the United States had aided the attack. Shortly thereafter the government received new information refuting Knox’s accusation, yet they did not make it public; in so doing, they let the original, false information stand.
Interestingly, Japanese Americans were singled out for repression although the U.S. was at war not only with Japan, but also with Germany and Italy. "No mass exclusion or detention, in any part of the country, was ordered against American citizens of German or Italian descent," reads PJD. "Official actions against enemy aliens of other nationalities were much more individualized and selective than those imposed on the ethnic Japanese."
One can only explain the selective treatment of ethnic Japanese people as racism, especially considering the provocative rhetoric of government officials and the media. "The Japanese race is an enemy race," stated Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command, "and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial strains are undiluted." As summarized in PJD, DeWitt’s position was that "ethnicity determined loyalty."
The evacuation begins
The official harassment of Japanese Americans culminated on February 19, 1942, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signature of Executive Order 9066 authorizing the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. People of Japanese descent—citizens and non-citizens alike—were sent letters giving them seven days, typically, to report to relocation processing centers. In that short period of time people had to sell most of their possessions, including homes and businesses, for they could bring only what they could carry. Many were forced to sell their property for a small fraction of its value.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of despair and humiliation experienced by all of us as we watched the Caucasians coming to look over our possessions and offering such nominal amounts knowing we had no recourse but to accept whatever they were offering because we did not know what the future held for us.
—Yasuko Ito, San Francisco, August 13, 1981 [p. 132]
People who were like vultures swooped down on us going through our belongings offering us a fraction of their value. When we complained to them of the low price they would respond by saying, "you can’t take it with you so take it or leave it."
—Roy Abbey, San Francisco, unsolicited testimony [p. 132]
The detainees spent their first 100 or so days in relocation centers, typically located in fairgrounds, racetracks, abandoned military facilities, migrant work camps, and stockyards. From there they were herded to one of ten relocation camps in the interior of the western United States. Those camps were located in desolate and windy places, some with bitterly cold winters. The facilities were surrounded with barbed wire, watchtowers, and armed guards. People were housed in hastily constructed barracks; each family, regardless of size, was assigned one room approximately 20 feet by 25 feet.
Today there is a sign at Minidoka Camp in Idaho which reads: "Victims of wartime hysteria, these people, two-thirds of whom were United States citizens, lived a bleak humiliating life in tar-paper barracks behind barbed wire and under armed guard."
At the entrance [to the Tanforan assembly center] ... stood two lines of troops with rifles and fixed bayonets pointed at the evacuees as they walked between the soldiers to the prison compound. Overwhelmed with bitterness and blind rage, I screamed every obscenity I knew at the armed guards daring them to shoot at me.
—William Kochiyama, New York, November 23, 1981 [p. 136]
On May 16, 1942 at 9:30 a.m., we departed ... for an unknown destination. To this day, I can remember vividly the plight of the elderly, some on stretchers, orphans herded onto the train by caretakers, and especially a young couple with four pre-school children. The mother had two frightened toddlers hanging on to her coat. In her arms, she carried two crying babies. The father had diapers and other baby paraphernalia strapped to his back. In his hands he struggled with duffel bag and suitcase. The shades were drawn on the train for our entire trip. Military police patrolled the aisles.
—Grace Nakamura, Los Angeles, August 6, 1981 [p. 136]
At Parker, Arizona, we were transferred to buses. With baggage and carryalls hanging from my arm, I was contemplating what I could leave behind, since my husband was not allowed to come to my aid. A soldier said, ‘Let me help you, put your arm out.’ He proceeded to pile everything on my arm. And to my horror, he placed my two-month-old baby on top of the stack. He then pushed me with the butt of the gun and told me to get off the train, knowing when I stepped off the train my baby would fall to the ground. I refused. But he kept prodding and ordering me to move. I will always be thankful [that] a lieutenant checking the cars came upon us. He took the baby down, gave her to me, and then ordered the soldier to carry all our belongings to the bus and see that I was seated and then report back to him.
—Shizuko S. Tokushige, San Francisco, August 12, 1981 [p. 151]
One of the most Kafka-esque aspects of the entire prison-camp experience was the expectation that prisoners profess loyalty to their jailors. Children, for instance, had to begin each day by saluting the U.S. flag and singing "My Country ’Tis of Thee." And beginning in early 1943, all camp occupants over the age of seventeen were presented with loyalty questionnaires. Among the questions asked was: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic sources, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?" Refusal to respond affirmatively to that question resulted in being shipped off to a segregation facility.
The most tragic, as well as traumatic, event that happened during my stay in Tule Lake that still remains with me is the questionnaire with the loyalty oath that was required of all of us to answer. I have never even mentioned this to my children. This, as you may know, was a controversial document that affected each of us 17 years of age or older, in one way or another. We were forced into concentration camps by the government, and then we were being forced into taking a loyalty oath. Furthermore, at this point there was no indication as to what the consequences would be for refusing. We had area block meetings on the issue. ... We voted, at that time, as a block, not to sign the loyalty oath.
—Frank Kageta, San Francisco, August 13, 1981 [p. 194-195]
The closing of the camps
The order to close the camps finally came on December 17, 1944. Most of the prisoners were released between January and September of 1945. Tule Lake was the last camp to close, on March 20, 1946.
One controversial question raised in PJD is why the incarceration lasted so long. Back in May 1944, Secretary of War Henry Stimson had first informed President Roosevelt and his cabinet that, due to the overwhelmingly positive responses to the loyalty questionnaire, there was no longer a military necessity for the mass imprisonment. Roosevelt, however, was campaigning for re-election at the time and knew that the camps were popular with the voting public. He responded to Stimson’s announcement by tabling the matter until the first cabinet meeting following the November election. "The inescapable conclusion from this factual pattern," states PJD, "is that the delay was motivated by political considerations."
With their release from the camps, Japanese Americans found their troubles had not ended. They were given one-way train tickets to their cities of prior residence, where they were greeted with hostility from their former neighbors and with organized violence by anti-Japanese citizens’ groups. Few had homes or jobs waiting for them, and with little or no savings they found it difficult to get reestablished. Approximately 8,000 Japanese Americans chose to leave the country.
Officials later express regret
Many of the architects of the policy of internment, in later years, came to regret their actions. Stimson, for instance, noted that "to loyal citizens this forced evacuation was a personal injustice." Francis Biddle, U.S. Attorney General at the time [think Ashcroft], wrote in his autobiography that "the program was ill-advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel." Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who ruled with the majority in a case upholding the constitutionality of the internment, wrote that the decision "was ever on my conscience." And Earl Warren admitted, "I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens."
One of the most disturbing revelations of PJD was that there was virtually no public opposition to the internment camps. The American Civil Liberties Union, Society of Friends (Quakers), and Federal Council of Churches were among the few groups to go on record opposing the policy, however street protests or other demonstrations of opposition are nowhere to be found in history books. As reported in PJD, "those representing the interests of civil rights and civil liberties in Congress, the press and other public forums were silent or indeed supported exclusion. Thus there was no effective opposition to the measures vociferously sought by numerous West Coast interest groups, politicians and journalists."
Thankfully, the measures undertaken today against Muslims and Arabs in the United States are not as drastic as those against Japanese Americans during World War II. Perhaps we have progressed. Still, there exists a frightening attitude that it is okay to sacrifice civil liberties during times of war. The "better safe than sorry" attitude that legitimizes the arrests, deportations, and interviews of Muslims and Arabs is a frightening foreshadowing of what could lay ahead if we do not act to preserve those rights that make the United States a beacon of domestic liberty around the world
Signed Elements ©