National Security, Racism, Detention: The Relocation of California's Japanese-American Population

“Men, particularly in political matters, are not guided by the facts but by their opinion about the facts,” Sir Norman Angell once observed. Though Angell, recipient of the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize, made this observation decades ago, it holds an eerie resonance today and serves as a useful frame for thinking about one of the tragedies of California and U.S. history: the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

In recent months, certain political figures have suggested that the Japanese internment provides a legitimate precedent for new forms of detention. When looking back objectively at the Work Relocation Authority and its camps, however, one discovers how false reporting and suppression of evidence by the military and government, racism, and economic jealousy conspired to deprive American citizens of their rights.

The Setting

Life for Asians and Asian-Americans in the U.S. had never been easy. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, federal and state policies targeted them for discrimination. Whites in the West and California expressed a particularly virulent form of xenophobia, passing Alien Land Laws that forbade property ownership by Asians.

Despite such obstacles, Asians, particularly Japanese-Americans, found ways to flourish. In the face of immigration restrictions and the inability for many to attain citizenship, Japanese-Americans hacked out a living with gradually increasing numbers. By the early 1940s, 112,000 persons of Japanese descent – a majority of them American citizens – lived along the West Coast, 93,000 of them in California. Many had gone into agriculture and, though often relegated to marginal lands that whites refused to farm, prospered.[1]

How much so? Though the Japanese represented only one percent of California’s population, by 1940 their farms accounted for nearly half the state’s output of commercial truck crops. Having brought with them agricultural practices honed over centuries in Japan, they improved the quality of produce while also lowering costs. This success, however, created resentment and jealousy among their white counterparts who coveted their land and property.  

Combined with racism and fact of the Japanese’ minority status, this economic resentment did not bode well for Japanese-Americans. Several years of media reports threatening conflict and foretelling invasion by “waves and waves of fanatic emperor worshipping yellow men” – aided covertly by docile-seeming Japanese gardeners and fishermen – fanned jealousy and only heightened white fears and prejudices.[2] Talk of “fifth columns,” lack of assimilation, and an inability to separate the loyal from the disloyal pervaded public discourse about Japanese-Americans.

Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, on Dec. 7, 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo courtesy of the USC Libraries – Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive.

The Impact of Racism and War

Such ignorance impacted policy decisions in real ways. U.S. military leaders believed the Japanese would attack via sabotage by local residents of Japanese ancestry, which lead officials to make dubious strategic decisions. “Worse than being unprepared,” Nate Silver noted in his 2012 book “The Signal and the Noise,” “we had mistaken our ignorance for knowledge and made ourselves more vulnerable as a result.” Believing the Japanese would attack through Japanese nationals living in Hawaii, at Pearl Harbor “they stuck all the airplanes close together, so they could be protected,” against sabotage, Donald Rumsfeld told Silver in an interview. “So of course the bombers came and they were enormously vulnerable, and they were destroyed.”[3]

The tragedy of Pearl Harbor nudged the inertia of prejudice to its logical conclusion. Racist media portrayals set the stage on one hand, but so too did government policy. As early as 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated programs vetting Japanese-Americans believed to be disloyal; he imposed no such investigation upon Italian and German-Americans at the time.[4] The government disregarded and suppressed a secret report by State Department official Curtis Munson which found that Japanese-Americans along the West Coast and in Hawaii demonstrated “a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty . . .”; Nisei (persons born in the U.S. to Japanese immigrants) especially, he argued, in admittedly problematic language, “show a pathetic eagerness to be Americans.” [5]

Munson’s report mattered little to military leaders, who asserted that the lack of sabotage demonstrated its very possible reality: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”[6] After Pearl Harbor, though Attorney General Francis Biddle and even famously paranoid FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover opposed internment, Western Division commandant Gen. John Dewitt embraced the idea. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy agreed. “If it is a question of safety of the country, [or] the Constitution of the United States, why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me,” he told Biddle. Years later, McCloy admitted in Congressional hearings that internment had been “retribution for the attack on Pearl Harbor.”[7]

"I Am An American" – sign placed by a Japanese-American shop owner

"I am an American" sign placed in the window of Japanese-American business following Pearl Harbor on December 8 in Oakland, California. Circa March 1942 photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Baggage belonging to evacuees of Japanese ancestry at an assembly center in Salinas, California, prior to a War Relocation Authority center, March - April 1942

Baggage belonging to evacuees of Japanese ancestry at an assembly center in Salinas, California, March/April 1942. Photo by Clem Albers, courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Executive Order 9066

On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing more than 100,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast into internment camps. (It should be noted that Roosevelt’s order targeted Italian-Americans, as well, though not as systematically as Japanese-Americans.) In addition to disrupting lives, burdening families with emotional stress, and violating constitutional rights, it cost internees upwards of $400 million in losses (roughly, more than $5 billion in today’s dollars).[8]

Some, like Milton Eisenhower, recognized the immorality of internment immediately. “[W]hen this war is over … we, as Americans, are going to regret the injustices” committed in the name of national security, he noted in April 1942. Eisenhower (brother of Dwight D.) served as director of the Work Relocation Authority (WRA) but found his appointment so disturbing he resigned only a few months in, confiding in his successor that he could not sleep at night.[9]

Yet, many Americans such as Gen. Dewitt and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black believed internment was justified. In 1943, Dewitt told a Congressional subcommittee that no way to test Japanese-American loyalty existed: “It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen. He is still a Japanese … [W]e must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”[10] Black demonstrated the same blind prejudice: “People were rightly fearful of the Japanese in Los Angeles, many loyal to the United States, many undoubtedly not. They all look alike to a person not a Jap.”

When the WRA was placed under the auspices of his Interior Department in 1944, Secretary Harold L. Ickes, an opponent of internment, received hate mail denigrating Japanese-Americans and his attempts to roll back the policy. “If you think the people of Southern California want any of your Jap Family back here in uniform or otherwise you are badly mistaken,” wrote one Californian.[11] The Huntington Park branch of the Veterans of Foreign Wars argued much the same, asserting that the “Jap is a menace to our American way of life, he has been an object of suspicion and distrust for years on this coast … he is a Fox in the hen house . . . ”[12] Another letter writer gave the Secretary of the Interior the title “Honorable Hirohito L. Ickes.”

California’s elected officials sometimes spread the same bigotry. Assemblyman Chester F. Gannon also questioned Japanese-American patriotism: “Long ago we found that one cannot tell a loyal from a disloyal Japanese and we know that neither you nor those who advise with you can either.” He later raised the specter of interracial marriage between Japanese-American men and white women. “I wonder, if [WRA administrator Dillon Myer] has a daughter, would he be willing to sacrifice her to the first generation of this unnatural blood mingling.”[13]

Postcard addressed to "Honorable Hirohito L Ickes

Postcard addressed to "Honorable Hirohito L Ickes", May 26, 1944, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Chester Gannon to Harold L. Ickes

California Assemblyman Chester F. Gannon to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harlod L. Ickes, April 27, 1944, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Story continues below


Of course, Japanese-Americans performed heroically during the war. Nisei soldiers served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which emerged as among the most decorated combat units of World War II.[14] These sacrifices frequently went unacknowledged or even purposely ignored by white Californians. In Gardena, residents refused to allow Japanese-American names on a war plaque honoring the fallen. “Some people said their boys’ names would have to come off if the Japanese names were put on,” Walter Kelly, Quartermaster of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told journalists.[15]

Internees refused to accept their imprisonment, as several challenged internment in court. As the cases made their way through the federal judicial system, the government and military repeatedly suppressed evidence and presented conspiracy theories “peddled by West Coast right wing and Anti-Asian groups,” as fact when in reality they proved little more than “unfounded rumor mongering,” writes legal historian William Wiecek.[16] Major cases reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 with Hirabayashi v. U.S. and in 1944 with Ex parte Endo and ­– most famous of all – Korematsu v. U.S.

Fred Korematsu had been born in Oakland, where he worked as a shipyard welder. His family had been sent to the Army’s Tanforan Assembly Center, but he attempted to flee to the Midwest – undergoing plastic surgery to obscure his racial identity – before being arrested on May 30, 1942, in San Leandro, California. His judicial appeal did not wholly fall on deaf ears – Justices Robert Jackson, Owen Roberts, and Frank Murphy issued harsh dissents – but, behind the majority opinion by Justice Black, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of internment. Almost immediately the ruling attracted criticism. Over the years, legal experts like Geoffrey Stone have described it as a “constitutional pariah.”[17] Wiecek argues it was “schizophrenic … unpersuasive in its arguments, and ambiguous in its ultimate impact.” Moreover, in the related case decided the same day as Korematsu’s, Ex parte Endo, the court ruled that the government could not detain citizens deemed to be “loyal.”

Cert Memo, Korematsu v. U.S., 1943

Cert Memo, Korematsu v. U.S., OT 1943, circa1943, William O. Douglas Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

If one wants to find a silver lining, the court’s opinion in Korematsu, despite its support for internment, represented the Supreme Court’s most explicit statement on the illegality of racial prejudice in government policy to that date. It laid the groundwork for the “strict scrutiny” standard, the highest level of judicial review by the Supreme Court, which would become a hallmark of civil rights jurisprudence in subsequent decades.[18]

A day before the Korematsu ruling, December 17, 1944, the army announced that those remaining in WRA camps were to be released. As early as May of that year, Secretary of War Stimson had told Roosevelt that Japanese-Americans no longer represented a military threat, but the president worried about the November election and, needing California’s electoral votes, decided to maintain the camps until after the election. When faced with a choice between reason and politics,” historian Jay Winik writes, Roosevelt “chose politics: the 1944 election trumped all other concerns.”[19] 

Though the government released a small number of internees it had deemed “loyal” in mid-1944, the vast majority remained imprisoned until January 1945. The final camp would close in 1946. Some former internees encountered violence, which Ickes publicly denounced as “a pattern of planned terrorism by hoodlums.” However, most did not and did their best to rebuild their lives. Ironically, many would settle in places like Gardena where they had once been shunned. In Gardena’s case, the community would be transformed into one of the first Japanese-American suburbs and benefitted mightily from the transnational Pacific Rim connections of its returning and new residents. Still, in the wake of internment, much had been lost.

Facing internment, many farmers had sold off their lands at cut-rate prices. The Farm Security Administration aided white farmers in the process, sometimes even providing “special loans” to purchase the lands.[20] Those who merely leased the land had seen their leases abruptly canceled. Farm machinery had been sold off or appropriated. Japanese-American businesses had held fire sales; in some cases, the government had confiscated crops. Business owners had endured similar travails. In Los Angeles local signs advertising “EVACUATION SALE” were not unusual as homeowners sold off household goods at a fraction of their value; grand pianos worth hundreds of dollars, for example, sold for $5 to $10.[21]   

Other, more personal indignities occurred. Japanese-Americans had been forced to accept with unimaginable grace a violation of their constitutional rights. One restaurant proprietor posted this message in its window: "Many thanks for your Patronage. Hope to Serve you in Near future. God be with you till we meet again." Pets had been given away or euthanized. Upon return, some Japanese-Americans discovered people occupying their homes and were forced to pursue evictions through the courts.[22]

“If violated, the Constitution will not flap its papery wings, fly from the Archives, and attack the wrongdoer,” NPR’s Peter Sagal recently tweeted. Constitutional rights are fragile things; John McCloy was not totally wrong when he called the nation’s founding document “a scrap of paper.” Our rights as citizens must be protected, even fought for. After all, even when a community does everything right, it can still be wronged.

Headlines of Harold Ickes denouncing violence against returning Japanese Americans

Headlines of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes denouncing violence against returning Japanese-Americans, circa May 1945, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress

"West Coast Incidents"

"West Coast Incidents", May 1945, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress


[1] Michi Nishiura Weglyn, “The Secret Munson Report”, in Asian American Studies Now, Eds. Jean Yu-wen Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 195.

[2] Weglyn, “The Secret Munson Report”, 196.

[3] Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t, (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 415-416. See also Roberta Wohlstetter, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962)

[4] Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), 288.

[5] Michi Nishiura Weglyn, “The Secret Munson Report”, 194, 204

[6] Michi Nishiura Weglyn, “The Secret Munson Report”, 198.

[7] William M. Wiecek, The Oliver Holmes Devise Volume XII: The Birth of the Modern Constitution, The United States Supreme Court, 1941-1953, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 357.

[8] Jay Winik, 1944: FDR and the Year the Changed History, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 447.

[9] Stone, Perilous Times, 204; Winik, 1944, 447.

[10] Wiecek, The Oliver Holmes Devise Volume XII, 348; Stone, Perilous Times, 204.

[11] Harold W. Tutt to Harold Ickes, April 14, 1944, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] L. Frank Henaman to Harold L. Ickes, May 3, 1944, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[13] Chester F. Gannon to Harold L. Ickes, April 27, 1944, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

[14] Kevin Starr, California: A History, (New York: The Modern Library, 2005), 227.

[15] Daily News Digest of the Interior Department, December 15, 1944, Harold L. Ickes Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[16] Wiecek, The Oliver Holmes Devise Volume XII, 347-350.

[17] Stone, Perilous Times, 307.

[18] Wiecek, The Oliver Holmes Devise Volume XII, 347.

[19] Winik, 1944, 448.

[20] William Hohri, Repairing America: An Account of the Movement for Japanese American Redress, (Pullman, WA: Washington State Press, 1978), 161.

[21] Massie and Richard Conrat, Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans, (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1992), 49.

[22] Sandra Taylor, Jewel of the Desert Japanese American Internment at Topaz, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 52; John Tateshi, And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 9; additionally, see also the Tolan Committee Hearings from the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, February and March 1942.

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