At 7:55, a U.S. Navy Signal tower telephoned the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, “Enemy air raid, not a drill.” Right then, Japanese Torpedo planes commenced their attack. 21 planes ripped through the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, sinking the U.S.S. Utah, among others. U.S. sailors heroically fought against the Japanese planes, getting their guns shooting in less than ten minutes. Despite this, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor struck a devastating blow to the U.S. Navy.
U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) declared war against Japan the next day (December 8, 1941) after his famous speech on Pearl Harbor. He called the surprise attack “a day which will live in infamy.” The Declaration of War passed both houses with only one dissenting vote. The U.S. was at war.
FDR had many problems preparing the United States for war against the Axis powers. His first priority became defending the country against further Japanese attacks. Many advisors suggested he make an effort concerning Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, some wishing to keep them away, others to support them. FDR was indecisive, exacerbating the problem. Paranoia and hysteria, normally ravings of scared citizens, became evidence for elected officials. Some US leaders thought Japanese-Americans were coordinating with Japanese submarines to attack US ports and military facilities. Most reports ended up being unfounded, but this completely fabricated assumption became the basis for this whole story.
Large newspapers and other media began propagating the myth of widespread Japanese sabotage. Numerous Californians sent letters to the White House urging evacuation of all West Coast Japanese Americans. Secretary of War Henry Stimson supported the mass evacuation of Japanese-Americans, and ultimately gained the President’s weak support. FDR later had Stimson write up Executive Order 9066. The executive order that confined American citizens to camps for an undefined period of time doesn’t contain the words “Japanese,” “internment,” or “evacuation,” but the creators of the order knew its purpose. The order gave military leaders power to select “military areas,” where they could then drain all Japanese from, then pour them all out somewhere else. It gave the military extraordinary power, using the guise of military necessity.
Despite the beliefs of many well-informed White House and government officials, there had not been any reliable evidence that Japanese-Americans were committing sabotage against the US. Saboteurs supporting Japan were generally Caucasian, not Asian. This supports the belief that Japanese internment was motivated, generally, by racial animosity, not legitimate military reasons. Germans were never rounded up en masse as the Japanese were, though some individuals were detained. Some Italians were rounded up, then let go almost immediately.
Japanese in the prescribed areas were given weeks, sometimes days, to prepare for departure. They were forced to either sell what possessions they had or leave them with a white friend. Many narratives are shared in Robert Reeves book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese Internment in World War II. One such narrative comes from a Bill Hosokawa, who talks about trucks being driven around, asking for ten bucks for a refrigerator, or fifteen dollars for a piano. Many Japanese didn’t have a choice. One Japanese couple, the Takayoshi, were forced to sell their 1940 car for twenty-five dollars!
Japanese were bad worded to rendezvous points, where they were then sent to “relocation centers,” while the government tried to figure out what to do.
Though we know this whole event as “Japanese internment,” it didn’t start out that way. Most officials seemed to think that Japanese would move east voluntarily. The rest were originally planned to be moved west, but other central states didn’t want them either. Logistics became a nightmare, and plans were changed. The camps were simply the end of a chain-reaction of governmental mishaps.
After FDR’s Order 9066, US civilians had taken it as a certainty that Japanese were betraying America, so average Americans trusted their Japanese brothers even less. Governors now didn’t want Japanese roaming free in their states, and the WRA was forced to make camps. The ten “war-duration relocation centers,” one of which was in Utah, would be patrolled by armed soldiers.
One such camp, located in Manzanar, California, was a barren wasteland. The internees lived in dirty barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers armed with machine guns. The barracks were filthy, and though they were boarded, it was easily possible to see the dirt below. They slept on hay mattresses; the faucet they drank from wouldn’t thaw until noon. As internee Yuri Tateishi said, “It was depressing, a primitive feeling.”
The Utah camp, located at Topaz Mountain, was almost inhospitable. Powerful windstorms would attack the internees from time to time. Dust would make it through the weak walls of barracks and make it hard to breathe. In fact, some barracks would get blown off their foundations into the desert. Life was hell, and there were “numerous suicides and suicide attempts” (Quote from Reeves).
One of the most despicable things about the camps became the presupposition that Japanese-Americans were the enemy. This came in the form of surrounding them with barbed wire and armed guards. Reeves addresses this: “More than a dozen Japanese men had been killed or wounded by soldiers guarding them.” This was truly a dark era in our history, and it isn’t in our distant past.
Years passed, and as anti-Japanese hysteria slowed, some Japanese started leaving camps and rejoining the society they had been ostracized from. Some young men joined the military, forming the all-Japanese 442nd Regiment. Reeves points out that the 442nd was “the most honored combat unit per capita in American military history.”
After a few Supreme Court decisions and the end of the war in the Pacific, the government started the process of closing the camps. Some had left, but many had stayed. “The … camps, miserable as they could be, had become the new homes of a majority of American Japanese, the only homes most of them had when the war ended.” The Japanese Americans had nowhere to go. A later report said that only 25% of farm operators had retained their property. Japanese-Americans ended up getting treated just as bad as before in some cases. Even veterans, like the famous Daniel Inouye, were denied services because of their ancestry. Maybe the inability for Japanese-Americans to return to their normal lives after the war was worse than the camps themselves.
The Internment of Japanese Americans is accepted as a dark portion of US history. I took a look at conservative Michelle Malkin’s book, given the inflammatory title of In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in WWII and the War on Terror. On the back, there is a selection from the book:
“It is unfortunate that well-intentioned Arabs and Muslims might be burdened because of terrorists who share their race, nationality or religion. But any inconvenience, no matter how bothersome or offensive, is preferable to being incinerated at your office desk by a flaming hijacked plane.”
The ideas that led to the internment of Japanese-Americans are still in play to this day. Yet, even at the beginning of American history, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”