Revisiting a WWII internment camp, to keep its story from fading
Editor’s note: This column was submitted in response to a presentation at the Badger Club discussed in the Herald on Jan. 15.
On Dec. 7, the 75th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor commemorated the sacrifice of 2,403 American servicemen. A counter-narrative has surfaced regarding the 75th anniversary of Japanese Americans relocation from the West Coast.
Forty-two years after Roosevelt’s executive order 9066, a Commission on Wartime Relocations and Internment of Civilians of Civilians proclaimed that the policy was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime, hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” At the time, the policy was overwhelmingly supported and included then Attorney General of California, Earl Warren, and Congressman Henry Jackson of Washington. The Supreme Court’s Korematsu ruling upheld its constitutionality. The specific 1941-42 historical circumstances render facile analogies to present controversies problematic at best.
First, it wasn’t “racism,” but the naked aggression of Imperial Japan that prompted the American response. Were other Asians, namely the Chinese and Koreans, targeted for racist attacks? Yes — but by the Japanese who treated them as sub-humans as well as American POWs who were systematically brutalized.
More than 131,028 Filipinos were casualties of war crimes, leading to the trial and execution of General Yamashita. In 1937, Japanese forces raped and slaughtered 200,000 Chinese in the Nanking Massacre. Korean women functioned as sex slaves, or more euphemistically “comfort girls.” The Japanese officials remain evasive in offering any apology. Unlike the United States, no reparations have been forthcoming. Before pontificating about American mistreatment in the relocation camps, critics should acknowledge the horrendous war crimes perpetrated by Imperial Japan.
The American relocation was managed discreetly. For example, of the 130,000 Japanese in Hawaii, only 1,200 to 1,800 were interned. Some 2,263 Japanese college students left the camps in order to attend college on the East Coast. Many were released for jobs. Japanese Americans were recruited for military service. More than 30,000 fought with distinction during the war. Thousands of Germans and Italians were placed in camps. Like the United States, the Canadian government relocated Japanese out of British Columbia.
Were fears of a possible attack on the West Coast and Japanese spying simply the product of war hysteria? Takeo Yoshikawa was a spy who provided Admiral Yamamoto with a detailed, invaluable description of Pearl Harbor. On the Hawaiian Island of Niihau, a downed Japanese pilot was assisted by three Japanese Americans. Two were later imprisoned. In the Philippines, of fifth column of Japanese residents welcomed and collaborated with the invading Japanese military. American intelligence intercepted Japanese military communications, revealing espionage activities and the intention to enlist Japanese Americans.
In the relocation camps, residents’ loyalties were vetted. Among the questions posed were: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States in combat and wherever ordered?” (17 percent said no.) Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any attack by foreign or domestic forces and foreswear any form of obedience to the Japanese Emperor or other foreign power, government or organization?” (20 percent said no.) Eventually, 5,589 Japanese renounced their American citizenship with another 1,327 being repatriated to Japan. The most recalcitrant internees, some of whom beat up pro-American residents, were reassigned to the Tule Lake facility. While the vast majority of Japanese Americans were loyal, a significant minority posed a potential threat to American national security.
Undoubtedly, those interned suffered material loss and should have obtained restitution. The “ex parte Endo” clause in the Korematsu decision stated that “whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detain other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.”
Without evoking “racism” or dismissing any national security threat, the vetting process should have been conducted more expeditiously with an early release. Ironically, Japanese-Americans today are discriminated against because of their very success in this country. Stigmatized as over-achievers, they are subjected to affirmative action quota systems in colleges that deprive them of admission. While FDR’s policy had its shortcomings, it was not racist. Critics of its military justification presume an outcome to the war that was hardly preordained in 1941.
Gary Bullert, an associate professor at Columbia Basin College, graduated from Stanford University and earned a doctorate in political science from Claremont Graduate School.