The Japanese Camps in California

World War II West Coast Camps for Japanese-Americans

By Mark Weber

In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many expected an immediate attack against the West Coast. Fear gripped the country and a wave of hysterical antipathy against the Japanese engulfed the Pacific Coast.

The FBI quickly began rounding up any and all "suspicious" Japanese for internment. None was ever charged with any crime. Almost all were simply Japanese community leaders, Buddhist or Shinto priests, newspaper editors, language or Judo instructors, or labor organizers. The Japanese community leadership was liquidated in one quick operation.

Men were taken away without notice. Most families knew nothing about why their men had suddenly disappeared, to where they were taken, or when they would be released. Some arrestees were soon let free, but most were secretly shipped to internment camps around the country. Some families learned what had happened to their men only several years later. The action also included the freezing of bank accounts, seizure of contraband, drastic limitation on travel, curfew and other severely restrictive measures. But this FBI operation merely set the stage for the mass evacuation to come.

In February 1942, Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, Commanding General of the Western Defense Command, requested authorization from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to evacuate "Japanese and other subversive persons" from the West Coast area. On February 19, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War or any military commander to establish "military areas" and to exclude from them "any or all persons. A month later, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9102 establishing the War Relocation Authority, which eventually operated the internment camps. Roosevelt named Milton Eisenhower, brother of the future president, to head the WRA.

Without a murmur of dissent, the Congress quickly affirmed Executive Order 9066 with the passage of Public Law 77-503.

Beginning in March, the Army organized the evacuation of some 77 000 U.S. citizens of Japanese origin ("Nisei") and 43 000 mostly older Japanese citizens ("Issei") from California and parts of Washington, Oregon and Arizona.

Posters appeared the length of the West Coast ordering the Japanese to evacuation points. "Instructions to all persons of JAPANESE ancestry," read the bold headline on a typical poster. The text read: "All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above designated areas by 12:00 o'clock noon Tuesday, April 7, 1942." The evacuees were told to report for internment with bedrolls and only as much baggage as could be carried by hand. (A postwar survey showed that 80 percent of the privately stored goods belonging to the interned Japanese were "rifled, stolen or sold during absence.")

The 23,000 Japanese living on the West Coast of Canada, three-fourths of whom were Canadian citizens, were also rounded up. They were not permitted back into British Columbia until March 1949, seven years after the evacuation and three and a half years after the end of the war.

The State Department told the Latin American countries to round up their Japanese. The United States paid for the cost of the hemispheric evacuation. More than 2000 Japanese were shipped from more than a dozen Latin American countries to detention camps in the United States. Most were sent by Peru, which wanted to permanently eliminate all Japanese and refused to allow reentry of those held in the U.S. after the end of the war.

Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay set up their own internment camp programs. To their credit, Argentina and Chile did not break diplomatic relations with the Axis until late in the war, and only then under tremendous U.S. pressure. As a result, their Japanese were not rounded up. The rationale for the West Coast evacuation was "military necessity." But that claim was inconsistent with the fact that the Japanese living on Hawaii were not subject to mass incarceration. Hawaii was in far greater danger of invasion than the West Coast. The population of Hawaii was 38 percent Japanese, as compared to only about one percent in California. All except a small percentage of the Hawaiian Japanese remained free to keep the important island economy functioning.

The evacuation, ostensibly to protect against possible sabotage and espionage, moreover included babies, orphans, adopted children, and the infirm or bedridden elderly. Children of mixed blood, even from orphanages, were included if they had any Japanese ancestry at all. Colonel Karl Bendetsen, who directly administered the program, declared: "I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp."

It should be noted that throughout the war, members of the Communist Party actively worked to promote the interests of a foreign power and an international organization committed to the overthrow of the constitutional government of the United States. But the Communists in America were not only not restricted, they were openly encouraged and supported.

The U.S. government told Americans that our detention centers had nothing in common with the horrible concentration camps established by the enemy in Europe. The Army public relations agency continually referred to the centers as "resettlement camps" and "havens of refuge." The State Department denied that the centers were concentration camps, " but are on the contrary areas where communities are being established in which the Japanese may organize their social and economic life in safety and security under the protection of the central authorities of the United States." In a public relations piece which appeared in the September 1942 issue of Harper's, a military official writing under a false name told Americans that "In the long run the Japanese will probably profit by this painful and distressing experience."

A total of 120,000 were ultimately detained in the ten permanent mass detention camps built by the government. Were these internment centers really concentration camps? Chief Judge William Denman of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals described the Tule Lake camp this way:

The barbed-wire stockade surrounding the 18 000 people there was like that of the prison camps of the Germans. There were the same turrets for the soldiers and the same machine guns for those who might attempt to climb the high wiring

The buildings were covered with tarred paper over green and shrinking shiplap -- this for the low winter temperatures of the high elevation of Tule Lake No federal penitentiary so treats its adult prisoners. Here were the children and babies as well.

To reach the unheated latrines, which were in the center of the blocks of fourteen buildings, meant leaving the residential shacks and walking through the rain and snow -- again a lower than penitentiary treatment, even disregarding the sick and the children.

So also was the crowding of the 18 000 people in the one storey shacks In the cells of a federal penitentiary there is no such crowding. (Weglyn, p. 156)

The Army used six tanks and a battalion of military police (899 men and 31 officers) to guard the Japanese at Tule Lake, California. Several camps had electrically charged fencing, which made little sense since all the camps were invariably located in deserts or other remote and desolate areas. Every camp had searchlights which played over the living quarters at night.

Dozens of inmates were shot and wounded. Eight were killed by guards. Japanese were sometimes brutally beaten and seriously injured without reason. At Tule Lake, guards beat inmates with baseball bats.

When Japanese organized a protest demonstration at Manzanar camp in California, soldiers threw tear gas grenades on the crowd and fired into it. One inmate was killed instantly and another died later. Nine were injured.

Some Japanese committed suicide out of despair and many more died prematurely due to harsh conditions.

Three generations often lived in a single bare room, 20 by 24 feet. which comprised a "family apartment." Sometimes two or three families were crowded into a single such room. The only fixture was a hanging light bulb, except for whatever furniture the inmates could construct for themselves. In some assembly areas, families were assigned to rudely converted horse stables where the stench became oppressive in the summer heat.

All incoming and outgoing mail was censored. All internal communications were strictly controlled. The Japanese language was banned at public meetings and Japanese religious services were suppressed.

The inmates were forced to salute the flag, sing patriotic songs, and declare their allegiance to "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

One of the most significant aspects of this act of racist repression is the fact the it was not the work of a clique of fascists and right-wing militarists. Rather, it was advocated, justified and administered by men well known for their support of liberalism and democracy.

Given the almost universal condemnation of the Japanese internment program today, it is hard to realize just how solid support was for it at the time. The vast operation, as one writer points out, was "initiated by the generals, advised, ordered and supervised by the civilian heads of the War Department, authorized by the President, implemented by Congress, approved by the Supreme Court, and supported by the people." (Ten Broek, p. 325)

The first public call to intern the Japanese seems to have been made at the beginning of January 1942 by John B. Hughes, a prominent radio commentator of the Mutual Broadcasting Company. Shortly thereafter, Henry McLemore, syndicated columnist of the Hearst newspapers told his readers:

I am for immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands. Let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it ...

Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them. (Ten Broek, p. 75)

Popular movie actor Leo Carillo telegrammed his Congressman:

Why wait until (the Japanese) pull something before we act ... Let's get them off the coast and into the interior ... May I urge you in behalf of the safety of the people of California to start action at once. (Ten Broek, p. 77)

In February a delegation of West Coast Congressmen sent a letter to the President calling for the "immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage ... aliens and citizens alike" from the Pacific coast.

Speaking to southern California on a Lincoln's birthday radio broadcast, Fletcher Bowron, reform Mayor of Los Angeles, denounced the "sickly sentimentality" of those who worried about injustices to the Japanese living in the United States. He told his radio audience that if Abraham Lincoln were alive, he would round up "the people born on American soil who have secret loyalty to the Japanese Emperor."

"There isn't a shadow of a doubt," Bowron told his listeners, "but that Lincoln, the mild-mannered man whose memory we regard with almost saint-like reverence, would make short work of rounding up the Japanese and putting them where they could do no harm."

Walter Lippmann, probably the country's most influential liberal columnist, strongly supported mass evacuation in a February 1942 syndicated piece entitled "The Fifth Column on the Coast." Conservative counterpart Westbrook Pegler followed suit a few days later.

Only a week after Pearl Harbor, Mississippi Congressman John Rankin told the House of Representatives:

I'm for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps and shipping them back to Asia as soon as possible ... This is a race war, as far as the Pacific side of the conflict is concerned ... The White man's civilization has come into conflict with Japanese barbarism ... One of them must be destroyed ... Damn them! Let's get rid of them now! (Ten Broek, p. 87)

Another member of Congress proposed mandatory sterilization of the Japanese.

All of these statements were quite in keeping with popular sentiment. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Japanese were excluded from various labor unions. Between December 8, and March 31, anti-Japanese rage resulted in 36 cases of vigilantism, including seven murders. And a March 1942 national public opinion poll showed 93 percent in favor of evacuating alien Japanese. While 59 percent wanted to evacuate U.S. citizens of Japanese origin, only 25 percent disapproved.

A great deal was made of the fact that immigrants born in Japan, but living for decades in the United States (the Issei), had not become U.S. citizens -- proof of their continued loyalty to the Emperor. But no mention was made of the fact that long-standing American law forbade them from taking out U.S. citizenship -- a ban that was not lifted until 1952.

Since the war, the myth has been that powerful racist anti-Japanese groups engineered the evacuation to remove their economic competitors. But the truth is something quite different. While many White small-businessmen urged evacuation, big business interests did not. More importantly, the Japanese were evacuated at a moment when the country was willing to support whatever measures the Federal government authorized in the name of winning the war.

The fact is that the Japanese were sent to concentration camps not by a group of West Coast racists seeking economic advantage, but by a popular and powerful government run by democratic liberals. At the top of the list of those responsible for not only authorizing the program, but also for keeping it in operation was President Franklin Roosevelt.

Before the President promulgated Executive Order 9066, Attorney General Francis Biddle told Roosevelt that security interests did not justify evacuating the Japanese. The Attorney General's office also determined that the proposed evacuation would be a violation of the Constitution.

American historian Prof. James J. Martin called the incarceration program "a breach of the Bill of Rights on a scale so large as to beggar the sum total of all such violations from the beginning of the United States down to that time." (Weglyn, p.67)

Roosevelt authorized, supported and maintained an action which he knew to be racist and blatantly unconstitutional. But this was only one more sterling example of the gross hypocrisy which characterized his entire regime.

The man responsible for implementing the evacuation, Lt. Gen. DeWitt, declared:

In the war in which we are now engaged, racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race 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 ... It therefore follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112 000 potential enemies of Japanese extraction are at large today. (Ten Broek, pp. 4, 110, 337 n.6)

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was more succinct: "Their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese."

Another man, well known for his liberal outlook, who helped implement the evacuation and internment was Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. For four years he served as War Department liaison with the War Relocation Authority, the agency which ran the camps. After the war, McCloy was named High Commissioner for Germany. As the highest civilian allied occupation official, McCloy worked to impose democratic rule on the defeated German people.

Chief of the civilian staff of the Western Defense Command and liaison between the WDC and the Justice Department was Tom Clark, who later became an Attorney General and a liberal Supreme Court Justice. In 1966 Clark admitted: "I have made a lot of mistakes in my life, but there are two that I acknowledge publicly. One is my part in the evacuation of Japanese from California in 1942 and the other is the Nuremberg trials." Abe Fortas was another liberal destined for the Supreme Court who joined in the campaign to intern the Japanese.

Perhaps the most surprising advocate of evacuation was Earl Warren. Considering his later career as a vociferous liberal, it is at least ironic that, more than any other person, Warren led the popular sentiment to uproot and incarcerate the Japanese. As Attorney General of California, Warren cultivated popular racist feeling in an apparent effort to further his political career. He was an outstanding member of the xenophobia "Native Sons of the Golden West," an organization dedicated to keeping California "as it has always been and God Himself intended it shall always be -- the White Man's Paradise." The "Native Sons" worked "to save California from the yellow-Jap peaceful invaders and their White-Jap co-conspirators."

In February 1942, Warren testified before a special Congressional committee on the Japanese question. He would be running for Governor of the state that year, and would be elected. Warren testified, falsely, that the Japanese had "infiltrated themselves into every strategic spot in our coastal and valley counties." In one of the most amazing feats of logic ever performed by a lawyer, Warren next claimed that the very fact that no Japanese had so far committed any disloyal act was proof that they intended to do so in the future.

Later, when the government began to release Japanese whose loyalty was above suspicion, Governor Warren protested that every citizen so released had to be kept out of California as a potential saboteur.

Earl Warren played to popular racism to further his political career. Later, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he presided over the consummately liberal "Warren Court" which ushered in an era of racial "equality" following the 1954 Brown decision.

After the Japanese had been evacuated, very few wanted them back. Newspaper columnist Elsie Robinson threatened to "cut the throat" of any evacuee who dared return. U.S. Representative Clair Engle of California declared: "We don't want those Japs back in California and the more we can get rid of the better." A poll conducted by a Los Angeles newspaper in late 1943 showed that Californians would vote ten to one against letting citizens of Japanese origin ever return to normal life from the camps.

In the six months following the end of the evacuation program there were some 30 attacks by West Coast people against returning inmates. Near Fresno and other places, night riders shot into the homes of newly returned families Anti-Japanese organizations sprang up in the Northwest and in California.

Opposition to evacuation was virtually non-existent. J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, strongly protested against the program. The man whom liberals vilified as the personification of reaction and incipient American fascism believed that the evacuation hysteria was "based primarily upon public political pressure rather than upon factual data." The FBI, he said, was fully capable of handling the small number of suspects then under surveillance. (Weglyn, p. 284, n.6)

Liberal California Governor Culbert L. Olson, Warren's predecessor, had a special reason for opposing the program. He proposed instead keeping adult Japanese men in state-run work camps in inland rural areas to harvest crops. If the Japanese were removed from harvest work, Culbert feared that "inundation of the state by Blacks and Chicanos would be unavoidable" (Weglyn, p.94)

Perhaps the only honest personality in this whole story was Norman Thomas, the American socialist leader. He was at least non-hypocritical, if not actually heroic. Thomas had been an outspoken and effective leader in the movement to keep America out of the Second World War. He was the only personality of national stature to vehemently oppose the evacuation program. Thomas denounced the policy of the American Civil Liberties Union, which he had co-founded. The ACLU decided that the evacuation fell within the proper limits of the President's power. "What is perhaps as ominous as the evacuation of the Japanese," Thomas retorted, "is the general acceptance of this procedure by those who are proud to call themselves liberals."

This rare "honest liberal" was dismayed at the general toleration of the program. "In an experience of nearly three decades," Thomas wrote,

I have never found it harder to arouse the American public on any important issue than on this. Men and women who know nothing of the facts (except possibly the rose-colored version which appears in the public press) hotly deny that there are concentration camps. Apparently that is a term to be used only if the guards speak German and carry a whip as well as a rifle. (Weglyn, pp.111-112)

The Supreme Court ruled on three cases relating to the evacuation program. In Hirabayashi v. U.S. (1943) the high court unanimously upheld a conviction for violating a curfew directed against a population group distinguished solely by racial-national ancestry.

The case of Korematsu v. U.S. (1944) involved a Nisei (U.S. citizen) who refused to submit to evacuation. Chief Justice Hugo Black, speaking for the majority of six, upheld the validity of the program. Ignoring the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection of the law, the Court decided that one group of citizens may be singled out, uprooted from their homes, and sent to camps for several years without trial based solely on ancestry.

Finally, at the end of 1944, in the case of Ex Parte Endo, the Court ruled unanimously that the government had no right to detain admittedly loyal U.S. citizens indefinitely. This decision ended the entire program. Within 48 hours of the ruling, the government announced that, apart from a few suspicious individuals, the Japanese were free to return home.

Comparisons have often been made between the Second World War concentration camps in America with those in Germany, although Topaz, Poston, and Gila River have never become as well known as Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. Starvation and disease epidemics never ravaged the camps in this country as they did in Germany.

In America, economic and social life remained basically intact throughout the war. The great cities here were spared annihilation under showers of bombs. No hordes of foreign invaders poured across the American frontiers. The U.S. government could run its concentration camps on a virtual peace-time basis.

The German situation was completely different. In the final months of the war, Germany was waging a losing struggle for naked existence. The social-economic system collapsed completely in the face of total military defeat. The horrendous scenes photographed in the German camps by the Allied conquerors and distributed as propaganda around the world resulted from the starvation and disease that reigned unchecked throughout Europe as a consequence of the military catastrophe.

At the Nuremberg trials, the German defendants compared the evacuation of the Jews of Europe and the deportation of the West Coast Japanese. In both cases, the programs were allegedly based upon "military necessity." The Nuremberg defendants cited the Korematsu and Hirabayashi decisions. The latter Supreme Court decision was specifically based "upon the recognition of facts and circumstances which indicate that a group of one national extraction may menace the safety more than others ..."

Actually, the Germans had far greater cause to intern the Jews of Europe than the Americans did to incarcerate the West Coast Japanese. The Japanese were sent to camps solely on suspicion of what they might do. Not a single Japanese had committed an act of espionage or sabotage. But many thousands of Jews throughout Europe had committed countless acts of murder, destruction, sabotage, arson and theft before the Germans began their general evacuation.

The Germans, moreover, had greater legal justification for their policy. The great majority of the Japanese internees were U.S. citizens and legally entitled to equal protection under the law. The Jews of Germany had not been full citizens for several years before the war began. Elsewhere in Europe, the Jews were evacuated from militarily occupied territories or by countries allied with Germany.

The post-war mass media has spent years hammering away at the "guilt" of the German people for generally doing nothing while the Jews were being evacuated to the East. How does the German experience compare with the American record of popular enthusiasm for evacuating the West Coast Japanese?

The German defendants at Nuremberg were declared guilty of "crimes against humanity" for, among other things, victimizing members of a group on the basis of ancestry. What responsibility did the countries, including the United States, which set up the International Military Tribunal have in upholding that principle in their own territories? Why have no Americans ever been called to account for committing the same "crimes" for which Germans were put to death in Nuremberg?


Bosworth, Allan R., America's Concentration Camps, New York, 1967.

Japanese American Citizens League, The Japanese American Incarceration: A Case for Redress, San Francisco, 1978.

Myer, Dillon S., Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority During World War II Tucson, AZ, 1971.

Petersen, William, "The Incarceration of the Japanese-Americans," National Review, December 8, 1972, pp. 1349 ff.

Spicer, Edward H., A.T. Hansen, K. Luomala, M.K. Opler, Impounded People: Japanese-Americans in the Relocation Centers, Tucson, AZ, 1969.

Ten Broek, Jacobus, E.H. Barnhart, F.W. Matson, Prejudice, War and the Constitution, Berkeley, 1968.

Weglyn, Michi, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps, New York, 1976.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Spring 1981 (Vol. 2, No. 1), pages 45-58. (Slightly revised, August 2010)