World War II: Home Front
World War II: Home Front
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War in World War II: Home Front

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of War

The Fear of "Enemy Aliens"

In the days following Japan's attack on the Pearl Harbor military base, the United States federal government seized many Japanese-American-owned banks and businesses, closed Japanese language schools throughout the country, and ordered members of suspected "enemy alien" groups to turn over cameras, radios, and weapons. The U.S. Attorney General established curfews in military zones—areas marked essential to national security—throughout the West Coast and forbade "enemy aliens" to travel outside of a five mile radius from their homes. Still, many of those responsible for the defense of the nation felt these measures were not sufficient enough to prevent future attacks.

General John L. Dewitt and Western Defense

For Lt. General John L. Dewitt, assigned to the Western Defense Command, the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California, and the southern border of Arizona were regions particularly at risk. The West Coast had become the center for military mobilization, the site for a number of airports, shipyards, military bases, and munitions factories as well as power plants, dams, and railroads, all vital to the American war effort. Dewitt feared that Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was only the prelude to an orchestrated assault against the United States. It was only a matter of time, he warned President Roosevelt, that the Japanese would strike again, and the target would likely be near western shores.

General Dewitt also noted that the vast majority of Americans of Japanese origin lived in these "vulnerable" regions. By 1941, some 90% of Japanese immigrants and descendants of Japanese immigrants had formed a small and prosperous portion of the population along the West Coast. Most were employed in or proprietors of agricultural businesses, which thrived in temperate climates of California, Washington, and Oregon. Some communities had migrated to the American interior or to the East Coast, but the rich landscape, the strong economy, and proximity to family kept most near western shores. General Dewitt, however, viewed these close-knit communities as hotbeds for spies, saboteurs, and agents of espionage linked by blood and therefore sympathetic to Japan, an enemy of the United States.

Executive Order 9066

General Dewitt managed to convince President Roosevelt that despite appearing loyal and peaceable, the Japanese residing in U.S. borders were "organized and ready for concerted action."23 As Dewitt argued, the fact that in the months following the Pearl Harbor attack not one single case of sabotage, spying, or treason had been linked to any American of Japanese descent, was actually "a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."24 (Quite confusing logic!)

The solution to this problem, he and other military commanders suggested, was the relocation of suspected "enemies" from these populations, and, if necessary, the containment of entire communities. President Roosevelt agreed. On 19 February 1942, two months after the Pearl Harbor disaster, the president signed Executive Order 9066, which would set the stage for the internment of thousands of Americans, primarily Japanese immigrants and their descendants.

Executive Order 9066 did not explicitly call for the internment of Japanese Americans, or the detainment of any other specific group or individual. The order did, however, give U.S. military commanders the power to remove from specified "military areas" any person or group of people deemed "alien enemies" capable of "sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities."25 These "military areas" were regions vaguely defined as vulnerable to enemy attack, but it would be up to the Secretary of War and military generals to decide exactly which areas of the country would need to be protected, and from whom.

Racial Profiling

Initially, the Office of Naval Intelligence worked to identify specific individuals who posed a threat to national security and recommended the internment of a few thousand people, including people of Japanese, Italian, and German origin. Community leaders, language teachers, businessmen, and people—mostly men—with political beliefs deemed "extreme" or anti-American were rounded up and arrested. But as the war intensified abroad and threats loomed large at home, federal efforts to shield the nation from attack depended less on investigations of individuals and more heavily on broad generalizations, stereotypes, and ultimately ethnic and racial characterizations. By the summer of 1942, evacuation orders targeted entire Japanese communities. "I hated being Japanese in wartime America," William Hohri reflects; "We were 'sneaky,' 'treacherous,' even 'lecherous...I must say, it was awfully hard for me to think of my parents as being subhuman."26

An Obligation or a Betrayal?

By the end of 1942 nearly all those of Japanese descent living along the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts had been detained under the authority of President Roosevelt's Executive Order. In deserted, scorched, or swampy regions of the country, such as Topaz, Utah, Gila River, Arizona, Amache, Colorado, Heart Mountain, Wyoming, Jerome, Arkansas, and Manzanar, California, men, women, and children spent months—and often years—in isolated prison camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. By 1946, when the last internment camp closed, some 110,000 people—or 87% of the total population of Japanese and Japanese Americans living in the United States—had endured life as prisoners of war.

For some, the internment of thousands of Americans was akin to "a fight for survival."27 The California press reflected the attitudes of those who perceived the detainment of Japanese residents as a wartime necessity. The San Francisco Chronicle implored "persons of Japanese blood" to prove their loyalty to the United States by surrendering to exclusion orders. As if it too were to accept such hardships, the paper proclaimed, "We have to be tough, even if civil rights do take a beating for a time." The Sacramento Bee reminded its readers that if Japanese Americans "are truly loyal, they will accept such hardship as part of their obligation to their adopted country, and remember that at the worst their situation will be blessed compared to the Japanese-created hell which the American airmen and American sailors and soldiers are facing in Java, the Philippines, and other points in the South Pacific today."28

For those like Tooru Kanazawa, who were targeted by exclusion orders, internment was far more difficult to accept, and seemed as if "someone was pulling a hoax." News that families would be given a few weeks—or less—to sell property, secure homes, and pack for an undefined journey caused panic, fear, and confusion. As Kanazawa notes, it all "had the unreal quality of Orson Welles' Martian broadcast, or something out of the pulps."29

And for so many who had once believed in the rewards that America seemed to promise, internment was a painful setback. "You hurt," Yuri Tateishi explains. "You give up everything that you worked for that far, and I think everybody was at the point of just having gotten out of the Depression and was just getting on his feet. And then all that happens! You have to throw everything away. You feel you were betrayed."30

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