Japanese Internment

The Greatest Generation?

Thomas Jacobsen, December 2014

While many Americans look back upon the generation who fought through World War II as the “Greatest Generation,” this perception is flawed when many actions of the time are viewed without the embellishment that tends to be applied to memorable eras. The famed Charles Dickens quote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” would not be inappropriate when discussing the World War II era. A perfect example of the marginalization of past negative actions would be the minimal emphasis given to the United States’ internment of Japanese-Americans when evaluating the World War II era. The issue of Japanese internment is pertinent to the subject of citizenship in that a citizen not afforded the same rights given to another citizen cannot truly be considered a citizen. Rather, this creates a system of citizenship with multiple levels which cannot claim to provide true citizenship and equality for any outside of those who occupy the top tier.

From the early days of the American colonies and stretching into modern times, one can observe examples of racial discrimination and tensions. Today most acts of race-based discrimination are considered unlawful. Additionally, acts of racism are considered unacceptable in today’s culture, though this is not always how all members of our society operate. The concept of such actions being implemented by our very own government may shock some who have not learned of it, yet we find examples of exactly such treatment of our nation’s citizens when we examine certain eras of American history, particularly during times of war. The legal actions which were taken against citizens based on their ethnic backgrounds brings to light the fact that government-implemented racism creates a lower class of citizens, which can be more aptly described as a removal of citizenship. For the example cited here, we will discuss the historical context which led to racist views and culminated in the issuing of Executive Order 9066 and the establishment of the Japanese internment camps.

Before beginning to discuss the Tule Lake internment camp, it would help to briefly revisit the events leading up to Executive Order 9066 in order to place these events in their proper historical context. In 1924 the United States passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which included the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act, in order to stanch the flow of immigrants perceived to be undesirable according to the demographic composition of the time. This legislation effectively ended the loopholes used by Japanese immigrants to dodge the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907 whereby Japan ceased issuance of passports for new laborers. These restrictions and limitations were just the beginning of the discrimination against Japanese immigrants. Other legislative efforts would target Japanese land ownership. Considering these legislative efforts with the fact that white supremacists wielded a substantial amount of political clout, one can begin to see how attitudes toward the Asian races, specifically the Japanese, began to be shaped long before American entry into World War II.

In light of all this, it isn’t difficult to see the groundwork that allowed something of the nature of Executive Order 9066. All the country needed was a spark to light the powder keg of latent Asiatic racial tensions. The opportunity arose when, in the words of President Roosevelt, “The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the American public and opened another theater of war for which they were ill-prepared. All other considerations became secondary to the necessity of winning the war. For many this justified extreme actions previously not considered. Even so, America’s reaction toward Japanese-Americans immediately following Pearl Harbor was surprisingly tame. According to Peter Irons, “The initial reaction in the area most stricken with ‘Pearl Harbor Panic’ was one of tolerance and understanding. Most of the ‘thousands of Japanese here and in other coast cities,’ The Los Angeles Times editorialized on December 8, were ‘good Americans, born and educated as such.” [1] Shortly thereafter, roughly 6 weeks to be specific, America’s seemingly positive, public favor of Japanese-Americans would dissolve and would finally degrade by February 19th, 1942 with the issuance of Executive Order 9066.

This set the stage for internment camps, such as the Tule Lake Relocation Center, although initial relocation under the order was voluntary until the Wartime Civil Control Administration formulated an actionable plan for relocation.

Understanding the context in which the internment procedure began, we can now begin to investigate the process of its employment. In the spring of 1942, the U.S. government began its forced internment of Japanese-Americans residing within the area designated as Military Area No. 1 by the United States military. By May 27th, 1942 the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California was opened and would continue to operate as any of the other nine internment camps for Japanese-Americans did. This would not change until Tule Lake’s designation as a relocation center would be altered in the fall of 1943 when it officially became Tule Lake Segregation Center and began to operate under control of the U.S. Army. What made the Tule Lake Center unique is the fact that it received the dubious distinction of being the only segregation camp run by the United States during World War II. The reason for this distinction was the fact that Tule Lake experienced upheavals within the camp’s population, especially in regard to organized labor protests of work safety violations [2]. These periods of unrest made Tule Lake an obvious choice when the decision to convert one of the internment camps into a segregation center was made. As a segregation center, Tule Lake was repurposed to hold the select Japanese-Americans who were deemed “disloyal” due to their failure of a loyalty questionnaire administered to internees of all camps during 1943. This loyalty questionnaire, labeled as an “Application for Leave Clearance” [3] was the primary sorting mechanism in deeming whether or not an internee was “loyal” to America and her causes. Internees who responded in the negative to both questions 27, which asked whether internees would be willing to serve as a combat soldier or nurse, and 28, which asked questionnaire participants “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States… and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?” [4] were considered dissidents and subject to movement from their current internment camp into the Tule Lake facility. According to the Americans of Japanese Ancestry World War II Memorial Alliance, “Forty-two percent of the internees at Tule Lake answered “no-no” to both loyalty questions or did not answer them at all compared with 10 percent at the other centers.” [5]

Once at Tule Lake, Japanese internees were presented with living conditions initially created for a Civilian Conservation Corps project. This involved living in uninsulated wooden structures and farming the nearby fields. [6] Remarkably, the Tule Lake camp was self-sustaining in its ability to grow and supply food, despite having summer temperatures reaching over 100° F and winter temperatures approaching -20° F. In addition to these stark living conditions, Tule Lake internees also had many fears. The two largest, according to a report conducted by Frank Myamoto, for the Tule Lake population were those of post-war futures and their present financial conditions. [7] More specifically, they were concerned that people would outspend their limited means and savings on the canteen prices set by the War Relocation Authority. This fear grew to where residents wanted camp stores to be located further away from their ward blocks in order to discourage purchases. In the words of an unspecified internee, “The more money we spend, the less the W.R.A. will provide us. That’s what happened in the assembly centers. We bought with our own money at the canteen there, and then the W.C.C.A. turned around and said we didn’t need any allowance since we had plenty of money.” [8]

Remarkably, throughout the internment process the majority of detainees held a positive opinion of the United States and placed a surprising amount of trust in its causes. This is especially surprising considering the fact that they were essentially being jailed by the system they believed in. Also surprising is the prevalence of social “Americanization” within the camps. According to Dillon S. Myer, Director of the War Relocation Authority, 1,200 members of the interned population had volunteered to join the U.S. Armed Forces by July 1943 and “Practically all national organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H Clubs, YMCA, YWCA, and Junior Red Cross have active programs at the centers and many thousands of members.” [9]

The internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, and immigrants of Japanese heritage, in 1942 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 was a result of tumultuous and panic-stricken times during which racism and fear at both social and governmental levels fueled circumstances to such an extent that it became widely acceptable to openly discriminate against and imprison a group of people based solely on their ethnicity. Considered by many to be a stain on the reputation of the “Greatest Generation,” this subject remains a topic of heated discussion to this day, despite the program’s alleged effectiveness in preventing both acts of sabotage and vigilante acts of retribution against Japanese-Americans.

Ultimately, the events surrounding the Japanese internment during World War II serve as an example that no generation is perfect and without flaw. The “Greatest Generation” is over-hyped by the current generation, which is no fault of the World War II generation. We should fully recognize their great accomplishments but not overlook the establishment of race-based internment camps by their leaders. This balanced approach helps to remind us that no generation is perfect and that all have their fair share of proverbial skeletons in the closet.

[1] Irons, Peter H.. “Let’s Not Get Rattled.” In Justice at War. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1983. 6.
[2] Lillquist, Karl. “Farming the Desert: Agriculture in the World War II-Era Japanese-
American Relocation Centers1.” Agricultural History 84, no. 1 (Winter, 2010): 74-104.
[3] “A | More | Perfect | Union.” A | More | Perfect | Union. Accessed November 8, 2014. http://amhistory.si.edu/perfectunion/non-flash/loyalty_questionnaire.html.
[4] Lee, Fred I. 2007. “The Japanese Internment and the Racial State of Exception.” Theory &
Event 10 (1): 1.
[5] “Tule Lake.” Tule Lake. August 18, 2002. Accessed November 9, 2014. http://www.javadc.org/tule_lake.htm.
[6] Haugen, Jerry. “Tule Lake Segregation Center.” Explore. January 1, 2010. Accessed
November 9, 2014. http://explore.globalcreations.com/places/tule-lake-segregation-center/ .
[7] Miyamoto, Shotaro Frank. “Prevalent Fears in Tule Lake Community.”
Calisphere. September 1, 1942. Accessed November 8, 2014.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Myer, Dillon. “Evidences of Americanism Among Japanese-Americans.” Harry S Truman Library and Museum. July 7, 1943. Accessed November 7, 2014. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistwhistl/study_collections/japanese_internment/documents/index.php?documentdate=1943-07-07&documentid=9&studycollectionid=JI&pagenumber=1

Further Reading
Niiya, Brian. “Voluntary evacuation,” Densho Encyclopedia
http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Voluntary%20evacuation/ (accessed Oct 27 2014).
Rehnquist, William H. “When the Laws were Silent.” American Heritage 49, no. 6
(10, 1998): 76-89. http://search.proquest.com/docview/202702283?accountid=29121 .
Burton, J., M. Farrell, F. Lord, and R. Lord. “Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites.” Learning4u2. Accessed November 7, 2014. http://www.learning4u2.com/HAL/Independent study pages/justice for all/Confinement and Ethnicity3.pdf.

Worcester State University Fall 2020