German and Japanese Internment Camps 1942-1945
The United States entered the Second World War on two fronts. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were attempting to spread fascism across Europe. As early as 1937, American factories began producing weapons of war and shipping them across the Atlantic to its European allies. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States finally declared war on both Germany and Japan.
The big question for America was not how it would win the war effort, but what would it do with the thousands and thousands of Japanese-Americans and German-Americans throughout the country. After years of fighting against potential Communists infiltrating the government, now American citizens were concerned over the ties that immigrants had to their homelands. Along the Pacific coast, many viewed Japanese-Americans as a larger threat to the American way of life because of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Something had to be done, and soon!
Along the east coast and the Midwest, Germans had been a very large immigrant group that seemingly acclimated to the American way of life quickly. They were light-skinned, the vast majority spoke English, and they were still recovering from harsh treatment during the First World War. This is not to state that German-Americans and those of German descent were not targeted during the Second World War. Many of their businesses were boycotted or damaged with homemade bombs. Germans whose families had been in America since before the First World War were adamant at demonstrating that they could be trusted not to compromise American ideals.
Japanese-Americans had been a critically important ethnic group along the Pacific coast. They had owned businesses and were supporters of American culture, participated in politics, and enlisted in the armed forces. Until the Second World War, Japanese-Americans had never been outlawed like their Asian neighbors the Chinese. Often, Japanese-Americans were harassed because most Americans could not tell the difference between a person of Japanese descent and someone from China.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a proclamation at the onset of the Second World War. Using the revised Alien Enemies Act of 1798, which was one of four acts under the Alien and Sedition Acts signed into law by President John Adams, FDR granted permission to apprehend, restrain, secure, and remove Japanese, German, and Italian non-citizens. This meant that anyone of Japanese, German, or Italian descent that had not become an American citizen before December 7, 1941, could be arrested, imprisoned, and/or deported.
Germans and Italians were taken into custody in much lower number than Japanese-Americans. Reasons for this vary. Germans and Italian people came from Europe, and the United States had a very Eurocentric view of the world. Of the millions of Americans that claimed German descent, only about 11,000 were detained over the course of the Second World War. Many Italians lived in cities where the mafia still garnered some control over day-to-day life. As hard as Italians tried to gain political clout, it seemed that the Irish continued to control big political machines throughout the nation. Perhaps the most significant reason that Germans and Italians did not suffer arrests and internment in the same numbers as the Japanese were simply Hitler and Mussolini had not bombed the United States directly but Imperial Japan did.
Japanese-Americans suffered horribly under President Roosevelt’s proclamation. Immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 5500 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were community leaders were rounded up and taken into custody. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that authorized the Secretary of War to establish military exclusion zones. The entire west coast became a military exclusion zone.
Persons of Japanese ancestry in California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona were required by law to present themselves to the authorities to prepare for transfer to camps. Those who did not go voluntarily were hunted down, arrested, and then transported to holding areas before receiving a camp assignment. Roughly 120,000 people of Japanese descent were evicted from their homes and businesses along the west coast. No longer could these men and women own property, go to school, or maintain their employment.
Laborers constructed internment camps throughout the United States. Many were in the nation’s interior of the central plains. Most camps housed roughly 18,000 people. Adults were encouraged to work within the camps. The Secretary of War was responsible for ensuring transportation to the camps, food, shelter, and education for school-aged children. Doctors and nurses of Japanese descent often established camp hospitals to treat illnesses, emergencies, and the dying.
The intent on keeping Japanese-Americans in the internment camps was to prevent any sabotage or espionage against the US government. It was imperative that no secrets be leaked to the enemy. Many Americans believed that anyone of Japanese or German descent would immediately begin spying for the enemy. This was simply not true and developed out of the long-standing fear generated by the Red Scare.
As the war dragged on and more and more Japanese-Americans were interned, the camps became severely overcrowded. Most camps had already failed in their ability to maintain adequate shelter, toilets, and infrastructure. The wartime machine continued to suffer serious labor shortages. By 1943, the Secretary of War began permitting Japanese-Americans to leave the camps to fulfill labor shortages. Women were relocated to work in cities like Chicago in administration positions or in factories making war machines while men were recruited for the military.
In December 1944, the US Supreme Court had ruled interning American citizens was unconstitutional, no matter their heritage. Yet, rounding them up and forcing them to move was constitutional. As Japanese-Americans were released from the internment camps, they were not permitted to return to the west coast. This forced them to begin new lives in new places without many of the personal items that they had been forced to leave behind. Japanese-Americans lost their homes, farms, and businesses when they were forced to leave the west coast.