The Konformist

September 2001

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Internments: Yesterday and Today?

by Mickey Z.

With all the comparisons and references to World War II being bandied about these days, it was inevitable that the subject of internment camps should arise. In the September 24, 2001 edition of The New York Times, reporter William Glaberson penned a piece called "War on Terrorism Stirs Memory of Internment."

"The Bush administration's proposals for increased law enforcement powers to fight terrorism are provoking a debate about whether American courts would repeat the kinds of rulings that restricted the civil rights of Japanese-Americans during World War II," Glaberson declares. Citing "legal experts of varying political views," Glaberson mentions a 1944 Supreme Court decision that approved the internment of Japanese-Americans as a possible precedent that "could permit limits on the civil liberties of Arab immigrants and even some Americans of Arab descent."

Let's rewind sixty years for a little context.

On February 19, 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving the army the unrestricted power to arrest - without warrants or indictments or hearings - every Japanese-American on a 150-mile strip along the West Coast (roughly 110,000 men, women, and children) and transport them to internment camps in Colorado, Utah, Arkansas, and other interior states to be kept under prison conditions. In the words of Japanese-American Hatsuye Egami, a former prisoner of an American internment camp: "Since yesterday, we Japanese have ceased to be human beings. We are numbers. We are no longer Egamis, but the number 23324. A tag with that number is on every trunk, suitcase, and bag. Tags, also, on our breasts."

Japanese-Americans remained in custody for over three years and, thanks to an unending wave of anti-Japan propaganda, what little public debate existed was hardly reasoned. In 1942, a Los Angeles Times writer defended the forced relocations by explaining to his readers that "a viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched - so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, grows up to be a Japanese, not an American." In nearby countries, sentiments ran along these same lines, as historian Daniel S. Davis reports in his book, Behind Barbed Wire: "Canada enacted similar removal and internment programs . . . Many Latin American countries were shaken by anti-Japanese riots. Some shipped their Japanese people to the United States at the urging of Washington. They were held in the camps our government set up. . . . Ironically, after the war ended, the U.S. government tried to deport these Latin American Japanese on the grounds that they had entered the country without passports or official visas."

Life in the internment camps entailed cramped living spaces with communal meals and bathrooms. The one-room apartments measured twenty by twenty feet and none had running water. The internees were allowed to take along "essential personal effects" from home but were prohibited from bringing razors, scissors, or radios. Outside the shared wards were barbed wire, guard towers with machine guns, and searchlights. The atmosphere was often charged with a hostile discomfort.

Anger and disillusionment grew and these emotions led to tension and sometimes violence. On December 5, 1942, a scuffle between internees led to the U.S. military police firing shots into the crowd - killing one Japanese-American man, Jimmy Ito.

There were those who defied relocation. Fred Korematsu remained in San Francisco with his Caucasian girlfriend until he was arrested and jailed. It was then that he met with an ACLU lawyer and decided to challenge the constitutionality of the internment camps. Korematsu, of course, lost when the Supreme Court upheld the decision in December 1944 (This was case cited in the Times article mentioned earlier). Justice Murphy, expressing a minority opinion, dissented on the grounds that since the camps were "an obvious racial discrimination, the order deprives all those within its scope of equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment."

While 110,000 Japanese-Americans suffered in prison camps, the U.S. media whipped up a post-Pearl Harbor frenzy of fear on the West Coast. If one was to believe the news reports of the day, it would seem that it was always just a matter of hours until Japanese Zeros would be spotted over Hollywood - or anywhere on the Left Coast. In January 1942, commentator Edward R. Murrow stirred up fifth column worries by telling an audience in Seattle that if their city was ever bombed, they would "be able to look up and see some University of Washington sweaters on the boys doing the bombing."

Despite widespread concerns of Japanese infiltration, an FBI report admitted: "We have not found a single machine gun, nor have we found any gun in any circumstances indicating that it was to be used in a manner helpful to our enemies. We have not found a single camera which we have reason to believe was for use in espionage."

Although there was never a proven case of any type of sabotage by Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, this did little to ease the minds of men like California attorney general Earl Warren (later the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). "I believe that we are just being lulled into a false sense of security," Warren declared, "and that the only reason we haven't had disaster in California is because it has been timed for a different date."

The dislocated Japanese-Americans incurred an estimated loss of $400 million in forced property sales during the internment years, and therein may lie a more Machiavellian motivation.

"A large engine for the Japanese-American incarcerations was agri-business," says Michio Kaku, a noted nuclear physicist and political activist whose parents were interned from 1942 to 1946. "Agri-businesses in California coveted much of the land owned by Japanese-Americans."

The Supreme Court has never overruled its decision but a formal apology came to the 60,000 survivors of internment camps in 1990. The U.S. government paid them each $20,000.

While Yale Law Professor Eugene V. Rostow later called the internment camps "our worst wartime mistake," Howard Zinn pointedly asks: "Was it a 'mistake'- or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamentals of the American system?"

Which brings us back to Times article. "Several legal experts said there had been many indications that the Supreme Court justices might well consider parts of the World War II internment case as a precedent to restrict civil rights during wartime," writes William Glaberson before explaining that Jan C. Ting, a Temple University law professor who is a former assistant commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service believes that when the nation is in peril, "people ought to assume that the authorities [are] acting in good faith."

Glaberson closes the deal by ending with a quote from Mr. Ting.

"No one is trying to squash anyone's constitutional rights," the law professor sums up. "They're looking to protect the American people."

We've all heard that one before.


Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of "The Good War" (, on which this article is based. He can reached at

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