The decision to intern the Japanese-Americans, announced 60 years ago this month, IS remembered today as an infamous attack on constitutional rights. Years afterward, the United States apologize for doing it, and paid an indemnity to surviving internees. But in 1942 it was hardly questioned.
This I discovered when I spent several hours in front of a microfilm reader, tracking the.story in the Seattle Times. There is nothing better to get a flavor of a time than reading through a newspaper, particularly a mainstream, nonideological paper like the Times. It reflects the passions and prejudices of the day, even, perchance, when it tries not to.
At the beginning of 1942 Seattle’s afternoon newspaper was saturated with war, and had been for many months- the events of war, arguments about war, preparations for war. As 1942 opened, just three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Manila was falling to the Japanese army and Gen. MacArthur’s forces were retreating to the peninsula of Bataan. The Japanese were advancing down the Malay Peninsula toward Singapore. The Russians were push- ing back the Germans from Moscow. At home, the Roosevelt administration was proposing to double the rate of income tax and begin withholding from paychecks, to control prices, to stop the production of cars, and to ration tires and gasoline.
The year’s first story regarding enemy aliens was the order of Jan. 1 by Attorney General Francis Biddle that German, Italian, and Japanese nationals surrender their guns. I’ve heard the line, “The first thing they come after is your guns,” and always doubted it. But that is exactly what happened. Axis nationals would also have to notify U.S. authorities of any plans to leave town. On Jan. 3 it was announced that travel permits would be issued at the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle. They were Axis nationals, and we were at war with the governments to which they owed allegiance.
All very civilized, except for an undercurrent that wasn’t. On Jan. 5, a 20-year-old Seattle restaurant worker, a French Canadian, was slashed in the throat by a man who said, “I always wanted to get a Jap or an Italian.”
A few days later there was an article about the 68 employees of the Union Electric Co., Seattle, who had formed a club in which each paid ten cents for each Japanese plane shot down, with the money to buy war bonds. They called it the “Slap-a-Jap Club.”
On Jan. 6, the Times offered a small editorial – not the main one – that expressed concern about all the firings of “aliens and citizens of foreign birth.” The editors appealed for “fair consideration in the case of each efficient worker and against indiscriminate and wholesale dismissals.” They reminded readers that “no one in this country is by many ages detached from foreign parentage.” And they said: “Let the FBI and all other authorities do the ferreting for danger. Help them with information whenever possible; but do not complicate the situation by spreading unwarranted prejudice. ”
What of non-aliens? Two days later, two U.S.-born Japanese were arrested for subversion. Another small editorial said there was no reason to be prejudiced against”other Japanese, especially the large number of native-born, whose manifestations of American loyalty leave no room for suspicion. ”
No room for suspicion, especially of the native-born. That was a position worth defending. But though the paper was sympathetic to the Japanese, and tried to cool the tempers of prejudice, it did not defend this position against the government. January 1942 was a difficult time to do that. And the editorial voice was not the only voice in the paper. There were other voices in the news columns, reflecting the choices of news editors, the thoughts of reporters and the words of those who made news.
On Jan. 9 the paper reported on a Japanese drugstore proprietor shot by a Negro man who “apparently bore some resentment.” It was not reported as racial or political. Two days later the man who shot the .38 revolver was picked up and said he had entered the store whistling God Bless America and heard a disparaging remark from the Japanese proprietor. The police were skeptical.
On Jan. 15 it was reported that 442 Americans captured on Guam had been interned in Japan. On Jan. 17, a story from China: “JapMassacre of U.S. Missionaries Reported.”
On Jan. 21 came a big headline, top of page one: “SEIZE ALL WEST COAST JAPS, SOLON DEMANDS.”
“Jap” was a headline word. I don’t know how pejorative it was in 1942, but it was surely not helpful to the American
Remember the atmosphere after the one-day event of Sept. 11, 2001, and you’ll have an idea of the feeling during the continuing war in 1942. A faint idea.
Japanese that they and the enemy were identified by the same word.
The “solon” in this story was Rep. Leland Ford, Republican of California. He was not a spokesman for the government. Rep. Ford, the Times said, “advocated moving all Japanese, American-born and alien, to concentration camps.” Ford said he believed there” may not be” any difference in the loyalty of those Japanese who were citizens and those who were not, and those who were loyal “should be willing to acquiesce.” Perhaps because he was speaking for himself his proposal was reported in unusually clear language.
Below this big story was a tiny one: “Armed Jap Hiding at Pier Arrested.” A 17-year-old youth had been arrested on the Seattle waterfront hiding between two docks, “carrying an open knife.” How big a knife? What had he been doing? The report did not say.
No editorial comment was offered on the trial balloon by Rep. Ford. The war rumbled on. On Jan. 21 came a story from the Philippines: “Prisoners of Japs Bound and Stabbed.” On the same day: “Be on Alert for Coastal Sub Attack, Navy Warns.” There were reminders during these weeks that Seattle was virtually undefended from air attack – though, because of its distance from Japan, it never was attacked.
On Jan. 25 was a story of two drunken Filipinos in Seattle who pulled a knife on a Japanese hotel clerk. The Filipinos were disarmed. “What started out to be a race riot turned into a near comedy,” the story said.
On Jan. 28, some 500 employees of the Northern Pacific Railroad sat down on the job demanding dismissal of twelve “alien Japanese laborers.” The laborers were sent home. This sort of thing was not entirely new: Earlier in the century there had been similar actions against Japanese and Chinese workers because they were willing to work for less than whites.
On Jan. 29, two Seattle Japanese were indicted for having applied for an export permit, before the declaration of war, to sell gasoline tanks to China. The indictment said the tanks were really bound for Japan. The license was never issued and the tanks never shipped, but the government said the tanks were “capable of storing enough gasoline to enable 12,800 Nippon bombers to make round trips between Seattle and Tokyo.”
On Jan. 30 came a syndicated editorial column by non- Times employee Henry McLemore, which expressed in peo- pie’s English what many Americans felt. McLemore had just visited Los Angeles, and had been shocked by all the Japanese there, “free as birds.”
There isn’t an airport in California that isn’t flanked by Japanese farms … They run their stores. They clerk in stores. They clip lawns. They are here, there and everywhere. You walk up and down the streets and you bump into Japanese on every block. They take the parking stations. They get ahead of you in the stamp line at the post office. They have their share of seats on the bus and streetcar lines.
This doesn’t make sense. How many American workers do you suppose are free to roam and ramble in Tokyo? Didn’t the Japanese threaten to shoot on sight any white person who ventured out-of-doors in Manila? So·why are we so beautifully courteous?
I know this is the melting pot of the world and all men are created equal and there must be no such thing as race or creed hatred, but do these things go when a country is fighting for its life?
Not in my book …
I am for the 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 …
And that is what was done. But to go on:
Sure, this would work an unjustified hardship on 80 percent to 90 percent of the California Japanese … (but) if making one million innocent Japanese uncomfortable would prevent one scheming Japanese from costing the life of one American boy, then let the million innocents suffer … Let us have no patience with the enemy or anyone whose veins carry his blood.
Personally I hate the Japanese, and that goes for all of them.
The Times never said that. But it says something of 1942 that such, sentiments from a syndicated columnist were within acceptable bounds in the newspaper industry.
The Times did not have a regular letters page as it does today, but it made an exception and printed four letters from readers. An anonymous writer accused the paper of being “bought out” by pro-Japanese, because of its disgusting liberalism. A, couple thanked the paper for McLemore’s column and asked for more. A woman complimented the paper for its toleration, and asked why it had printed that vitriol by McLemore. Finally, a female state senator wrote that McLemore “screams in the best Nazi tradition regarding race and blood.”
The Times commented on Feb. 1 with a secondary editorial that raised the question of “what to do about resident Japanese.” This was the key issue. It said, “the problem can and will be worked out by the proper authorities.”
Let the government decide. Well, the government was going to decide. That was obvious. The question for commentators was, do you put in your ten cents’ worth, or not?
On Feb. 4, the FBI began systematic searches of the homes of alien Japanese on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound, to confiscate firearms and cameras.
On Feb. 5 came a screamer headline, “8000 Jap Spies, Says Dies!” Rep. Martin Dies, Democrat of Texas, was head of the Committee on Un-American Activities, not a spokesman for the government.
In another anti-Japanese editorial column, McLemore blasted the “bow-legged sons and daughters of the Rising Sun” and the government’s pandering to them, which he found “mighty ridiculous.”
On Feb. 7 it was reported that 440 Japanese aliens had been interned in Seattle, and some of them shipped to Montana. On the editorial page, columnist McLemore discovered that 248 California Japanese-language schools that had been closed after Pearl Harbor were trying to reopen. His indignant response: “Slant my eyes, bow my legs and hammer me down.”
McLemore’s rant is remarkable not only in itself – “slant my eyes” was a slam also at the Chinese, who were our allies – but in the lack of any substantial article to counter it.
On Feb. 8, the paper reported Japanese farms in California being searched for cameras and guns. On Feb. 10,
“If making one million innocent Japanese uncomfortable would prevent one scheming Japanese from costing the life of one American boy, then let the million innocents suffer.”
“Monterey Jap Colonies Raided” (California). On Feb. 12, “Japs Kill Filipinos, Toss Bodies in Bay” (Philippines).
On Feb. 13, page one, below the fold, came the big story again: “Total Evacuation of Japanese on Coast Advocated.” “Total” was defined as “aliens and citizens alike.” The advocates were the entire congressional delegations of Washington, Oregon, California, and the nonvoting member from Alaska.
On Feb. 15, Thomas Clark, federal alien control coordinator for the Pacific Coast, declined to say whether Japanese Americans were dangerous. But he said that “if the Army and Navy say American-born Japanese are dangerous, I’ll take them out.”
On Feb. 16, at the top of page one: “Enemy Aliens Here to Be Ousted.” Aliens. And it said: “The government does not plan to intern” them, and that they can settle”any place they desire as long as it is outside the prohibited area.”
On Feb. 17, a little story appeared at the bottom of page one: “More Japanese Than Whites Study German at Broadway.” Broadway was a public high school in Seattle; as at other schools, the demand for German had fallen sharply since 1939. In 1942, of those studying German, 42 were white and 45 were Japanese.
On Feb. 18, columnist McLemore was telling about his stroll through San Francisco’s Japantown. “The Japanese were very nice to me,” he said. But he quoted a cab driver, who said that the Japanese had been shamed after Pearl Harbor, but were”getting cocky again.” The cabbie’s advice to authorities was to “chase’em all to the hills.”
On Feb. 20, the Times reported “$100,000 Japanese Buddhist Temple Here Closed by U.S. Order.” The temple was closed by the Treasury Department for not having an alien-ownership permit.
On Feb. 21, Gov. Arthur B. Langlie, after consulting with military authorities, ordered all Japanese in the state of
I’ve heard the line, “The first thing they come after is your guns, / I and have always doubted it. But that is what happened in this case.
Washington, aliens and citizens, to give up their firearms within six days. Previous gun confiscations had applied only to aliens in certain areas. The question of governmental authority was not raised – in this story or any story.
On Feb. 22, the FBI in Seattle arrested 103 Japanese said to be in an Axis spy ring. Big headline, few details.
On Feb. 25, 22 Japanese women, all U.S. citizens, resigned their jobs as clerks in Seattle’s elementary schools after a mothers’ petition called for their removal. “Mrs. Esther M. Sekor, chairman of the Gatewood mothers’ delegation, expressed approval of the action of the Japanese girls,” the paper reported. “‘I think it’s very white of those girls,’ said Mrs. Sekor. ‘They have our appreciation and thanks.'”
On Feb. 27, two Seattle Japanese were charged with being agents of Japan – for lobbying the state legislature from 1939 to 1941, when America was at peace, and for filming the Armistice Day parade in Seattle a month before Pearl Harbor.
On Sunday, Mar. 1, came a long article on testimony in Washington, D.C., before a committee headed by Rep. John Tolan, Democrat of California. Gov. Langlie testified, favoring relocation of the Japanese. D.K. MacDonald, president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, said Chamber members were of different minds on evacuation of the native-born Japanese, so he could offer no opinion on what to do. “We’d like to have a decision,” he said.
James Sakamoto, leader of the Japanese American Citizens League, offered to take custody of noncitizen Japanese (many of whom were elderly parents of U.S. citizens) and report weekly on them to authorities. “We want to be fighting shoulder to shoulder with other Americans, not hiding in some place of safety while others defend our homes,” he said. It was one of the few times any Japanese American was quoted.
Earl Milliken, mayor of Seattle, said, “The Japanese American Citizens League has been very helpful, but they won’t squeal on their own people. An Italian will come in and tell you if he knows of another Italian who is dangerous. The Japs keep such things down by coercion and threats, tell- ing their subversive members they had better be good or else.”
He summed up: “Seattle residents overwhelmingly desire removal of Japanese – particularly aliens, but the feeling carries over to the native Japanese as well.”
On Mar. 2, the Washington state attorney general, Smith Troy, called for mass evacuation of “both alien and American-born” Japanese, should a catastrophe happen overseas and Americans riot against the Japanese here.
When asked about American-born. Germans and Italians, Troy replied: “Speaking frankly, out here we feel we know the Germans and Italians a lot better than the Japanese.”
That was probably true. Most ethnic Japanese were farmers. They were less a part of American society. There was a greater racial distance and cultural distance to most Americans. It is our tendency today to label the fears of
Two Seattle Japanese were charged with being agents of Japan – for lobbying the state legislature from 1939 to 1941, when America was at peace, and for filming the Armistice Day parade in Seattle a month before Pearl Harbor.
Japanese as “racism,” while dropping the context of Pearl Harbor, the war (which was going badly then), and the way people thought then. Part of that fear was a kind of racism, but it was understandable. It was a fact – a political fact. What should have been done in the face of it? To control and civilize what we do in the face of such facts is why we have law, a Constitution, and Bill of Rights. We have rules that we adopt during periods of calm to temper our acts during emergencies.
In 1942 we did not follow them.
On Mar. 3 came the decision: “Army Order Reveals Eventual Ouster of All Coast Japanese.” .The army did not say there had been an executive order by President Roosevelt. His name was not on it.
On Mar. 4, the Times commented – still in a secondary editorial: “If the Army regards the complete evacuation as necessary from the military point of view, let it be done without undue debate and vituperation.”
It was done. The Japanese-Americans were not fully evacuated until Aug. 7, 1942, but the decision was announced in March.
A few thoughts come to mind reviewing these reports, always remembering that the Times is one newspaper, probably one of the more liberal ones, and not based in the center of the internment dispute, which was California.
1. This was a hysterical time. It was a war, a real war, with warnings about spies, saboteurs, and invasion. In the March 7 paper was a page-one map showing possible invasion routes on the West Coast, with a fat black arrow starting at the base of the Olympic Peninsula and striking toward
Seattle and Portland. It was scary. All the stories about spies and saboteurs were scary, even if the details, if you thought about them, were faintly ridiculous, like the boy by the pier with a knife. When it was announced March 8 that 20 Japanese aliens had been arrested in Seattle in possession of 120 swastika lapel pins – what could be deduced from that? Who in 1942 was going to wear swastika pins? Said the paper, “It was pointed out that the Japs possibly intended to use the swastika pins to identify themselves as fifth colum- nists in the event the Japanese army invaded Seattle.”
2. Democratic politics were never suspended, even though the Constitution was. Internment was by executive order, but it was not without careful political testing. It started as a trial balloon floated first by a lone congressman, then suggested by a group of congressmen, then endorsed in hearings by local officials and called for by voices in the press.
3. Nobody fought the government. All the belligerency was on the pro-internment side. I did read a tiny story that the social workers opposed any mass internment on the basis of race. But there was no march, no picketing, no petition, no speech. Not even a letter to the editor. No columnist went to bat for the Japanese. Nobody brought up the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. McLemore quoted the Declaration of Independence without naming it, only to kick it into the trash.
Nobody else quoted it. Nobody.
Remember the atmosphere after the one-day event of Sept. 11, 2001, and you’ll have an idea of the feeling during the continuing war in 1942. A faint idea. The Japanese must have been keeping their heads down, following the Oriental maxim that he who puts up his head gets it cut off. None of the stories I read showed an ounce of belligerency from them.
On May 4, 1942, University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi intentionally violated the Seattle curfew on Japanese, and sued to demand his rights. That led the first of two infamous Supreme Court decisions on the internment,
There was no march, no picketing, no petition, no speech opposed to mass internment. Not even a letter to the editor. Nobody brought up the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
both of which the Japanese lost. But Hirabayashi’s very American act came too late to affect the decision for internment.
4. The language was unclear. Only once in three months of papers did I see the phrase, “concentration camps,” and it was early on, when the proposal was nonofficial. The more authority a speaker had the less likely he was to name what he was suggesting. It was not usually called internment but relocation, removal, or moving. Most of the ‘stories did not concern themselves with where the Japanese Americans were being moved; those that did called the destination a colony or a center – not a camp, or, God forbid, a concentration camp.
And so it was done.