March 19, 2010

A recent action of the Texas Board of Education gives me an opportunity to discuss a topic that confuses some people. On March 12, 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum stressing that Germans and Italians as well as Japanese were interned in the United States during World War II, to counter the idea that the internment of Japanese was motivated by racism.

It is true that approximately 12,000 Germans, 3,000 Italians and 17,000 Japanese were interned. These individuals were predominantly foreign nationals who were suspected of being potentially subversive and detained under the Alien Enemies Act of 1918. While there were no doubt miscarriages of justice, there was a legal precedent for arresting “enemy aliens.”

The important historical and civics point the Texas Board of Education misses is that an additional 110,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were placed in concentration camps without any hearings. This incarceration happened under military orders that were authorized by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and did not affect German Americans or Italian Americans.

Today, confusion happens because the government action under EO 9066 is also often labeled “internment.” Technically, “internment” should be used for the individuals detained under the Alien Enemies Act. At Densho we use the term Japanese American “incarceration” for individuals put into concentration camps under EO 9066.

Anti-Japanese racism existed before and during World War II, and can easily be detected in government newsreels and propaganda posters. How racism played a role in the removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans can be seen in the words of Lt. General John DeWitt, a key player.

General DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense Command, recommended that the president sign Executive Order 9066 for reasons of military necessity. After it was signed, DeWitt designated the west coast as an Exclusion Zone and ordered the mass removal and incarceration of all people of Japanese ancestry. During testimony to Congress, General DeWitt stated:

A Jap’s a Jap…There is no way to determine their loyalty…It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen; theoretically he is still a Japanese and you can’t change him.

To Secretary of War Henry Stimson, DeWitt stated:

The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become “Americanized,” the racial strains are undiluted.

Many years after World War II, classified documents about what the government knew became available. In the 1980s, a U.S. congressional commission uncovered evidence from the 1940s proving that there had been no military necessity for the unequal, unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

Acting upon the recommendations of the commission, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. This law required payment and apology to survivors of the incarceration caused by Executive Order 9066.

It is pretty common when I am speaking for someone to raise the point that Germans and Italians were also interned. It is during these times I get the opportunity to explain the differences between enemy alien internment and Japanese American incarceration.

Tom Ikeda
Executive Director, Densho