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Sep 12, 2005 12:57 am

Breaking news on the Japanese American Internment

The military removal and confinement of some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast during 1942, popularly (if imprecisely) known as the Japanese American internment, remains a powerful event in our national consciousness. The legacy and lessons of the events have been well established, or so one might think. After all, in 1988 the United States government granted an official apology for and a $20,000 redress payment to those affected. Manzanar itself has become a National Historic Site, and even a tourist destination, and there are efforts to make historic cites out of the other camps. Despite the efforts of a small subculture of internment deniers, today most Americans who are aware of the wartime confinement of our citizens of Japanese ancestry would probably agree that it was a mistake.

Yet much of what we have learned about the Japanese American internment is still subject to historical reconsideration and change. In particular, a document I came across recently, which is now the subject of a column in today’s SEATTLE TIMES, may sharpen our understanding of the factors behind Executive Order 9066. (Eric Muller has meanwhile posted the document itself on his blog, The document is a memorandum dated July 23, 1942 from Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy to Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, and is housed in Patterson’s papers at the Library of Congress. The memo deals with the feeding of the Japanese Americans in the camps—McCloy says that 70% of the Japanese Americans are citizens and most are women and children, and also because of the Americans being held prisoner by Japan, the government preferred to be lenient. Then, in a handwritten postscript, McCloy admits that military security was not the decisive factor in bringing about their mass removal:

"These people are not 'internees': They are under no suspicion for the most part and were moved largely because we felt we could not control our own white citizens in California."

Such an admission by McCloy, who is generally considered to have been the Army’s point man in supervising removal, speaks volumes about the falsehood of the government’s claims of “military necessity” that underlay the operation. That said, it is important to recognize that McCloy's explanation about "protective custody" is a rationalization that does not square with the evidence--the War Department never talked about removing Japanese Americans
to protect them before February 19. (I will deal with this issue, however, in a separate post).

Rather, what the note (especially in the form of a handwritten afterword) testifies to is McCloy's bitterness towards the racists in California who drove the military to take drastic action—perhaps even shame with himself at letting himself and the others be persuaded that it was imperative. In this sense, McCloy’s message tallies with the transcript Eric Muller cites in his post of a phone conversation by McCloy’s deputy, William Scobey. It also resembles in spirit a letter that Secretary of War Henry Stimson sent to President Roosevelt two weeks before McCloy’s memo: (see the text of the letter under the fold)

While Stimson’s letter and Scobey’s transcript do not directly evidence the military's own motives, they certainly reveal the awareness at a top level of the military of the true motives of those who lobbied West Coast Commander General John DeWitt most effectively for the removal of the Nikkei. The language they use about "hell-bent" and "under the guise of security and patriotism" language is so blunt that I think these documents help underline the meaning of the McCloy document nicely.

July 7, 1942,

Dear Mr. President,

I am informed that that patriot in California, Governor Olson, is hatching up a new project which I fear will make trouble with the Japanese. As you know, the Army has been conducting the evacuation of these Japanese through a series of temporary assembly camps where they are first assembled and held until they can be located in the relocation centers in towards the center of the country.
The assembly camps are in California at various places. In the beginning of this agitation the Californians were hell-bent for rushing these unfortunate Japanese out of the State anywhere provided it was not California, and the Army had considerable difficulty in seeing that great injury and injustice was not done under the pressure of that feeling.
Now Governor Olson has discovered that the harvesting seasons is coming for some of the California fruits and that it may be profitable for Californians to keep these Japanese huddled up in these assembly camps to be used cheaply on this harvesting.
These assembly camps are merely improvised structures where there is considerable danger of overcrowding and epidemics. I do not think that he should be allowed to blow first hot and then cold without reference to the safety or welfare of these unfortunate people of (sic) the permanent settlement of a great national problem.
I suggest therefore that you keep this situation in mind in case the Governor approaches you on the subject. I think we should go on with our permanent relocation of the evacuaees.

Faithfully yours,
Henry L. Stimson

[Original taken by hand by Sgt. Combs on July 7, 1942]

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