History Lesson: Japanese American Internment Camps

Rooster dives into the topic of Japanese American internment camps on this edition of History Lesson.

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“I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.” Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt

I don’t know about you, but I never learned much about the Japanese American internment camps during WWII in history classes. Probably because it doesn’t reflect too well on America and we have a tendency to gloss over the bad things we’ve done. But I wanted to look more into it ever since people have been comparing it to the present day treatment of Muslims (whether you agree with that or not, it’s something I’ve seen said). And you know, the old saying goes, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Two months after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 to evacuate all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The exclusion area started in Washington state and stopped at New Mexico.

For most states, it was just along the coastline, but Japanese Americans weren’t allowed anywhere in California. Americans with as little as 1/16th Japanese heritage, were relocated to internment camps. Just to clarify, 1/16th means you had a Japanese great-great grandparent. Colonel Karl Bendetsen believed people with even “one drop of Japanese blood” belonged in a camp. This resulted in the majority of all Japanese Americans living on the USA mainland being forcibly relocated in 1942.

Ten internment camps were built quickly and based on military barrack designs. As many as twenty-five people were crammed into a space meant only to house four. Conditions of the camps varied, but all were in remote locations and guarded by armed forces. Some Japanese Americans were allowed to return to their homes, but only if they had a sponsoring white American family to supervise them or if they could get accepted into a University (strong emphasis on “if” since prejudice was rampant).

After almost three years, the Supreme Court declared that citizens of the United States could not be detained without cause. Former prisoners were given $25 and a train ticket to their home towns. But these people already lost their homes, businesses, and jobs so had nothing to return to. All camps were officially shut down by 1946.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, Japanese Americans launched a campaign for redress in 1978.  Their aim was simply acknowledgement and an apology for the shit they and their families went through. President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation in 1980 to determine if the executive order was justified or not. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians deemed that it was indeed the result of racism and not based on any real evidence of Japanese disloyalty.

The government paid $25,000 in reparations to each remaining survivor. The Manzanar camp in California is now a National Historic Site so that we may not forget the actions based solely on “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership (Civil Liberties Act of 1988)”.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

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