Against the Tide

Like the attacks of September 11, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a shattering experience for Americans. Parallels between these two “days of infamy” have been widely discussed. Less discussed is the parallel between the treatment of Japanese Americans following the attack and Muslim and Arab Americans today. Of particular note is the fact that the massive internment of Japanese Americans that occurred on the West Coast did not happen where the military action had actually taken place—Hawaii.

Why the difference?

Constituting only 2 percent of California's population, Japanese immigrants and their children had been isolated from the larger society by discrimination in housing and employment. Most of them had become small farmers, but their very success in agriculture had generated economic envy and enmity.

“We've been charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons,” the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association stated in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1942. “We do. ... If all of the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows.”

In Hawaii, Japanese Americans represented 37 percent of the population. They were valuable workers, representing one-third of the workers in sugar production—the islands' most important industry. They were also construction laborers, needed for the rebuilding of the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, Japanese immigrants and their children had begun to fold themselves into Hawaii's society. They had organized inter-ethnic labor unions; in their demands for fair wages, they had insisted on their right to the American dream of equality.

The bigger picture was more complex, however. While West Coast news media and public officials allowed fear to sweep aside the Constitution, their counterparts in Hawaii refused to let fear rule.

“An enemy race”
Shortly after inspecting the still-smoking ruins at Pearl Harbor, Navy Secretary Frank Knox called for the internment of all Japanese aliens in the islands. A flood of fear had begun sweeping the West Coast, and the news media was stirring up racial animosities.

The San Diego Union editorialized: “In Hawaii ... treachery by residents, who although of Japanese ancestry had been regarded as loyal, has played an important part in the success of Japanese attacks. ...”

In its call for Japanese removal, the Los Angeles Times argued: “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 the Washington Post, prominent columnist Walter Lippman joined the call for the mass removal of Japanese Americans. “The Pacific Coast is officially a combat zone,” he wrote. “There is plenty of room elsewhere for him to exercise his rights.”
California politicians echoed this clamor for Japanese American removal. Attorney General Earl Warren declared that the Japanese in California, “may well be the Achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort. Unless something is done it may bring about a repetition of Pearl Harbor.”

Congressman Leland Ford of Los Angeles wrote to the secretaries of war and the Navy and the FBI director insisting that “all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in concentration camps.”

Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command called for the mass exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. “The Japanese race is an enemy race,” he said. “Along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies, of Japanese extraction, are at large today.”

Government intelligence agencies, however, had come to the opposite conclusion concerning Japanese Americans. In late January, Lieutenant Commander K. D. Ringle of Naval Intelligence stated that there was no need for mass action against the Japanese. The FBI conducted its own investigation, and in February, director J. Edgar Hoover advised the attorney general that a mass evacuation of the Japanese could not be justified for security reasons.

Nonetheless, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the evacuation and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

“Weird, amazing, and damaging untruths”
Unlike newspapers on the mainland, the press in Hawaii cautioned their readers not to spread or be influenced by rumors. Within days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Honolulu Star Bulletin dismissed reports of Japanese subversion in the islands as “weird, amazing, and damaging untruths.”

“Beware of rumors, always,” urged the Paradise of the Pacific magazine in February 1942, “avoid them like a plague and, when possible, kill them as you would a reptile. Don't repeat for a fact anything you do not know is a fact.”

Unlike their counterparts in California, Hawaii's public officials also urged restraint and reason. Honolulu Police Captain John A. Burns refuted rumors of Japanese snipers firing on American soldiers during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In January 1942, the superintendent of public instruction sent a directive to all teachers: “The most helpless victims, emotionally and psychologically, of the present situation in Hawaii will be children of Japanese ancestry and their parents. ... Teachers must do everything to help the morale of these people.”

General Delos Emmons, the military governor of Hawaii opposed efforts to intern Japanese Americans. In a radio address shortly after the Japanese attack, Emmons assured Japanese Americans: “There is no intention or desire on the part of the federal authorities to operate mass concentration camps. No person, be he citizen or alien, need worry, provided he is not connected with subversive elements.”

Avoiding a “grave wrong”
In March 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt approved a recommendation for the evacuation of 20,000 “dangerous” Japanese out of a total population of 158,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii. Emmons reduced the number to just 1,550.

The War Department circulated a Justice Department report warning of dangerous conditions in Hawaii. Emmons insisted that there was no military need for mass evacuation, noting that there had been “no known acts of sabotage committed in Hawaii.”
This also turned out to be the fact for Japanese Americans on the mainland. In 1982, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians noted that “not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage [was] committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast.” Six years later, Congress offered an apology and payments of $20,000 to each survivor of the internment camps. Signing the bill into law, President Reagan admitted the U.S. government had committed “a grave wrong.”

How will history judge today's practices of racial/religious profiling? Will our government continue to detain Muslims without due process of law and continue to force young Muslim men to register with the INS? Will our government infringe even more broadly on the rights of U.S. citizens with laws under the rubric of “Patriot”? Or will we remember to uphold the Constitution in this terrible time of war? Will we, like General Emmons, do the right thing?

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.