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Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans - Part 2 of 5

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The Roosevelt administration never intended to intern any sizable percentage of those million alien enemies. Attorney General Francis Biddle, a civil libertarian of sorts, and his staff in the Department of Justice wanted a minimal program and were aware of the gross injustices suffered by German and Italian resident aliens in Winston Churchill’s Great Britain.11 In preparation for war, various federal security agencies, military and civilian, had prepared Custodial Detention Lists, better known as the “ABC Lists,” master indexes of persons who were, allegedly, potentially dangerous subversives.12 The “A” list consisted of persons identified as “known dangerous” aliens; the “B” list contained individuals who were “potentially dangerous”; and the “C” list was composed of people who merited surveillance due to pro-Axis sympathies or propaganda activities. As is common for internal security lists, they were largely based not on investigations of individuals, but on “guilt by association,” as most of the names came from membership and subscription lists of organizations and publications deemed subversive.

It is not yet possible—and may never be—to give precise figures for either the total number of persons interned or how many there were of each nationality. Several civilian agencies, chiefly the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the military authorities made arrests, and the surviving records are incomplete. Until spring 1943, civilian internees were largely under military custody; most were then transferred to the INS, which had held some civilians since early in the war. At various times the INS reported, with what seems like studied vagueness, on the number of persons it held, but its reports do not always make clear what categories of persons were being counted. In late 1944 J. Edgar Hoover reported that 14,807 enemy aliens had been taken into custody by the FBI, of whom nearly two-fifths had “been ordered interned by the Attorney General and the military authorities.”13

Hoover’s seemingly precise figures leave room for doubt: early in the war many individuals were arrested by various local authorities and held under military auspices in places like Camp Forrest, Tennessee,14 and they probably were not included in his totals. Given the current state of our knowledge, the best “guesstimate” of the total number of persons actually interned is something under 11,000, broken down as follows: Japanese, perhaps 8,000; Germans, perhaps 2,300 (coincidentally about the same number as in World War I), and only a few hundred Italians. Many more had been arrested and held in custody for days and even weeks without being officially interned. In addition, the United States government brought more than 2,264 Japanese (chiefly from Peru), 4,058 Germans, and 288 Italians into the United States from a total of fifteen Latin American countries, and interned them.15 And finally, more than 3,100 Japanese, initially incarcerated by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), were later turned over to the INS for internment.

When the internment program started in 1939 there were no existing internment camps. Many of the first, pre–Pearl Harbor German and Italian internees were housed for a time at Ellis Island, Angel Island, and aboard their own ships; others were sent to INS camps set up in existing permanent army barracks and other federal buildings, where conditions were often more comfortable than in the later purpose-built or converted camps. Most of the prewar Italians, for example, were sent to Fort Missoula, Montana, where they lived in brick barracks with steam heat. Eventually most internees wound up in INS internment camps, primarily in Louisiana, Texas, and New Mexico.16 The facilities and living conditions in all of these camps for enemy aliens were superior to those in the concentration camps in which Japanese American United States citizens were held, partly because the U.S. State Department insisted that Geneva Convention conditions be maintained in them in the hope that the Axis powers, or some of them, would reciprocate.17

Once war actually came, the often-competing American security agencies, civilian and military, constantly raised the number of persons to be interned. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, for example, had a pre–Pearl Harbor list of 770 Japanese aliens who would require detention in case of war.18 Yet, a little over two months after Pearl Harbor, it had managed to find almost three times that many —2,192 Japanese—to intern.19 And so it went. Almost certainly very few of those interned were really threats to American national security. To be sure, many if not most of them were rooting for their native lands, but the same could be said for many of the million plus uninterned alien enemies. Many others were simply torn by conflicting loyalties, such as the Italian immigrant who had written President Roosevelt shortly before Pearl Harbor that “since Italy is my mother and the United States is my father . . . I don’t want to see my parents fighting,” and got interned for his pains.20

Often, especially early in the war, alien enemies were arrested in their homes in the dead of night, told to pack a bag, and hauled off to the nearest custodial facility, usually a local jail. Sometimes their families did not hear from them for days or even weeks. But many of those arrested were released relatively quickly, and, as the numbers cited earlier indicate, only a minority of those taken into custody was actually interned. Many, perhaps most, internments fragmented families, as in many cases the interned man—and all but a minuscule percentage of resident American internees was male—was the only breadwinner in the household. In a number of such cases, wives and minor children, some of them United States citizens, voluntarily joined the family held in internment. One INS camp, in Seagoville, Texas, was chiefly for women and children, and eventually another at Crystal City, Texas, was set up for families.21

In the case of the Japanese Americans, so many male leaders were seized that not just families but entire ethnic communities were decapitated. In addition, since many Japanese Americans kept their money in American branches of Japanese banks, their liquid assets were frozen as the Treasury Department seized and closed all enemy-owned banks.22 Eventually families were allowed to draw up to $100 a month of their own money.

Those who were actually interned had some recourse. Enemy Alien Hearing Boards, composed of three or more citizen volunteers, were established in every federal judicial district. Each internee had the right to have his or her case reviewed by such a board, which could recommend parole or internment—but the attorney general was not obligated to accept board recommendations. The internee could have a relative, friend, or agent attend the hearing, but was not allowed to have legal counsel. Evidence of loyalty, testimonial letters, etc., could be presented to the board, but the internee was not entitled to know the nature of any charges against him or her or, in cases resulting from denunciations, the name of the accuser or even the existence of an accusation. Except for anecdotal evidence –(see below), we know next to nothing about such boards, the persons who staffed them, how they operated, the number of cases they reviewed, the results of such reviews, or how their recommendations were treated by the Department of Justice. The review boards helped to ameliorate the internment process, as large numbers of their hearings eventually resulted in release. And, even if the review board hearing did not result in release—the internee was not informed of its recommendation—internees could forward appeals with supporting documents to the attorney general. However, some interned aliens did not want to be released, but instead signed documents indicating that they wished to be returned to their native lands as quickly as possible, which usually meant after the war.

As noted, Geneva Convention conditions generally applied. Diplomatic officials from the various “protecting powers” who looked after the interests of enemy nations within the United States inspected the internment camps regularly and made note of internee complaints. In addition to food, housing, and recreation, internees were entitled to free mail services within the United States and access to mail and parcels from their mother countries, supervised by the International Red Cross but subject to censorship.23

Thus internees had a very different kind of existence from that of most Japanese Americans. While the decision to intern an individual may not have been just, internment in the United States generally followed the rules set down in American and international law. What happened to those West Coast Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in army and WRA concentration camps was simply lawless.

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11. One of Biddle’s wartime speeches, for example, was titled “Identification of Enemy Aliens: Let Us Not Persecute These People.” Vital Speeches of the Day 8 (February 15, 1942): 279-80. For Britain in World War II, see Peter and Leni Gillman, Collar the Lot!: How Britain Interned and Expelled Its Wartime Refugees (London & New York: Quartet Books, 1980), and A. W. Brian Simpson, In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention without Trial in Wartime Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). For a historical survey, see Colin Holmes, A Tolerant Country? Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities in Britain (London: Faber, 1991).

12. The organizations creating the lists were primarily the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Special Defense Unit of the Department of Justice, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), and the Intelligence Branch (G-2) of the army. Obviously, the lists were only as good as the persons compiling them. They were filled with errors of omission and commission, particularly with regard to Japanese aliens, as, to the best of my knowledge, only one American naval intelligence official, Lt. Comdr. Kenneth D. Ringle, could read Japanese. For his activities, see my Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989), 183, 210-13. The controversial Ellis Mark Zacharias, who was fluent in Japanese, was out of favor and not involved in intelligence work at the outbreak of war. The best single work dealing with any part of the U.S. intelligence apparatus before and during the war is Jeffrey M. Dorwart, Conflict of Duty: The U.S. Navy’s Intelligence Dilemma, 1919-1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983). See also Marc Gallicchio, “Zacharias, Ellis Mark,” American National Biography Online , February 2000, at

13. J. Edgar Hoover, “Alien Enemy Control,” Iowa Law Review 29 (1941): 396-408, at 403. Other commonly cited figures are: “by February 16, 1942, the Justice Department had interned 2,192 Japanese, 1,393 Germans, and 264 Italians,” from a Justice Department press release cited in Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1983), 284; and “the total number [taken into custody] has not exceeded fifteen thousand…fewer than ten thousand ‘alien enemies’ have been in custody at any one time,…” from Earl G. Harrison, “Civilian Internment—American Way,” Survey Graphic 33 (May 1944): 229-33, 270 at 229-30. Harrison was commissioner general of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). A government history of the INS reports 9,920 enemy aliens in custody in mid-1943 and 7,364 in mid-1945. Congressional Research Service, History of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1980), 49-50.

14. In Tennessee, for example, “some ‘civilian aliens,’ mostly Japanese immigrants, were interned at Camp Forrest until May 1943, when they were transferred to North Dakota.” James A. Crutchfield. Tennesseeans at War: Volunteers and Patriots in Defense of Liberty (Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1987), 145. See also Ann Toplovich, “The Tennesseean’s War: Life on the Home Front,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 19-50, at 48 n. 30.

15. C. Harvey Gardiner, “The Latin American Japanese and World War II,” in Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress , ed. Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H. L. Kitano (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 142-45; and Gardiner, Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981). See also Thomas Connell, America’s Japanese Hostages: The World War II Plan for a Japanese Free Latin America (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002). An important book, Max Paul Friedman’s Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), is the source for the precise numbers. Seiichi Higashide’s Adios to Tears: The Memoirs of a Japanese Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps , 2nd ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), is the best personal account available in English.

16. The best published accounts of wartime internment camps generally are in essays by John Joel Culley: “World War II and a Western Town: The Internment of Japanese Railroad Workers in Clovis, New Mexico,” Western Historical Quarterly 13 (1982): 42-63; “Trouble at the Lordsburg Internment Camp,” New Mexico Historical Review 60 (1985): 225-48; “The Santa Fe Internment Camp and the Justice Department Program for Enemy Aliens,” in Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, ed. Daniels et al., 51-71; and “Enemy Alien Control in the United States during World War II: A Survey,” in Alien Justice, ed. Saunders and Daniels,138-51. The essay on Lordsburg describes homicides committed by guards. Culley is engaged on a major work provisionally titled “Interned for the Duration: Alien Enemy Internment and the Japanese during World War II.”

17. For the State Department’s concern for Americans in enemy countries, see P. Scott Corbett, Quiet Passages: The Exchange of Civilians between the United States and Japan during the Second World War, (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987).

18. Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (New York: Free Press, 1987), 239.

19. Press release cited in CWRIC, Personal Justice Denied, 284.

20. Jerre Mangione, An Ethnic at Large: A Memoir of America in the Thirties and Forties (New York: Putnam, 1978), 344-45.

21. Many of those brought by the government from Latin America were in family units. Karen L. Riley, Schools Behind Barbed Wire: The Untold Story of Wartime Internment and the Children of Arrested Enemy Aliens (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), describes the INS family camp at Crystal City, Texas. Roger Daniels, “Educating Youth in American’s Wartime Detention Camps,” History of Education Quarterly 41 (spring 2003): 92-103, reviews the literature on education in WRA and INS camps.

22. Incarcerated Japanese Americans had no such recourse as they were incarcerated not for suspected subversion or memberships, but because of their ethnicity. There were, however, government programs that enabled many Japanese Americans to leave the camps for work, military service, and education.

23. Louis Fiset, “Wartime Communication: Red Cross Key to U.S.-Japan Mails,” American Philatelist 104 (1990): 228-34; Fiset, “Censored!: U.S. Censors and Internment Camp Mail in World War II,” in Guilt by Association: Essays on Japanese Settlement, Internment, and Relocation in the Rocky Mountain West , ed. Mike Mackey (Powell, Wyo.: Western History Publications, 2001) 69-100; and Fiset, “Return to Sender: U.S. Censorship of Enemy Alien Mail in World War II,” Prologue 33 (spring 2001): 21-35.


*Roger Daniels, "Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans." in Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, eds. Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 183-207.


© 2005 Roger Daniels

concentration camps terminology World War II