The Japanese American population became the target of a paranoid campaign in the United States after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Thousands of West-Coast Japanese Americans were incarcerated in concentration camps in 1942.
While white America believed these Japanese Americans were potential saboteurs and a “fifth column” within the United States, the belief in a Japanese “conspiracy” was not a new phenomenon—it built on a lengthy history of suspicion and racism toward Japanese Americans since their arrival in the United States in the late nineteenth century.
Japanese began arriving in the United States, principally on the West Coast, from the 1880s and were quickly confronted by racist opposition. Labor and trade unions in particular led the way, seeking to prevent Japanese settling and working in the United States.
Such attitudes emerged from a history of anti-Chinese sentiment; the Japanese were also disadvantaged due to laws that prevented them from becoming citizens (only “white” immigrants could become citizens, dating back to a 1770 law). Only the second generation (known as Nisei), those born in the United States, could be citizens.
In the early twentieth century the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, along with a number of anti-Japanese organizations, joined in the anti-Japanese crusade, trumpeting the “Yellow Peril.” They predicted that the Japanese would “crowd out the white race” on the West Coast.
The Japanese victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War made Japan seem a threatening Pacific power. Further, various Japanese American community organizations were viewed as sinister, and were even sometimes perceived as part of an eventual plot to take over the United States.
Such paranoia had real results in pressuring politicians to take stronger measures against the Japanese. An alien land law enacted in California in 1913 was a response to agitation that Japanese were taking over farmland and crowding out white farmers.
It was in practice largely ineffective, and thus led to increased, rather than diminished, tensions and fears of Japanese conspiracies. The Immigration Act of 1924 hit the Japanese particularly strongly, reducing the number of immigrants to a negligible number.
Thus, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, revealing the vulnerability of the United States and pitching it into a fierce Pacific war, there was already an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia toward Japanese Americans that was ready to be heightened to hysteria.
There was also a history of racist government policies that, when added to the “exigencies of war” by which so much has often been justified, made the violation of fundamental civil liberties acceptable. In the days following Pearl Harbor, “enemy aliens” became the target of federal and state government security measures.
The 8 December 1941 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle recorded the first roundup of “suspicious characters” and noted that the San Francisco police were mobilized to meet the threat of “sabotage.”
Despite protestations of loyalty from the Japanese American community, belief that they were all potential saboteurs, spies, and fifth columnists ready to aid a Japanese attack on mainland America was pervasive.
By February 1942, many areas were barred to enemy aliens, which, the San Francisco Chronicle argued, would guard against “sabotage and other fifth column activities”; on 3 February the paper also quoted California Attorney General Earl Warren, who declared “every alien Japanese should be considered in the light of a potential fifth columnist.”
Newspapers fomented this anti-Japanese hysteria, and along with a military keen to exercise strong internal security measures and politicians acutely aware of the need to respond to the demands of their constituents, it was perhaps inevitable that some action would be taken.
Military leaders spoke of the threat of the “fifth column”; they were also keen to apportion at least part of the blame for the disaster of Pearl Harbor on a Hawaiian–Japanese American fifth column.
At the same time, people like Walter Lippmann, one of America’s most respected journalists and social commentators, talked of the imminent danger of attack from both without and within the West Coast.
Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, sanctioned mass searches of Japanese homes, and a system by which Japanese Americans were forced to register and were prevented from traveling. Slowly rights were stripped from Japanese Americans.
On 13 February, a Pacific Coast congressional delegation sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a unanimous recommendation urging “immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage,” and six days later Roosevelt signed Exceutive Order 9066 by which over 120,000 people, a majority of whom were U.S. citizens, were put into concentration camps.
There were legal appeals arguing the unconstitutionality of these actions but little was done. Over the remaining years of World War II, some groups were released and resettled in the East and Midwest; others were pressured to renounce their citizenship and some of these, along with some noncitizens, were repatriated to Japan.
The war years saw the culmination of a deepseated racist mistrust of Japanese Americans; the years following the war saw movements to end legal discrimination against Asian Americans, including the Japanese.
But recognition of what was done in World War II was slow. Ultimately, in February 1976, Gerald Ford signed Proclamation 4417, formally recognizing the events of the war years as a “national mistake.”
In the 1980s, a Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians reported on the events and opened the way for redress, financial and otherwise, for the survivors.
The treatment of Japanese Americans from their arrival in the United States until the end of World War II reveals how racial paranoia and fear toward an ethnic group can be exaggerated into a belief in conspiracies to undermine democracy and threaten safety, and given the right circumstances can become a basis for unjust actions and a threat to the very democracy in whose name these actions are invoked.