Japanese Americans during WWII

We all learned in school how the US Government rounded up Japanese Americans on the West Coast and sent then to internment camps, mainly in central California and some other inland areas.

My mother and father, who were in school in San Francisco when the war broke out both remember seeing their Japanese school chums disappear without any explanation from their teachers.

Anyway, I was wondering what happened to Japanese Americans in New York City during this same time. Were they also sent to internment camps? And if not, why not?

And what about German or Italian Americans that lived on the East Coast? Why were they not considered potential spies like the West Coast Japanese were? And yes, I realize it’s not as easy to pick them out of a crowd, but certainly there were other ways to determine someone’s heritage.

It’s a subtle distinction, but the US government designated essentially the entire West Coast as a special military area in which no people of Japanese descent (or Taiwanese or Korean as these were also controlled by Japan) could live. They were relocated.

The East Coast wasn’t designated as a similar zone for a while longer. And even then, the vast majority of immigrants from Asia lived on the West Coast.

Several Italian-Americans and German-Americans who were suspected of enemy ties were rounded up.

Of course, practical matters played a part. Rounding up even a significant proportion of Italian and German descended Americans would have been a logistical nightmare. Likewise, relatively few of the Japanese-Americans on Hawaii, where they still form a significant fraction of the population) were rounded up. It would have been a nightmare to manage in any case. The excuse was that Hawaii was under martial law, so the local military forces could keep a handle on things.

Racism, pure and simple

Germans and Italians were, by and large, left alone.

Note that, in Hawaii, where there were plenty of people of Japanese descent, there was no internment, and many of them (like Daniel K. Inouye) volunteered for combat (but fought in Europe).

Well, if you were going to round up German-Americans, wouldn’t you have to start with Eisenhower?

Did any lawyers (I don’t think there was an ACLU at the time) try to stand up for the Japanese Americans that were rounded up? Was there no lawsuit against the Federal Government? These were American citizens and this was racism pure and simple. Surely someone tried to do something in the courts.

BTW, what happened to the property that they couldn’t take with them, like their houses or their land? Were they allowed to sell their property before they were forced to move?

See Korematsu v. United States. However, SCOTUS ruled for the Federal Government and against Fred Korematsu and other Japanese-American internees. And the ACLU (which was founded in 1920) was definitely involved in the court battles over internment of Japanese-Americans.

There were a number of cases, several of which made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Every one of them upheld the government’s authority to do what it did. One of the leading advocates for the internment was Earl Warren, then the Attorney General of California and later on the (very liberal) Supreme Court Chief Justice.

As for the disposal of property, they sold what they could for whatever price they could get, and lost the rest to foreclosure or tax liens. My wife’s family was interned and lost their dry cleaning business.

If you were very lucky, maybe you had a kind neighbor like Bob Fletcher - but probably not. He ran the farms of three neighbors during their internment, to the scorn of white neighbors, setting aside profits for them to have upon their return (they had told him to keep the profit), and otherwise going above and beyond in the “love thy neighbor” category. He died recently at age 101.

As mentioned in the previous post, Earl Warren, that much beloved icon of the liberal set, was one of the prime proponents of the internment. And IIRC, that most hated of the liberal set, J. Edgar Hoover, was strongly against it because of constitutional issues

The possibility of interning the Japanese-Americans in Hawaii had been considered. But it was dismissed on practicality issues. There was a much higher percentage of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii and a smaller base population. (The population of Hawaii in 1941 was about 425,000 of whom about 120,000 were Japanese-American.) Supporting that many people in captivity would have been impossible. The alternative of moving them to the mainland would have overwhelmed the existing transport capacity. So they were left unconfined. The justification offered to the public was that Hawaii was a territory and had been placed under martial law by federal decree.

An interesting note—Minoru Yamasaki designer of the World Trade Center, apparently avoided internment during the war, as an employee of an east-coast architectural firm, and “sheltered his parents in New York City.”

Actually, in terms of raw numbers, German and Italian immigrants were interned in numbers roughly corresponding to the ethnic Japanese.

The difference was that most of the Germans and Italians, (and Bulgarians and a few others), who were interned were actual immigrants and visitors (seamen, for example, from ships in U.S. ports at the outbreak of the war) or were next generation descendants who were interned after an FBI investigation. They also tended to be released sooner than the Japanese.
In contrast, the Japanese were rounded up specifically by ethnic background with no similar investigations.

Warren was only branded a “liberal” (and not by the Left) after he came under the influence of Frankfurter, Black, and others on the Court.

It is possible that Hoover argued the case against the Japanese internment on Constitutional grounds, although it is strongly held among a number of observers that his opposition arose from the way in which the internment of ethnic Japanese did not extend the FBI’s reach in the way that the internment of Europeans, based on FBI investigations, did.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I typed that. Japanese internees numbered between 112,000 (based on the census of various camps) or 120,000 (occasionally given as a round number), while the Europeans numbered up to 23,000 including just under 12,000 Germans in the U.S., another 4,000, or so, Germans surrendered by South American countries, 2,000 Italians, and a number of Austrians, Bulgarians, and Romanians, as well as others from lands conquered by Germany who were deemed by the FBI to be potentially dangerous.

(I am running these numbers from memory, so I could be off by a bit on several of them.)

As noted, above, racism played a major role in how the ethnic Japanese were treated. However, there were some other considerations regarding the Germans and Italians. Germans are the largest ethnic immigrant group in the U.S. and they were a major immigrant group even before the War for Independence. Rounding up everyone with a German name (aside from costing us the services of Eisenhower and a few others) would have been impossible.
There actually was a certain amount of anti-Italian rhetoric at the beginning of the war, (Italians were still “newer” immigrants and we had already picked on the Germans during WWI), but various Italian organizations and trade groups formally protested to FDR who arranged to have any similar rhetoric from government sources quashed.

Interning all Italian-Americans would have indeed been a logistic nightmare, although if someone would have wanted to do it and spend every cent of the budget for the war on it they might conceivably been able to do it. Interning all German-Americans would have been simply impossible. It would have been impossible to find enough places to put the internment camps and impossible to hire enough guards. The largest ethnic group in the U.S., now and back then, are Americans of German ancestry. There are more of them than Americans of Irish ancestry, and there are more Irish-Americans than those of English ancestry. Here’s a map of the U.S. with the largest ethnic group in each county indicated. As you can see, the counties in most of the northern half of the U.S. each have a plurality of German-Americans:

I once asked my father (whose name is the same as mine) if he ever got any trouble from fellow soldiers during World War II about being (mostly) of German ancestry. He said that the only thing he remembered was that his nickname among the other Marines was “Von”. Yeah, that’s what passed for humor in those days.