Teaching the Japanese American Internment at West Point
“What I learned from the documents is that the Japanese American internment should never have happened,” an eager plebe in my History of the United States course at West Point offered during a class discussion. I realized that maybe my approach to the topic was too simplistic, the answers I sought were too obvious. The majority of cadets concluded that the Japanese American internment was a bad policy and the product of a time when racist ideas permeated the highest reaches of American government: Racist people create racist policies. A valuable lesson, but with 15 minutes of class time still remaining, and the cadets convinced they had solved the problem of poor and discriminatory wartime planning, I wondered if there was more that could be learned from this episode in American history.
The 1942 Japanese American internment presents a unique opportunity for Army officers in professional military education to examine the effects of racism combined with an ill-conceived defense strategy. Among its other, devastating consequences, the internment created logistical nightmares and an unwieldy joint military-civilian operation. Some may wonder why that matters, concluding, as my students did, that it was a bad policy and one that is unlikely to be repeated. But the influence of both overt and subtle prejudice on the decisions leading to Executive Order 9066 is important for understanding how these ideas can wreak havoc on defense planning and strategy. The internment’s systematic violations of Japanese Americans’ civil rights constitute one of the darkest chapters in American military history. In addition to its grounding in racialized ideas of Japanese Americans, the internment was strategically ill-conceived and chaotically executed, leading to both interagency conflict and an unnecessary diversion from wartime planning in the Western Defense Command. This experience is a particularly relevant case study during a time when domestic operations might become more significant for the military.
As an interagency mission, the Japanese American internment provides insights into top-down decision-making and how the Army became increasingly entangled in morally compromised policy. Studying the origins and implementation of the internment as both a costly political and defensive mistake helps strategists in recognizing red flags, potential constitutional conflicts, and possible disorganization in programs that involve civilian interactions. These might include, but are not limited to, border patrol and providing disaster relief.
I made my first attempt at drawing out lessons to be learned from the internment during the 2017–2018 academic year, when I was an American history and diversity studies fellow at West Point. I taught sections of the introductory history class and curated online collections of materials that reflected the diverse issues, events, and experiences of the past. I selected the Japanese American internment as a module topic because it connected the experiences of a minority group during World War II with the decisions of political and military leaders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, and charged the Army with removing all residents of Japanese descent from designated military zones on the West Coast. The Army them transported Japanese Americans to temporary centers where they were detained before their transfers to the more permanent “relocation center” camps overseen by the civilian War Relocation Authority (the first Authority Director was Milton S. Eisenhower, the younger brother of Dwight and, interestingly, ideologically opposed to the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens; he would retire from the War Relocation Authority three months after its formation in March 1942). Roosevelt and the leader of the Western Defense Command, Gen. John L. DeWitt, agreed that the removal and internment were necessary to prevent “disloyal” Japanese Americans from assisting the Japanese with another attack on American soil after Pearl Harbor. Recent scholarship on the topic reflects an emphasis on the racist ideas that contributed to the internment, as well as the violations of Japanese Americans’ civil rights. My West Point module does the same. The internment was a culmination of decades of anti-Japanese sentiment among West Coast residents fueled by wartime hysteria. A Japanese submarine attack on the Ellwood Oil Installation off the coast of Santa Barbara, California on Feb. 23, 1942, only added to the call for removal, but it occurred after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066.
While DeWitt and his subordinates claimed that the removal and internment were a “military necessity” for the defense of the Western Command, historians and even members of Congress have since debunked that justification, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation found no evidence of Japanese Americans assisting with planning another air attack. Scholars’ dismissal of the internment as a “military necessity” is not incorrect, but they’ve moved Executive Order 9066 (drafted not by Roosevelt, but by DeWitt’s assistant chief of staff, Col. Karl Bendetsen) so far beyond the realm of operations that military leaders overlook the usefulness of it as a case study in professional military education. The internment proves how far the concept of “military necessity” can be stretched and the extent of its damage to the military’s relationship with civilians.
The internment was as much of a product of DeWitt’s defense strategy as it was of the racist ideas which cast Japanese Americans as disloyal saboteurs. A former quartermaster general and commandant of the General Staff College at Leavenworth, DeWitt never saw combat, but developed a reputation as a “logistics man” competent in completing large tasks. He took command of the Fourth Army and the Western Defense Command (the Pacific Coast region) in 1939, but he discovered in 1941 that the command had more administrative than operational units and was ill-equipped to fend off a potential air attack by the Japanese. DeWitt’s preoccupation with an impending air raid against the continental United States (despite evidence to the contrary) heightened his awareness of his command’s vulnerability at the hands of foreign enemies and internal subversive elements, or Japanese communities. Despite his famed declaration during a congressional testimony that there was no difference between someone born in Japan and a Japanese American citizen in terms of loyalty, DeWitt was initially hesitant to advocate for removing and interning American citizens of Japanese descent, convinced that it was primarily Japanese nationals he had to worry about. The 34-year-old, recently promoted Col. Karl Bendetsen, who was then in command of the Wartime Civil Control Administration — the agency charged by DeWitt with organizing the removal — convinced the general that Japanese American citizens were as untrustworthy as their parents, even if they had “just one drop of Japanese blood in them.” Though many members of the second-generation (or Nisei) of Japanese Americans were adolescents or young adults without fluency in Japanese and no memories of Japan, Bendetsen claimed that “a substantial majority of Nisei bear allegiance to Japan, are well controlled and disciplined by the enemy, and at the proper time will engage in organized sabotage.”
DeWitt’s concern for defending the Western Defense Command from an air attack drove his argument for interning American citizens of Japanese descent. He relied upon racist tropes and faulty analysis (“The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken,” DeWitt suggested to Roosevelt in a memo from early February of 1942) in crafting a plan to defend the West. As a result, DeWitt tasked the Army with orchestrating a convoluted policy with ill-defined goals. If all Japanese Americans with “one drop of Japanese blood” were to be removed and interned, what came next? The War Relocation Authority would take over once Japanese Americans were held in the camps, but could a civilian agency be trusted with maintaining security and overseeing a population the Army argued was potentially subversive?
After the Army transferred Japanese Americans from temporary detention centers to one of 10 concentration camps during the early summer of 1942, DeWitt faced the challenges of a mission creep. The internment became a complex operation that went beyond security and defense. DeWitt’s plan was to use the Army to arrange for the removal of Japanese Americans and the Wartime Civil Control Administration to oversee their detention in “assembly centers” where they awaited processing. Ideally, once the Wartime Civil Control Administration placed the detainees on trains and buses, they would no longer be the responsibility of the Army. DeWitt and his subordinates could then return to focusing on training troops and coordinating the movement of supplies in the Western Defense Command after the War Relocation Authority assumed custody of the prisoners.
But DeWitt overestimated the ease of transfer of responsibility to the civilian agency, particularly when he advocated — while the internment was underway — using Japanese Americans for labor. Despite his support for putting Japanese Americans to work, DeWitt failed to develop a policy for a labor program that clearly delineated the Army’s role — if any — in this undertaking. According to DeWitt, interned Japanese Americans could meet labor demands in wartime production while in the assembly centers and camps. The Wartime Civil Control Administration issued a press release on March 30, 1942, explaining that “The most important task after evacuees have been removed from military areas is to make it possible for them to perform work that contributes to the maximum to the war production effort” utilizing their “wide range of useful skills and abilities,” a task which required “a great deal of careful policy making and planning.”
“Japanese evacuees could be used to the fullest extent practicable on jobs which they are capable of performing,” DeWitt suggested in a letter (found in the Karl R. Bendetsen Papers at the Hoover Institution Archives) to a Wartime Civil Control Administration leader in the spring of 1942. DeWitt spoke primarily of using Japanese Americans to produce much-needed goods like camouflage netting and canvas at the assembly centers, but he also envisioned labor as a mechanism for control and productivity in the larger internment project. By the summer of 1942, one of the most successful manifestations of DeWitt’s plan was an on-site “factory” at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in California, where over a thousand Japanese Americans wove camouflage netting for the military.
DeWitt’s use of interned Japanese Americans in materiel production, however, created more headaches for the Army. The argument that Japanese Americans should “prove” their loyalty through their participation in the war effort resonated with civilians facing labor shortages. Americans who otherwise worked the fields in the West traded their tools for rivet guns or joined the armed services, leaving farmers with a need for manual laborers. Many in California and other areas in the military zones, from which the Army had just removed Japanese Americans, wrote to DeWitt and Bendetsen requesting that they release internees to work in their fields. Their reasoning? Their crops were necessary for the war effort. Beets, for example, were valuable in producing industrial alcohol. But those specializing in other crops like strawberries, cucumbers, and asparagus also hounded the Army for exceptions to the internment so that Japanese Americans could help with their harvests. Bendetsen became increasingly frustrated with the requests while he tried to organize logistics in the Western Defense Command. “So far as the Army is concerned, we may have to get along with fewer heads of lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries. If we have to, we will,” he wrote to an inquisitive wholesale farmer from California. Despite their best efforts to quell such requests, DeWitt and Bendetsen only received continued demands from farmers who treated interned Japanese Americans as units of production rather than people. If Japanese Americans worked in the on-site camp and center factories, farmers saw no problem with using them in the fields if they had nowhere else to go.
Eventually, Democratic politicians and powerful corporations from the West convinced both Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy that releasing Japanese Americans for agricultural labor would meet demands for war goods. Beginning in the late spring of 1942, DeWitt issued orders allowing for the release of Japanese Americans from assembly centers in Oregon for work in nearby beet fields.
DeWitt and Bendetsen were displeased. Not only did this declaration turn the Army into a labor broker, but it also raised concerns among DeWitt and his subordinates that releasing Japanese Americans would create confusion amongst civilians and the international community. What was the point of the internment if the Army was only going to return Japanese Americans to the military zones? How did releasing Japanese American internees for labor contribute to the mission of security and defense under Executive Order 9066? DeWitt and Bendetsen also worried that unless Japanese Americans were fairly compensated, civilians, as well as the Japanese government, might view the work plan as a form of forced labor, or requiring internees to work for no pay under duress. In the camps the War Relocation Authority could oversee and control the working conditions by following wartime protocol — releasing Japanese Americans to private employers might be construed as using internees for private profit with no guarantee that they truly “volunteered” their labor. Not only would this possibly erode confidence among Americans in the goal of the internment (Japanese Americans might be potentially disloyal, but even most could agree that forcing them to work went too far), but Japan could also retaliate against American prisoners of war and use the internment as anti-American propaganda. Both of these scenarios threatened strategic plans in the Pacific. as well as defense measures at home while placing imprisoned Japanese Americans in a precarious position as laborers without full workers’ rights.
As the war progressed, the Army found itself at odds with the War Relocation Authority and its civilian administrators over what each agency wanted to accomplish through the internment. Both the Army and the War Relocation Authority brought their own institutional cultures to administering the internment. DeWitt approached the program as one of security and defense, but the War Relocation administrators were largely former New Deal bureaucrats who saw the internment as an opportunity to fully “assimilate” Japanese Americans into American society. If the internment was a military necessity for the Army, it was a social experiment for the War Relocation Authority. Without agreement on the end goal of such a program, miscommunication and chaos were bound to ensue, a situation not dissimilar to potential problems in joint military-civilian operations today.
By 1943, War Relocation Authority Director Dillon Myer believed that the internment was weakening loyal Japanese Americans’ faith in the war effort and advocated for an “all-out” relocation program. In fact, Myer and the War Relocation Authority had come under fire by the public and members of Congress for their inability to maintain order in the camps and wasteful spending. Myer’s plan was a ramped-up clearance process for releasing Japanese Americans from the camps dependent upon their ability to secure employment. Manufacturers across the country still faced labor shortages and took advantage of the opportunity to invite Japanese Americans to work in their plants. The Army, however, balked at the idea and argued that placing Japanese Americans in facilities that produced munitions and other sensitive war materials was a potentially dangerous plan.
In response, the War Department established the Japanese American Joint Board in January 1943. Although the War Relocation Authority would still have the final say on clearing and releasing internees, the Joint Board, composed of representatives from the Office of Naval Intelligence, the U.S. Army Intelligence, and the Provost Marshal General’s Office, “would help in identifying pro-Japanese individuals and especially in determining eligibility of Japanese American citizens for work in war plants.” The War Relocation Authority and Joint Board often went head to head with the civilian agency, disregarding the board’s recommendations and skirting regulatory processes. The War Relocation Authority argued this was for the benefit of the war effort as it quickly supplied manufacturers with needed labor — the Army countered that sloppy leave clearance threatened security. Later in 1943, tensions came to a head when the War Relocation Authority cleared a group of Japanese nationals to work around shipments of dynamite in a Chicago railyard when the Joint Board explicitly recommended denying the internees’ release. Contrasting definitions of “military necessity” and “war effort” between the military and the War Relocation Authority characterized the internment until the last camp closed in March 1946 and contributed to the chaotic implementation of the ill-conceived policy.
Dr. Adam Lowther and Dr. Brooke Mitchell argue for more creative thinking in professional military education, rather than an additional emphasis on history. The Japanese American internment is more than a historical warning that racism makes for bad policy. The internment is a valuable case study on where bad policy originates and with whom, resulting in chaotic joint operations and warped strategy. As my former cadets (who will soon be commissioned into the Army as second lieutenants) aptly noted, Executive Order 9066 — which, at its roots, was a civilian-military plan — was an unconstitutional act that should never have happened. But officers at professional military education institutions can study the internment as an ill-conceived military strategy, as well as a devastating domestic program, and they can take away lessons and warnings that may serve them well in the future.
Stephanie Hinnershitz is a historian and former visiting assistant professor and fellow at the United States Military Academy. She received her Ph.D. in American history from the University of Maryland in 2013 and has published widely on American social and political history. Her next book, Japanese American Incarceration: The Camps and Coerced Labor during World War II, will be published by Penn Press in September 2021.
Image: Dorothea Lange