Just more than 70 years ago, Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. I believe that order led to one of the most despicable chapters in U. S. history: Internment of Japanese living in the U. S. In 1941 there were approximately 127,000 "Japanese" in the U.S. I put that in quotes because most were not really Japanese at all. Some 80,000 of the 127,000 were actually U.S. citizens. One hundred twelve thousand of the 127,000 lived on the West Coast. The total number of those interned in an Internment Camp was about 110,000. Furthermore, those interned were generally loyal to the U.S. and there was even a company of Japanese/American soldiers who were ultimately sent to serve in the European phase of the war. They served most honorably.
The 100th Infantry Battalion was formed primarily from Japanese/Hawaiians and that Battalion was absorbed into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the European Theater. They were the first to arrive at the Dachau Concentration Camp and released the survivors of that Holocaust enforcer. The unit based on size and length of service was the most decorated unit in U.S. history. In 2010 the 100th Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Team and the 6,000 Japanese-Americans who served in the Military Intelligence Service were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. While Japanese-Americans served in the European Theater, at least a few served in the Pacific. One such Japanese-American logged 28 bombing missions of Japan and other missions of the Pacific Theater.
Executive Order 9066 did not establish the internment camps as such, but rather allowed local military commanders to designate exclusion zones in which the 127,000 were not to go. One of the military commanders who immediately helped establish a huge exclusion zone was Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt. The exclusion zone included the western half of the states of Washington and Oregon, all of California and the southern part of Arizona.
The effect of the exclusion zone was that the Japanese in those areas were evacuated often without timely notice and hence with an inability to settle affairs even if they legally owned land, home and possessions. They were hastily moved to camps that were often located in areas far from any area where they would be able to provide for themselves. The buildings in which they became housed often had no kitchen facilities and certainly not designed for family living.
General DeWitt testified before congress in justification of the move, "I don't want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here It makes no difference if he is an American citizen ." Fortunately, the Justice Department curtailed DeWitts' ambition to conduct search and seizure operations against that group of people, but the move to internment camps moved forward.
There is some evidence of racism related to the internment. As early as 1905 an anti-miscegenation law was passed in California that outlawed marriages between Caucasians and "Mongolians:" Mongolians referring generally to those from the far-east. A 1924 law blocked Japanese from attaining citizenship.
At the time of Executive Order 9066 in 1942, an ag-businessman declared, "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over If all 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. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."
Interestingly, the last part of that quoted statement was soon proved false. With the war taking away part of the labor force and the internment taking away more, California in the fall of 1942 found itself in a severe labor shortage.
So how did they deal with that? Two ways. Some of the internment camps were close enough that they allowed workers to be transported to the fields for harvests. The second way might have ramifications for problems the U.S. finds itself in today. The unskilled labor shortage of 1942 led the U.S. government to work with the Mexican government on what became known as the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program agreement with Mexico allowed the introduction of temporary contract laborers to enter the U.S. This program that started back then continued into the 1960s. It might have been surprising to some of the planners of the Bracero Program that some Braceros procured green cards and otherwise obtained legal immigrant status. Would it have surprised you? Hindsight is so wonderful.
A few days ago, I was privileged to be at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, the Leningrad Symphony. The program notes included a statement citing that it was played for the first time the same year as the Japanese Internment, hence the previous paragraphs in this column.
I will return in a future column to talk about the German Siege of Leningrad that led Shostakovich to compose and direct his Symphony No. 7 in 1942.
Until next time: Oh, Fiddlesticks!