Japanese Internment: America’s Largest Witch Hunt


Over a decade before America entered into World War II, the Immigration Act of 1924 cut immigration as a whole by 80% and effectively prevented Asian people in particular from arriving in the United States. Citizens of Japan viewed the act as an insult to their nation, and it led to increased tensions between the two countries. Less than twenty years later, the tensions would worsen. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the American-Japanese relationship faltered. Combined with increased racism and paranoia towards the Japanese, the stage was set for the American internment of the Japanese-Americans to occur. Initially, the government viewed the Japanese internment as necessary for the safety of America. In reality, the elements of the internment resembled that of a fully-fledged witch hunt.

Way Before the Internment

Even before the Immigration Act of 1924, Matthew Perry’s 1853 expedition to Japan was the first American visit to the island. After a tense confrontation between the American warships and the Japanese, the Americans entered the nation. A year later, the Convention of Kanagawa would be signed between the two nations, effectively opening up Japan to the rest of the world. Alongside America, several European nations representatives traveled to Asia and signed a set of “treaties,” better described as extortion or Gunboat Diplomacy, which later historians would call the “Unequal Treaties”. As expected, these countries were exploited for their resources and faced heavy economic losses.

Build-Up to Internment

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, America was in utter chaos. Not only were Americans fearful of more Japanese attacks, but they were afraid of the Japanese-Americans themselves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president at the time, faced the difficult decision of whether or not to imprison Japanese-Americans. Within his cabinet, there was significant infighting. The Justice Department was strongly opposed to such an action and debate ensued over the constitutionality of the act. Meanwhile, the War Department believed that it was critical that the internment occur. As in the words of Secretary of State, Henry Stimson, the Japanese internment was a “military necessity.” As the debate continued, many politicians called on FDR to create exclusion orders on Japanese-Americans, not out of military fear, but simply racism. Ultimately, the infamous act would go into effect on February 19th, 1942. 

Racism or Paranoia?

A question that many scholars debate is: “why didn’t the internment apply to German-Americans or Italian-Americans?” Although some German-Americans and Italian-Americans were relocated, there were ten times as many Japanese-Americans. While Germany did not launch an attack on America itself, like Pearl Harbor, they still attacked American shipping and declared war on America a few days after Pearl Harbor. It can be argued that the task would be too daunting, as Germans and Italians had been fully integrated into American society and held leadership positions across the nation. While this may be true, there could have been German sympathizers who were secretly aiding the Nazi Party. Even worse, there could have been Americans traveling to Germany to fight for the Nazi cause. As Americans focused on Japanese-Americans, they ignored one of the more likely routes of an attack at home. For example, the Business Plot, otherwise known as the White House Putsch: Gerald C. MacGuire attempted to recruit half a million soldiers to lead a fascist coup within the US. Luckily, General Smedley Butler was able to prevent the disastrous event from occurring.

Defining a Witch Hunt

In order to qualify as a witch hunt, there are three main criteria need to be fulfilled. Firstly, a group, usually a political, ethnic, or religious group, is investigated or targeted without merit. Secondly, the "guilt" of these victims is predetermined, more or less as a scapegoat. Finally, there must be an unequal punishment instituted upon the group. This can include relocation, kangaroo courts, or other criminal offenses. Examples of Witch Hunts that fit the criteria include the Salem Witch Trials and the Red Scares. In the Salem Witch Trials, the targets were primarily women and they were presumed to be guilty of witchcraft. Many of these women would be executed. For the Red Scares, the target was anyone suspected of being a communist. While there were no physical consequences, victims bore lifelong blame.

The Witch Hunt Itself

Over the duration of the war, over 120,000 Japanese-Americans were imprisoned. While a small portion of German-Americans and Italian-Americans were imprisoned, it was nothing compared to the number of Japanese-Americans imprisoned. The legacy of American policy during the era lies in its successes in World War II, but also some of its domestic failures. While women gained more important roles during the war on the homefront, minority groups were largely ignored. After Executive Order 9066 went into effect, Japanese-Americans relocated to internment camps across the nation, but primarily on the West Coast. One may question the safety and well-being of the prisoners within the internment camps. Often compared to Nazi Concentration Camps today like Auschwitz, there were no gas chambers or killing fields. Instead, prisoners were living in overcrowded facilities and unsanitary conditions. There was no plumbing in the barracks and roughly 2,000 people died. While the majority of the deaths were due to diseases, some died after the guards killed them, when they attempted to escape the camps.

Summing It All Up

Not only were Japanese-Americans living in poor conditions in the internment camps, but the American legal system also failed to bring justice to the victims. The Supreme Court Case, Korematsu v. The United States ruled that the Japanese Internment was lawful and not racially biased. Forty years later, US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush would issue reparations to the living Japanese-Americans, totaling over 1.6 billion dollars. However, no amount of money could make up for the suffering that Japanese-Americans went through.

 

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