In 1942 more than 120,000 men, women, and children were incarcerated behind barbed wire in concentration camps euphemistically called "assembly centers." Two-thirds of the evacuees held illegally without trial were citizens of the United States. Their only crime was their Japanese ancestry. And for that they served one to five years. The last camp was not closed until 1946, six months after World War II ended.
"The American camps were not death camps, but they were surrounded by barbed wire and by troops whose guns were pointed at the inmates," Daniels says.
This policy was not a mistake or an aberration, as many would like to believe. Japanese residing in the United States were, because of their race, singled out as a target. But their evacuation and internment was only the most blatant and vicious aspect of a general policy of repression excused by the needs of war.
The East Asian theater of World War II was essentially an interimperialist conflict between two capitalist powers, Tokyo and Washington, for control of markets and natural resources in the Far East. The U.S. ruling class appealed to racist prejudice against Japanese to justify the war and disguise its true character. The creation of racist hysteria against the "sneaky, dishonest, sly Japanese" was necessary for the ruling class to ensure that U.S. workers would fight.
This racist dismissal of the Japanese as less than human reached its logical conclusion when the U.S. government ordered two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Tens of thousands of people were killed in the blasts and their aftermath. Although President Harry Truman claimed this atrocity was necessary to make the Japanese government surrender, the fact is that before the bombs were dropped Tokyo had already requested to surrender on terms that the U.S. government accepted in September. In reality, Japanese lives were sacrificed to show the world that Washington had emerged as the top imperialist power, unafraid to act ruthlessly to maintain its might.
Racism used to divide working class
Racism has traditionally been used by the U.S. rulers to divide the working class and to consolidate their rule. Japanese in the United States have faced widespread discrimination since they began arriving in the late 19th century. As with the Chinese before them, they could not by law become citizens, buy land, or marry whites. Japanese were denied entry into the United States after 1924, some 42 years after legislation banning immigration of Chinese laborers.
Racist agitation against them reached a crescendo following the Japanese military attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. government claimed the mass internment was necessary because it was impossible to distinguish loyal from disloyal Japanese because they all look alike.
General John DeWitt, who was in the Western Defense command of the U.S. Army, said, "A Jap's a Jap...There is no way to determine their loyalty...It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, theoretically he is still Japanese and you can't change him by giving him a piece of paper."
Daniels examines the U.S. government's justification that internment was a "military necessity" to avoid sabotage and espionage by Japanese Americans. No cases of sabotage or espionage were ever proven against any person of Japanese descent living in the United States.
The Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of the military necessity of the concentration camps. The author points to evidence that came to light 40 years later proving the U.S. government withheld, suppressed, and altered evidence indicating that there had been no military necessity to incarcerate Japanese Americans.
A 1981 report by the Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that the roundup of Japanese Americans "was not justified by military necessity.... The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.... A grave injustice was done to American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry."
With the president, Congress, and Supreme Court joining together at the time to implement and justify internment, it is not surprising that few spoke out for the constitutional rights of the Japanese. The only union to oppose evacuation was the International Longshoremen's and Warehouse-men's Union. Even the supposedly revolutionary Communist Party not only failed to protest the concentration camps but actually supported the internment of Japanese Americans. As one CP member noted in 1972, "Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the People's World [the West Coast daily newspaper reflecting the views of the CP] dismissed its Nisei [U.S.-born Japanese] woman office worker and the Party suspended all Nisei from membership saying that 'the Party was the best place for any Japanese fifth columnist to hide and we don't want to take any chances.' "
This support for internment was an integral part of the CP's policy of subordinating all struggles to the U.S. war effort in compliance with Joseph Stalin's wartime alliance with U.S. imperialism.
In sharp contrast the Socialist Workers Party attacked President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 as "an indiscriminate and brutal witch-hunt ... having the character of a racial pogrom." It criticized the evacuation as a violation of the rights of Japanese Americans --"a repressive measure, based purely on racial discrimination and motivated chiefly by the desire of Big Business for additional profits, which is presented as a necessary part of the "war for democracy.'"
Only 72 hours to pack
With few allies to withstand the power of the U.S. government, the Japanese Americans obediently turned up at train or bus stations as they were instructed to by notices placed on telephone poles and in store windows. They suffered enormous financial losses during the hasty evacuation. Most were given only 72 hours to pack and dispose of their property, including farms, fishing boats, houses, and cars. They could take only what they could carry in two bags per person.
The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco conservatively estimated in 1942 that the total loss to evacuees, not including lost interest, wages, income, and appreciation, was $400 million.
The U.S. concentration camps were not like Auschwitz or Buchenwald; there were no gas ovens, firing squads, or torture chambers. They were essentially prison camps, each relatively isolated on land where no one else chose to live--the desert or swamps. Guarded by armed military police and surrounded by barbed wire, the inmates maintained the upkeep of the camps under the supervision of white personnel.
Most of the evacuees were resigned to their fate, but resistance, both active and passive, did occur--more frequently and significantly than is generally known. Daniels writes that protest rallies, demonstrations, work stoppages, and even general strikes of evacuees took place at all 10 camps around the issues of living conditions--especially food and housing--the availability of employment, wages, and working conditions.
The author effectively summarizes two of the most important controversies in the camps--the loyalty oath all evacuees were asked to sign and the draft resistance at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, which resulted in the largest mass trial of draft resisters in U.S. history. Sixty-three were found guilty, and sentenced to three years in jail.
Altogether 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. Army in segregated units under white officers during World War II. The most famous formation, the 442nd Combat Team, was the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army during World War II.
In the racist tradition of the U.S. military, however, the 442nd was consistently used as the first wave of assault troops whose bodies paved the way for the white troops following them into battle. They suffered 9,486 casualties, 314 percent of the unit's original strength.
The U.S. armed forces were able to use the 442nd as shock troops by exploiting the Japanese Americans' desire to prove their loyalty. Washington felt confident that there would be no protest from troops who believed that only their blood could win freedom for the Japanese still interned at home.
By the summer of 1943, in response to the critical labor shortage caused by the war, the War Relocation Authority, which administered the camps, began a program encouraging permanent relocation outside the camps. Most evacuees returned to the West Coast several years after World War II, in spite of a campaign of intimidation waged in 1945–6 in Oregon and California by growers in the produce and floral industries, as well as officials of AFL unions like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, aimed at keeping them away.
In 1948 the government began to adjudicate claims for losses due to evacuation. The payments were stingy--an average of 10 cents per dollar at 1941 values, not including inflation. The average award per claim in one year was $40 while it cost the government $1,500 simply to process a single claim. The final claim was processed in 1965.
Demands for redress and reparation
The redress movement--the term used by Japanese Americans to describe their struggle for official recognition that a grievous wrong was done to them--originated in the early 1970s under the impact of the victorious civil rights movement and growing support for the anti–Vietnam War movement
At first it was raised by only a few activists but soon it gained the support of virtually the entire Japanese American community. In 1978, the community's major organization, the Japanese American Citizens League, passed a resolution calling for an apology by the government and a cash payment. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which officially apologized to Japanese Americans and provided reparations of $20,000 to each of the 56,000 survivors of the concentration camps. A few days later President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.
One of the few weaknesses in Daniels's book is that he focuses only on the legislative and judicial processes that resulted in redress and reparations. He thereby neglects the movement of groups and individuals that organized speakers to reach out to many organizations, like churches and veterans groups; petitions and resolutions by city councils; letter-writing campaigns to legislators and the president; and intensive lobbying efforts. Redress was won by Japanese Americans and their supporters, not simply granted because of a change of heart by legislators.
Were centers 'concentration camps'?
A review that appeared in the New York Times attacked Daniels for daring to use the term "concentration camp" when referring to the internment centers.
Herbert Mitgang, the reviewer, says it is not accurate to equate the U.S. relocation centers--which "resembled American communities" with schools, libraries, hospitals, newspapers and churches--to Nazi "murder factories," which killed 6 million Jews.
Mitgang misses the point. The Nazis did not invent concentration camps. All forms of capitalist rule, from bourgeois democracies to military dictatorships to fascist regimes, have resorted to concentration camps when they felt the need. And more often than not, they have felt the need during wartime.
The term "concentration camp" actually originated during the Spanish attempts to suppress the movement for Cuban independence in the 1890s. The whole population of a district was herded into camps as part of a policy of forcible-pacification. Many died of starvation, disease, and exposure.
Just a few years later, the British government used the term to describe the detention centers it set up in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. Approximately 20,000 Afrikaner civilians and more than 12,000 Africans died in these camps.
The British also set up concentration camps during World War I--for German prisoners of war and temporarily for Russian revolutionaries--in Nova Scotia. The Weimar Republic of Germany set up six state concentration camps to hold thousands in "protective custody."
The fascists under Francisco Franco in Spain incarcerated more than 1,600 people in the Canary Islands from 1936-37 both in prison and in the Gando concentration camp.
When Franco's forces won the Spanish Civil War in 1939, more than 450,000 anti-fascist fighters fled to France. Paris put the 270,000 considered "military personnel" into 16 French concentration camps. They were held in the camps until 1940 when the men were drafted into the French army or were permitted to volunteer for foreign legion units to fight Germany.
Some 8,000 of these veterans had the dubious distinction of being held in concentration camps of two capitalist powers. They were captured by the Nazis and held at Mauthausen concentration camp until the end of the war
During World War II, virtually every imperalist government used concentration camps to hold without trial populations considered to be "politically unreliable." London had at least one concentration camp in Great Britain for politically "undesirable" Europeans who had fled the German fascists.
Paris incarcerated Austrian intellectuals, artists, and literary figures at the Camp des Milles in France. The unoccupied French government built the Montreuil-Bellay concentration camp to detain vagrants and gypsies ostensibly because they were spies.
Austria had two concentration camps for social misfits and gypsies in Weyer.
Tokyo built concentration camps in the Philippines for enemy civilians, as well as in other Asian nations it invaded.
The German government, of course, developed concentration camps the most methodically of all. They had concentration camps for those who were not charged with any specific offense but were considered "politically incorrigible." They had punitive labor camps for those charged with specific offenses, including Russian civilians and soldiers. And they had extermination centers to eliminate the so-called "Jewish problem."
So the U.S. government was not alone or unprecedented in its use of concentration camps for an entire population. While the camps varied from country to country and within each country in terms of starvation, brutality, and torture, the only ones used as extermination centers were run by the Nazi regime.
In short, concentration camps have been endemic in modem times. They have historically been used to hold "undesirables" --unwanted races, political dissidents, immigrant workers, prisoners of war.
After World War II the term became synonymous with the Nazi extermination centers that executed millions of Jews, Russians, gypsies, trade unionists, political prisoners, and others. But even the majority of Nazi concentration camps were not death camps. As Daniels points out Roosevelt, senators, and nationally syndicated columnists publicly used the term "concentration camps" to describe the places where Japanese Americans were sent. Only after the massive publicity surrounding the liberation of Nazi death camp inmates did many shy away from this terminology.
So-called democratic governments have needed to resort to concentration camps particularly during wartime because they need to trample on democratic rights in order to conduct the war. The camps don't only punish their enemies and focus on scapegoats. By their very existence, they terrorize working people and deter them from even contemplating resistance.
During World War II, for instance, "liberal" president Roosevelt initiated an entire program curtailing civil rights and liberties in the United States. He imposed censorship on the media, suspended the right of habeas corpus, arrested and imprisoned leaders of socialist organizations and trade unions who opposed the war.
To his credit, Daniels has a final chapter in his book titled "Could It Happen Again?"
Executive Order 9066, which authorized the camps; was repealed by President Gerald Ford in 1976. The Emergency Detention Act of 1950 that authorized keeping concentration camps in readiness for people who "probably will engage in acts of espionage or sabotage" was repealed in 1971.
But, "Japanese Americans were quick to point out that they had been shipped off to camps in 1942 even without such a law," Daniels says. There was no legislation on the books in 1942, but the president issued an executive order, Congress passed laws to enforce it, and the Supreme Court backed both as constitutional.
As Daniels also points out, the U.S. government has debated using concentration camps several times since World War II. Tule Lake, one of the Japanese American concentration camps, was even reactivated as a standby camp for political dissidents during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.
The last three presidents have considered mass incarceration of nationalities with whom the U.S. government was in conflict. James Carter considered internment of Iranians in the United States during the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979; Reagan detained Haitian refugees, many in the notorious Krome Avenue camp, after the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship; George Bush weighed the incarceration of Arab-Americans before and during the Gulf War of 1990–91.
Daniels concludes, "While most optimists would argue that, in America, concentration camps are a thing of the past ...many Japanese Americans, the only group of citizens ever incarcerated simply because of their genes, would argue that what has happened before can surely happen again."
Given the historical use of concentration camps by imperialist governments, if the U.S. ruling class needs to establish concentration camps again in order to be able to wage war, it will not hesitate to try.
The only force capable of stopping them is the working class. That is why Daniels's book is an important introduction to this subject. By learning the lessons of our past, we will better be able to arm ourselves to fight and take on the new challenges posed in the coming period by depression, wars, and revolution.