All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1995

Special Interests and the Internment of Japanese-Americans During World War II

Internment Was Not Motivated by National Security Concerns

Professor Caudill teaches economics at Auburn University and Ms. Hill is an undergraduate student.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, approving the en masse relocation of Japanese and Japanese-American citizens from the West Coast into the interior of the country. The order was signed amid the hysteria following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The reason given at the time for the evacuation was concern about espionage, or so-called “fifth-column,” activities of Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the Coast. But according to the government’s own intelligence service, this concern over espionage was misplaced. That is, concern for national security was not the true reason for interning Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Instead, this internment was motivated by nothing other than interest-group politics.

When war erupted in Europe, FDR placed J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in charge of the nation’s internal security. Before the attack on Pearl, the FBI and Naval Intelligence maintained lists of alien suspects. Though the lists contained 250 to 300 suspects, only 40 or 50 were considered real threats.[1] Within two days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, all of the suspects and many others were detained. The FBI contended that these measures adequately controlled any threat of espionage, and that the relocation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans was unnecessary.[2] As additional evidence that security was not the reason for the internment, note that no mass detainment of people of Japanese ancestry occurred in Hawaii, which is closer to Japan and home to many Japanese and Japanese-Americans. In Hawaii, only suspect Japanese individuals were incarcerated. If espionage was not the reason for the evacuation in California, what was the reason? The answer: special-interest groups seeking protection from the competition of Japanese and Japanese-Americans residing on the West Coast. Labor unions and farmers wanted the Japanese out of California and off the land long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor provided a handy opportunity for these groups to complete a task that they started several years earlier.

The Historical Backdrop to Japanese Internment

The story of the internment is really the story of immigration in California. A pattern was repeated, first with Chinese immigrants and later, Japanese immigrants. The state of California, through various laws, initially made it difficult for immigrants to enter the state and then, if they managed to enter, unattractive to remain. The main difference between the Japanese and the Chinese in California was the strong Japanese desire to own land. This difference led to special land-use legislation aimed at the Japanese.

Between 1850 and 1882, over 280,000 Chinese entered California.[3] The influx of Chinese occurred because the enormous growth in the California economy required a cheap labor source and the Chinese provided a solution. The Chinese were welcomed at first, but by 1869 the railroad opened up California to the eastern half of the United States, and a recession was beginning. Organized labor argued that the Chinese were no longer needed and lobbied for an end to Chinese immigration. As early as 1875, California enacted legislation halting Chinese immigration into California (though this statute was later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court). California and organized labor then turned to Washington for help. Their efforts were rewarded when, on May 6, 1882, the first Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect. This act eliminated the immigration of Chinese laborers for a period of 10 years; it also barred the Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens. The agitation leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act made it clear to many that something drastic regarding Chinese immigration was about to occur, and even before passage of the Act, labor recruiters began visiting Japan to find replacements for the lost Chinese.[4]

The first large numbers of Japanese laborers who came to the U.S. territory were contract laborers. In 1884 and 1885 several hundred contract workers landed in Hawaii, which at the time was a protectorate of the United States. Californians were concerned that the Japanese might leave Hawaii for California. Consequently, on February 26, 1885, the U.S. Congress enacted a bill to “prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States, its territories, and the District of Columbia.”

California on its own took steps making Japanese immigration difficult. The Congressional Act of August 3, 1882, imposed a head tax of fifty cents on all immigrants. Soon afterward labor union leaders turned their attention to the “Japanese problem.” In 1905 the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed. Initially this group consisted mostly of union leaders and workers, but support eventually was widespread:


On the second Sunday in May, 1905, delegates from sixty-seven local and nearby labor organizations met to form what became the Asiatic Exclusion League. From the day of the League’s formation on May 14, 1905, until after the end of World War II, there was in California, an organized anti-Japanese movement that would eventually draw support from all segments of the state’s population. In the beginning, the organized movement was an extension of San Francisco labor unions. The most prominent labor leaders attending the initial meeting of the league were Patrick Henry McCarthy, head of the Building Trades Council of San Francisco, and Andrew Furuseth and Walter MacArthur, both of the Sailor’s Union. A satellite of McCarthy, Olaf Tveitmore, was named its president. All four of these men were immigrants from Europe.[5]

Immigration Restrictions

In an effort to reduce tensions, Japan attempted to voluntarily restrict immigration to the United States. In 1900 the Japanese government stopped issuing passports for laborers headed for the United States, but continued to allow immigration to Hawaii. In California there was again concern that Japanese would enter through Hawaii. Consequently, the Asiatic Exclusion League prompted the legislatures of other Pacific Coast states to adopt resolutions restricting Japanese immigration from Hawaii. In light of this agitation, the Japanese government started to limit immigration to Hawaii, and in April 1905 Japan temporarily suspended all immigration.

Other legislation was designed to make life in California unattractive to Japanese-Americans. In April 1905 the union-dominated San Francisco Board of Education submitted a plan to the board of supervisors to segregate Japanese public-school children. On October 11, 1906, with part of the city still in ruins from the earthquake, the board of education passed the segregation order. The move outraged Japan, and the U.S. government attempted to intervene. A compromise was reached and the problem was resolved with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1907. The Act listed 20 different classes of workers, collectively called contract labor, who were prevented from immigrating. The provisions of this legislation succeeded in keeping Japanese laborers from entering the United States through a third country or territory.

The next political issue was direct immigration. Restrictions on direct immigration of Japanese were achieved through the “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1908. Japan agreed to limit immigration to “relatives,” “former residents,” and “settled agriculturalists.” The term “settled agriculturalists” is defined to mean “a person who had invested capital in the enterprise, and whose share in its proceeds, if it is carried on in partnership, will be in proportion to the amount of his investment.”

The Gentleman’s Agreement achieved an immediate decline in immigration. Soon, departures exceeded arrivals. This changed in 1913 when large numbers of “picture brides” immigrated. The number of Japanese entering the country slowed to a trickle. Efforts now focused on legislation making life in California unattractive to Japanese-Americans. A large part of this effort was aimed at land-ownership restrictions.

During the 1909 legislative session in California, at least 17 anti-Japanese bills were introduced, and the 1913 session was flooded by more than 30 anti-Japanese measures. Most proposals dealt with the holding of agricultural land. Out of this session emerged the Heney-Webb Alien Land Law of 1913, tying land ownership to citizenship. This statute also provided that aliens ineligible for citizenship could lease land for no more than three years. State Attorney General Webb, co-sponsor, was not shy about its intent, stating,

It is unimportant and foreign to the question, whether a particular race is inferior. The single and simple question is, is the race desirable…. It [the law] seeks to limit their presence by curtailing their privileges which they may enjoy here: for they will not come in large numbers and long abide with us if they may not acquire land. And it [the Act] seeks to limit the numbers who will come by limiting the opportunities for their activity when they arrive.[6]

The 1913 Act prohibited aliens from acquiring, possessing, enjoying, transmitting, and inheriting real property. Japanese-Americans began to put land titles in the names of their U.S.-born children who were citizens and thus entitled to hold property. In 1919, state senator J. M. Inman introduced an alien-land law designed to plug this loophole. The heart of the new act was that it was now illegal for an alien to provide funds to purchase land if the title was held in the name of another person and if the intent was to avoid the law. The act also prohibited leasing any land to persons ineligible for citizenship. The measure was placed on the ballot in the general election of 1920 in the form of an initiative. On November 2, 1920, the measure passed by a vote of 668,483 to 222,086.

Still, white Californians were unsatisfied. They hoped to put an end to all Japanese immigration (as they had done earlier with the Chinese). That goal was achieved when on May 15, 1924, a bill that became known as the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 passed the House of Representatives.

Despite this anti-Japanese legislation, the growth of the Japanese involvement in agriculture during this period was impressive. By 1940 Japanese farmers produced at least 90 percent of snap beans, celery, peppers, and strawberries. Japanese farmers also produced 50 to 90 percent of artichokes, celery, cucumbers, fall peas, spinach, and tomatoes for canning, and 25 to 50 percent of the asparagus, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, lettuce, onions, and watermelons.[7]

Agitation Increases

It is not surprising that when the attack on Pearl Harbor heightened agitation against the Japanese-Americans, the Caucasian farmers of California were eager for internment as well as for the land held by the Japanese. Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association, a farm organization, is quoted as saying:

We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came to this valley to work, and they stayed to take over. They offer higher land prices and higher rents than the white man can pay for land. They undersell the white man in the markets. They can do this because they raise their own labor. They work their women and children while the white farmer has to pay wages for his help. 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 don’t want them back when the war ends, either.[8]

The fact that Japanese farmers were not welcomed back after the war contradicts the security arguments given for the evacuation. Security concerns certainly did not exist after the war. It is quite clear that some viewed the situation in California immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor as a unique opportunity to get rid of competitors. In May 1942, O. L. Scott, another member of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association, wrote to Congressman Anderson:

If it were not for the “white-skinned Japs” in this country there wouldn’t be any Japanese question. What can you suggest I do and thousands of Californians be led to do, that may make it possible to get rid of all Japs, sending them back to Japan either before or after the war is won. I am convinced that if it is not done or at least the action completed before the war is over, it will be impossible to get rid of them…. The Japanese cannot be assimilated as the white race [and] we must do everything we can to stop them now as we have a golden opportunity now and may never have it again.[9]

As a consequence of the evacuation, farms owned by Japanese-Americans were sold for a few cents on the dollar to Caucasian farmers. One estimate of the value of Japanese farmland in 1940 was over $72 million. After the war, internees were paid only a small fraction of the value of their losses. Attempting to remedy this situation, the government passed a bill in 1988 that did two things. First, the government apologized to Japanese-Americans for the internment, also admitting that the relocation was not justified for security reasons. Second, the bill provided that each of the 60,000 internees or their descendants be paid a lump sum of $20,000. Perhaps these funds should have come not from the taxpayers of this country at large, but from the farmers who benefited directly from the land and crops taken from the Japanese-Americans in 1942. []

1.   See Roger Daniels, The Decision to Relocate the Japanese Americans (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Co., 1975).

2.   See also Roger Daniels, The Decision to Relocate the Japanese Americans.

3.   See Frank Chuman, The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans (Del Mar, Calif.: Publisher’s Inc., 1976).

4.   See also Frank Chuman, The Bamboo People.

5.   See Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice (London: Cambridge University Press, 1961).

6.   See. also Frank Chuman, The Bamboo People.

7.   See Theodore Salutos, “The Immigrant in Pacific Coast Agriculture, 1880-1940,” Agricultural History 49 (January 1975), p. 192.

8.   See Morton Grodzins, Americans Betrayed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949).

9.   See also Morton Grodzins, Americans Betrayed, p. 20.