Working Papers

In Opposition to the Japanese Internment:
The A.C.L.U. During World War II

R. Jeffrey Blair
Aichi Gakuin University
Nagoya, Japan

This paper reviews the background of the Japanese in America and the U.S. Government's wartime decision to evacuate them from the West Coast. It then describes the American Civil Liberties Union's efforts outside of court to formulate its own policy and oppose that of the government. A future paper will deal with the ACLU's efforts in the courtroom to litigate against the injustice of evacuation and internment.

      Following in the steps of my esteemed predecessor at Aichi Gakuin--Joseph Sheperd (1996)--this paper deals with an aspect of Japan-U.S. relations, in this case from a historical perspective. Numerous books and articles have been published which detail the personal experiences of West Coast Japanese interned during the Second World War. The shameful and racist wartime policy of the United States is well-known at home and abroad. Indeed, it has become such an embarrassment that the American government itself has recognized its mistake and awarded compensation to surviving victims. What is hardly ever recognized, however, is the exemplary work of some liberal groups outside of the Japanese communities who actively opposed this policy of evacuation and internment.
      Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and the Fair Play Committee, recognized that a grave injustice was being done in the name of national defense. The memberships of these groups were largely Caucasian and, therefore, not directly affected by the evacuation. Yet each initiated programs to counter or mitigate the injustices involved. Except for two unpublished master's theses (Shidler, 1952 and Thomas McDaid, 1969), current literature has given them only passing mention. This paper seeks then to describe the evacuation from the perspective of the American Civil Liberties Union, highlight the silver lining in a very black cloud, and give credit to some people who tried to uphold the very finest traditions of American justice.

Background of the Japanese in America [Text]

The Coming of War [Text]

The Decision to Evacuate [Text]

Formulating an Opposing Policy [Text]

Lobbying Against Injustice [Text]


      World War II was a particularly trying time for West Coast Japanese. It became quite popular to scorn and denounce these people as members of an enemy race. At a time when even many liberals--such as California Attorney General Earl Warren and columnist Walter Lippmann--denounced the Japanese menace, the American Civil Liberties Union and a few other groups spoke out against the evacuation and interment. It not only decried this injustice, it went even further in openly contesting the government's policy in and out of the courts.
      The Union was defeated in its attempt to prevent the evacuation of over 100,000 Japanese from the West Coast. One wonders if there was anything more that the Union could have done to make its voice heard and heeded. In retrospect two weaknesses seem to have hampered the program. First, the Union was slow to recognize the federal government's susceptibility to West Coast prejudice. If it had anticipated the power of anti-Japanese sentiment, the Union might have been able to mobilize its resources against these anti-Japanese proposals while they were still in the planning stage. Even if such an early start would not have prevented Executive Order 9066, it could have made such an order more difficult to rationalize. An early start might also have allowed the Union to defeat the harshest aspects of the evacuation program, such as lack of hearings and the internment. The ACLU wasted much valuable time in establishing its policy. It began formulating national policy shortly after the evacuation order was issued and did not finalize that policy until June 22, almost three months after evacuation had begun. The old saying--an ounce of prevention, a pound of cure--would be an appropriate comment in this regard.
      A second weakness in the Union's strategy comes from the very nature of the organization. The American Civil Liberties Union's concern for civil liberties and its frequent use of the courts in seeking redress naturally led it to frame its arguments in legal terms. Yet, military officers, civil servants, and politicians fall prey to all the same emotions as other people. No amount of talk about individual rights, justice, and fair play was going to allay the very real fear these people had of the Japanese. Attorney General Biddle had the right idea when he pointed out to Roosevelt how little danger the West Coast Japanese actually presented. Contrary to General DeWitt's visions of invasion and sabotage, the War Department expected no invasion of the West Coast and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had gathered no evidence of Japanese subversion or sabotage. These very pertinent, but generally ignored, facts deserved more emphasis.
      The problems raised by the wartime situation proved to be difficult for the American Civil Liberties Union and other liberal groups. On one hand, they fully supported the war efforts of the Roosevelt administration. A number of the members in these local and national organizations were close friends with Roosevelt or members of his administration. This, naturally, brought an extra measure of pressure upon these liberal groups to cooperate with Roosevelt's policies.
      It must be remembered also that the Roosevelt administration maintained a liberal image with respect to the Japanese situation. Executive Order 9066 was not in and of itself a racist document. It allowed the Army to prohibit any person from remaining in areas that might be important to the war effort. The Army, not the Roosevelt administration, had made the decision to label Japanese as a group whose loyalty should be called into question and had designated all of the West Coast states in their entirety as areas that must be protected from sabotage and espionage. Though the administration had accepted the Army's policies, it had not initiated them. Consequently liberals shied away from any direct challenge to Roosevelt.
      Despite the development of an overwhelming sentiment against the Japanese, the ACLU managed to score several victories. A large part of this success was reflected in bills that never passed, ideas that never became policy. Such specters are nearly impossible to evaluate. In addition, one must also credit legislators, the majority of whom examined the proposals critically and exercised their discretion in the interests of justice.


      The author wishes to express special thanks to the History Department at the California Institute of Technology, where this paper originated, particularly to two professors--Robert Rosenstone and Clayton Koppes (now at Oberlin)--and his sincere thanks to Ray Donahue (Nagoya Gakuin University) for valuable critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Not all of the advice received was necessarily heeded, however, and I retain full responsibility for the final product.


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Working Papers