Laying Some History On You: The High Cost of Internment Camps

When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in 1942, he set off a chain of events that reverberates to this day. With a sweep of the pen, Roosevelt condemned thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment for the duration of the war in crowded conditions that led to mental health conditions, disease, and the denial of opportunities. Despite legal challenges1, the Executive Order held, and the only way out was to agree to sign a humiliating ‘loyalty oath’ and perform military service2.

When the order to transfer people to the camps was issued, it set off a wave of problems. Japanese residents in places like California could not own property and occupied land as tenant farmers, not as property owners in their own right. In regions of the United States where they did have property rights, they were faced with the choice of selling up in a hurry and taking a loss, or hoping they could find trustworthy tenants to occupy their property. Neither solution was ideal and families took substantial losses across the United States not just on real estate, but also on their personal property, which was looted and destroyed in many cases. This, of course, was considered justified and reasonable, since Japanese-Americans were ‘the enemy’ and thus people could strike a blow at the heart of the axis by rooting through the homes of their former friends and neighbours.

In California, where Japanese tenant farmers were a significant part of the agricultural landscape, with 225,000 acres under cultivation, the internment nearly triggered a food crisis. The San Francisco News reported in 1942 that crops in California were under threat:

Acting through the Army’s Wartime Civilian Control Administration, nearly 6000 farms formerly held by Japanese have been listed as available for farming by Americans. But so far only about 1000 farmers have expressed interest in operating the lands. The Japanese farms are worth nearly 70 million dollars, not counting crop values.

Like other Asian-Americans in California, Japanese residents had a fragile and uncertain security before the war, mediated by the balance between outright hatred and the need for their labour. The inability to own property enshrined in the law was only one example of the discrimination California residents faced, even after being in California for multiple generations. Racism was both de facto and de jure, and undoubtedly many residents feared something like internment as soon as the news about the attack on Pearl Harbour broke.

That it happened so swiftly after that attack is testimony to the stranglehold racism held on the American government, and to the contempt that white Americans held for their Japanese counterparts; communities, rather than resisting internment, made sure to out every Japanese resident. This was made easier by the fact that most Japanese populations tended to cluster in limited communities, another result of racism. They could only rent or buy property in limited areas, and were effectively trapped in these regions, making them easy prey for the ‘evacuation’ teams that came to collect them and forced them to leave their property behind.

The erasure of the camps from many narratives of US history is disturbing. So is the concealment of the cost. Internment was extremely costly for many Japanese-Americans, and some never fully recovered from the losses they took during this period. A commission on the camps in the 1980s found that ‘…total property loss is estimated at $1.3 billion [1983 dollars], and net income loss at $2.7 billion.’ That is a truly staggering amount.

This was not limited to the United States. Canada also interned Japanese residents and Japanese-Canadians and their property losses were significant as well. Despite government pledges to preserve their property, many people left the camps and came home to nothing; many had no homes to come home to. An entire generation of people lost almost everything because of the actions of the United States government.

In 1948, the government established a framework to compensate for property loss. It was not a rousing success. Many records were lost or incomplete, which made it difficult to establish or verify claims. Consequently, numerous families clearly didn’t receive adequate compensation. And, of course, the government still didn’t apologise for its actions. It maintained the line that internment had been justifiable and reasonable for far too long.

40 years later, it deigned to issue an apology for its actions, at the same time that Canada did. While formal apologies are important, this one would have carried far more weight if it had happened immediately, in time for most camp survivors to be alive to hear it. The apology also came with additional attempts at reparations, a $20,000 payment for Japanese-Americans who had been interned and managed to survive to 1988 to hear the apology and get their reparations. This included Japanese Latin Americans who had been wrenched from their homes and deported to the United States in the name of national security, though they were only entitled to $5,000.

The camps had a profound impact on the United States and sweeping them under the carpet doesn’t make that go away. For a population that had been living under systemic racism long before the war, the camps were a reminder of how little the US government and people respected or honoured civil rights. Internment was not just a betrayal of the values the United States claims to hold dear, it was a fundamental human rights violation that proved fatal for some and devastating for others. It is hard to say what the United States has learned from the camps; perhaps that the government should keep racialised prisoners off US soil to avoid offending delicate sensibilities in an era of extraordinary rendition?

  1. For those interested in those challenges and the laws surrounding internment, this archive is a good legal resource to start with.
  2. Many Japanese-American servicemembers performed with valour and won commendations for their service.