The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

80 Years ago:
Japanese-Americans Incarcerated

Mar 28, 2022

In March 1942, the U.S. government began rounding up ALL Americans of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. Within seven months, more than 110,000 people were imprisoned in ten concentration camps in remote areas inland. The barracks that families were herded into lacked plumbing and sanitation and were often furnished with nothing more than cots and blankets. Armed soldiers guarded the camps surrounded with barbed-wire fences.

Starting with President Franklin Roosevelt, who signed the executive order that authorized this mass incarceration, civilian and military officials spoke for, organized, and enforced it, while they continued to claim they were waging war in Europe and the Pacific in the name of freedom and democracy. And some of them did not even shy away from the crassest kind of racist talk. General John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, told Congress: “I don’t want any of them here. They are a dangerous element.… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese.… We must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”

The price paid by the Japanese-American community was enormous. The government froze and confiscated assets of Japanese people, who lived in the U.S. but were not citizens. But being a U.S. citizen was not a protection either. People were forced to leave the “exclusion zones”—which included the entire states of California, Oregon, Washington, as well as part of Arizona—within days of receiving official notice. Being allowed to take only what they could carry with them, people lost their homes and jobs. Those who owned property and businesses were forced to sell them for fire-sale prices, which meant nearly total loss for the owners—and a huge bonanza for speculators.

When the concentration camps were dismantled in 1945, many former camp inmates did not get any compensation for lost or stolen property, because they were not able to “prove” ownership under the stringent requirements set up by the courts. One obstacle, for example, was that the IRS claimed it had destroyed most of the claimants’ tax records from before 1942! And the racism and violence against Japanese-Americans continued, especially in rural Central California.

This was, clearly, a decades-long, systematic persecution of the Japanese-American population, and not the result of some momentary panic and frenzy caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, racist scapegoating of Japanese-Americans had been festering on the West Coast for decades. It came directly from the highest ranks of the business and political elite, aiming at sowing resentment among white farmers against successful Japanese farmers.

Already in 1913, California had passed the Alien Land Act, prohibiting Japanese immigrants from owning land—while federal immigration law prohibited the same immigrants from becoming citizens! In speeches and editorials, some California politicians and newspaper publishers openly and systematically attacked Japanese people. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Austin Anson, head of the Vegetable-Grower Association in Salinas, California, told the Saturday Evening Post: “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do.… They came to this valley to work, and they stayed to take over.… 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.”

In other words, the attack on Japanese-Americans was a huge money grab for big agricultural bosses. In 1942, half of employed Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were in agriculture, and experts estimated 35% of California’s truck crops to come from Japanese-American growers that year. Speculators descended on Japanese-American owners like vultures—one owner had to sell his strawberry farming operation for $2,000, for example, and the buyer resold it for more than $10,000. Together with the commercial property stolen from Japanese-Americans in this fashion in cities also, the loss of the owners—and the loot of the speculators—easily amounted to billions of dollars.

On behalf of the speculators, some of California’s most prominent politicians and government officials joined the attack on Japanese-Americans. Among them was California’s attorney general Earl Warren who, a decade later, would be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled against the segregation of Black people. But in February 1942, when Congress held hearings on the supposed “threat” of Japanese-Americans, Warren argued for the removal of all Japanese-Americans from California, including U.S. citizens!

The Japanese-Americans responded to this grave crime against them with different types of resistance. When the government tried to make the inmates of the concentration camps pledge loyalty to the U.S., for example, many refused, knowing full well that it could mean harsh punishment under imprisonment, not only for themselves but also their family members. There were also acts of direct defiance, individual and collective—including a mass revolt at the Manzanar camp in California in December 1942, during which the guards shot and killed two young men and wounded many others.

But legal challenges to the mass incarceration did not go anywhere. In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was “constitutional” for the government to indiscriminately round up and lock up an entire population based on their ethnic background. So much for “freedom and democracy”!

It wasn’t until 1988, when most of the victims were either dead or near death, that the U.S. government officially admitted the incarceration of the Japanese-Americans during World War II was wrong. The “compensation” of $20,000 for each victim could obviously not even begin to cover the material losses suffered by tens of thousands of people, let alone the irreplaceable loss of the lives people had built before 1942, and would have built afterwards if they were not robbed and locked up under government orders.

The mass incarceration of the Japanese-American population in the 1940s had nothing to with “defending the country in war,” as authorities claimed. Besides the huge money grab by capitalist vultures, this kind of persecution serves another purpose in capitalist society. Direct terror used against one part of the population is used to divide the population and impose deprivation and austerity on the whole population more easily. There are many other examples of this throughout American history, and not only in a time of war—such as driving Native Americans out of their land, the enslavement of Africans, racist immigration laws targeting certain ethnic groups, the mass deportation of Mexican-Americans in the 1930s, the scapegoating of undocumented workers … it’s an endless list.