The Racist Anti-Asian President Who Locked Kids in Concentration Camps

Mary Matsuda Gruenewald was only sixteen when the government forced her family to leave their home and be interned into a concentration camp. She was only one of tens of thousands of children legally living in America (many of them citizens) who had to endure this treatment because of the decision of a sitting U.S. President.

Almost two years ago today, I wrote an essay about the horrible treatment of Japanese people at the hands of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. For my research, I read a couple of autobiographies about internment experiences, but one really resonated with me — Looking Like the Enemy by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald.

The book really changed my perspective about the not-too-distant history of the region I currently reside in with my family, and U.S. history as a whole. I often wonder how I, as a husband and a father, would react if put into a similar situation as the author’s own father.

With the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S., I hope my sharing of this essay can, in some small way, contribute to the resolution of this more recent, unjustified xenophobic period of history.

The following is the first half of the essay:

On December 7, 1941 the United States of America was thrust into World War II (WWII) after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A wave of anti-Japanese sentiment would travel across the Pacific and wash over the entire country, causing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to enact an infamous executive order that targeted and violated the rights of many Japanese in America, citizen and non-citizen alike. 
The signing of Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066) mandated that every person on the West Coast with Japanese ancestry must be “evacuated” into concentration camps. As a result, about one-hundred and twenty thousand of them would end up prisoners without due process simply because of their race. Many of them were hardworking, productive members of society who were just as horrified by the Pearl Harbor attack as other American citizens.
FDR’s executive order was not the first government legislation to target Japanese in America. Even before America’s entry into World War II, Japanese Americans, not unlike the earlier Chinese immigrants to America, were excluded from becoming citizens by biased immigration laws and prohibited from land ownership because of targeted anti-alien land laws.[1] 
An example of such a law was the Immigration Act of 1924, which targeted the growing population of the Japanese by banning any further immigration. “Ironically, the [earlier] exclusion of Chinese immigrants … prompted [the] recruiting [of] Japanese immigrants,” into the U.S. to work as laborers.[2] 
Other examples were the 1913 and 1920 Alien Land Law. These laws meant that because first-generation Japanese immigrants couldn’t become citizens, they “weren’t allowed to own property.”[3] FDR expressed support for these “exclusion and alien land laws … based on [the] supposedly innate and incompatible racial characteristics” of the Japanese.[4] This made it very difficult for the Issei – first generation Japanese immigrants – to settle down and build their lives in America.
In 1931, the U.S. government conducted a study to assess the “loyalty of … [those] living on the West Coast and Hawaii.” The results of the study, which were kept from the public until well after WWII, found “no Japanese problem.” In fact, the Japanese had an “extraordinary degree of loyalty.” Despite these findings, FDR remained suspicious of the activity of Japanese American citizens in Hawaii. 
In a secret memorandum in 1936, FDR asked his Joint Planning Committee "to make contingency plans for ‘the Japanese population’ of all the islands,” as well as placing identified suspects on a special list for those who would be placed in concentration camps “in the event of trouble.”[5] He would later authorize “further surveillance … on the West Coast Japanese population, but not on resident German and Italian populations.”[6]
Furthermore, a 1939 memo issued by FDR “gave ‘sweeping authority’ to … and directed three [intelligence] agencies to coordinate their work and exchange information” on matters of domestic security. Two of the three intelligence agencies, the Office of Navy Intelligence (ONI) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), would go on to oppose the mass exclusion of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. 
Kenneth Riggle, an officer in the ONI who investigated the Japanese American community before the war, concluded that they “did not pose a security risk … and oppose[d] their mass removal and incarceration.”[7] The FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover also expressed his opposition to the exclusion, contradicting “Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox[’s] statement about fifth column work in Hawai’i [following] the attack on Pearl Harbor.[8] Ultimately, FDR was not swayed by both men’s positions and moved forward with the mass exclusion by signing EO9066.
With the stroke of a pen, every single Japanese on the West Coast would be in violation of the law if they refused to be interned. This meant that Japanese American families had mere days to plan for the care of their property before internment. 
Many families that couldn’t make such arrangements were forced, “in the midst of the crisis,” to sell their property for pennies on the dollar in what amounted to “highway robbery!”[9] Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, a former internee, posits in her autobiography that the “war provided the excuse for removing the Japanese … to eliminate competition and … take over whatever gains the Japanese had made.”[10] 
This harkens back to the 1885 Chinese expulsion of Tacoma when white residents bought Chinese property for bargain prices, and in some cases, taking them over forcibly before removing them from the city. An important distinction between the two events being was that the number of Chinese forced out of Tacoma numbered in the hundreds compared to over a hundred thousand Japanese who were forcibly evacuated from their homes and properties. FDR may have not been physically present for the Japanese evacuations as Mayor Weisbach had been  for the Tacoma expulsion, but with his signature, he might as well have been.
It is hard to quantify how much of an effect the earlier exclusion movements had on the treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII. However, we do know that FDR held racist views regarding the Japanese. 
According to historian Greg Robinson, FDR’s “history of anti-Japanese prejudice and racialized thinking led to a carelessness in judging information … and a malign indifference to the rights of Japanese Americans in the face of political pressure for their exclusion.”[11] 
Emily Anderson proposes that “the exclusion movement … and the legislation they helped pass … ultimately cultivated an environment in the West Coast states where the systemic scapegoating of Japanese Americans … and their ultimate removal from [their] homes, businesses, and communities, could seem acceptable.” She also argues that “the exclusion movement is a critical aspect of pre-World War II history that paved the way for the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.”[12] 
In her autobiography, Looking Like the Enemy, Gruenewald gives us a glimpse into her emotional turmoil at the time of her incarceration. She writes:
We had lost our right to be in the privacy of our own home, the right to come and go as we pleased, the right to voice our opinions openly without the fear of retaliation, the right to be involved in creative activities of our choosing. I was loyal to the country that guaranteed these rights – and that country no longer existed for me. The sudden loss of these rights forced me to realize that this whole mass movement against the Japanese in America was the culmination of more than a half-century of anti-Asian prejudice. And no one, not even the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court, would defend us.[13]

[1] Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, “Looking Like the Enemy,” 3-4

[2] Emily Anderson. “Anti-Japanese exclusion movement,” Densho Encyclopedia

[3] Gruenewald, “Looking Like the Enemy,” 98

[4] Brian Niiya. “Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Densho Encyclopedia

[5] Greg Robinson, “FDR Hawaii Memo,” Densho Encyclopedia

[6] Niiya, “Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Densho Encyclopedia

[7] Niiya, “Kenneth Riggle,” Densho Encyclopedia

[8] Niiya, “J. Edgar Hoover,” Densho Encyclopedia

[9] Gruenewald, “Looking Like the Enemy,” 91.

[10] Gruenewald, “Looking Like the Enemy,” 92.

[12] Anderson, “Anti-Japanese exclusion movement,” Densho Encyclopedia

[13] Gruenewald, “Looking Like the Enemy,” 125.

[11] Niiya, “Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Densho Encyclopedia

Featured Image courtesy of the National Archives

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