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West Coast’s fear spurred dark page in nation’s history

On Feb. 19, people will gather in ten remote Western locales to observe the 70th anniversary of what Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said was one of the “most shameful acts of government.”

On that day in 1942 – 74 days after the raid on Pearl Harbor – President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War Henry Stimson to designate certain “military areas” and to exclude “any or all” persons from them.

It soon became apparent that the “any or all” persons were the West Coast’s Japanese-Americans.  More than 120,000 were to be sent to ten remote detention camps for the duration of the war.  California’s two camps, where ceremonies will be held on the 19th, were placed in some of the state’s harshest environments:  Tule Lake in Modoc County and Manzanar in Inyo County.

It’s hard to imagine the climate of fear that then prevailed on the West Coast.  In the days following Pearl Harbor, a major West Coast attack appeared to be imminent.  At least, that’s what the politicians, newspapers and radio commentators were saying.

Late at night just six days after the Executive Order was signed, air traffic controllers thought they detected Japanese planes converging on Los Angeles.  Air-raid sirens screamed.  Anti-aircraft fire filled the air.  And people ran into the streets shooting guns into the air.   But there was no attack.

Prominent among those advocating detention was a towering figure in 20th Century civil rights jurisprudence, future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Two days after the signing of the order, the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration opened a hearing in San Francisco chaired by U.S. Rep. John H. Tolan of Oakland.  Warren, who was then California’s Attorney General, offered testimony.  Followers of Warren’s tenure on the Supreme Court would be surprised – if not astonished – at his statements.

“To assume that the enemy has not (been) planning fifth column activities for us in a wave of sabotage is simply to live in a fool’s paradise,” said Warren.  “I am afraid many of our people in other parts of the country are of the opinion that because we have had no sabotage and no fifth column activities in this state since the beginning of the war, that means that none have been planned for us.  But I take the view that this is the most ominous sign in our whole situation.  It convinces me more than perhaps any other factor that the sabotage that we are to get, the fifth column activities that we are to get, are timed just like Pearl Harbor was timed and just like the invasion of France, and of Denmark and of Norway. 

“I believe that we are just being lulled into a false sense of security that the only reason we haven’t had disaster in California is because it has been timed for a different date. …Our day of reckoning is bound to come in that regard.”

Tolan responded:  “On that point, when that came up in our committee hearings there was not a single case of sabotage reported on the Pacific Coast, we heard the heads of the Navy and the Army, and they all tell us that the Pacific Coast can be attacked.  The sabotage would come coincident with that attack, would it not?”

“Exactly,” Warren replied.

Tolan added:  “They would be fools to tip their hands now, wouldn’t they?”

“Exactly,”  Warren continued.  “We believe that any delay in the adoption of the necessary protective measures is to invite disaster. ”

The attorney general gave the committee maps showing Japanese-American ownership of property near airports, aircraft manufacturing plants, military installations, and key structures such as bridges and dams.

“These maps show to the law enforcement officers that it is more than just accident, that many of those ownerships are located where they are,” Warren said.

There was little note of the fact that much of that Japanese-American-owned land was being farmed. In fact, much of it was cleared and planted before the structures and plants were built – and some even before the Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk.  Rep. Laurence Arnold of Illinois wondered aloud whether the patterns of ownership simply developed randomly.

“We don’t believe that it could in all of these places” Warren replied.  “We believe that there is pattern to these land ownerships.”

The U.S. also was at war with Germany and Italy.  Immigrants from those nations had a significant presence in California.  That didn’t trouble the attorney general.

“I want to say,” Warren continued, “that the consensus of opinion among the law-enforcement officers of this state is that there is more potential danger among the group of Japanese who are born in this country than from the alien Japanese who were born in Japan.  We believe that when we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them, and we believe that we can, in dealing with the Germans and the Italians, arrive at some fairly sound conclusions because of our knowledge of the way they live in the community and have lived for many years.  But when we deal with the Japanese, we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound.”

From the perspective of history, the Pearl Harbor attack was hit-and-run.  The Japanese did major damage to the U.S. fleet and then attacked Asian targets.

By the time Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore and much of the Dutch East Indies were under Japanese control.  The Japanese were then moving into Burma.

Much later, Warren would express regret for the fact that he helped fan the flames of anti-Japanese-American sentiment.  Yet by June of 1943, as American support of the internment was softening, then-California Gov. Earl Warren went to the National Conference of Governors in Columbus, Ohio, to make the case against releasing Japanese-Americans from camps.  California would use every legal means to prevent their return, said Warren: “No more dangerous step could be taken. …no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap.”

Warren, of course, was wrong.   There were no major fifth column activities on the West Coast during the war.  Small attacks that occurred, chiefly in Oregon, were generated by Japanese submarines off our coast.  Yet that and the savage 1,000-mile war in the Aleutian Islands was enough to keep many coastal residents on edge. Warren’s views mirrored the majority view of the era, fed by the news media reports that used the terms “Jap” and “Yellow Peril” interchangeably. 

Yale constitutional law professor Eugene V. Rostow called Executive Order 9066 “our worst wartime mistake.” 

It probably was the worst wartime mistake on American soil.  But there were two worse mistakes:  the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


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