About seventy years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced threats on every side. The nation had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, enemy nations seemed to be closing in on a country that had previously felt relatively isolated from the wars raging in the Pacific and Europe. Now as the White House steeled its military offensive abroad, it also turned to the threat within–or at least what it perceived as the “enemy alien.” In February 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, launching the mass “evacuation” of more than 100,000 people of descendants of the enemy nation, most of them from the West Coast, to remote internment camps, in order to safeguard Americans “against espionage” and “sabotage.”
Within weeks, Japanese Americans across the West Coast packed up and emptied their houses and neighborhoods, undertaking one of the largest forced migrations of the century, seemingly obediently and quietly. It was a catch-22 from the beginning: they were on the one hand detained preemptively on suspicion of siding with the enemy, but praised as loyal Americans–or almost Americans–when they apparently willingly vanished, subordinating their freedom for the national interest. The double-speak of a democracy gripped by military hysteria was articulated in the grim social order in the concentration camps, which were scattered across the rural interior from Wyoming to Texas. Held indefinitely in impoverished, barracks-like compounds–grim open-air prisons shaped like small towns–they lived out an extraordinary sacrifice.
One newspaper account of the evacuation of Bainbridge Island, Washington depicts a glimpse of the chilling ambivalence with which Japanese residents were suddenly sent away:
The Japanese, themselves, remained outwardly calm for the most part. None created any disturbance, although some wept when the actual moment came for boarding the ferry. For many days previously, the Japanese had made “good-bye” calls on their Caucasian friends. Especially tearful were the parting scenes at Bainbridge High School where friends of many years standing were forced to part.
But once they were detained, life went on. They ate, slept, played, and most importantly, they worked. The government and media reported on the day-to-day rhythms of life with an air of strained normalcy, but a complex wartime labor scheme served as a crucial anchor of the detainee community. Many were contracted out to work in the “civilian” labor force, often on private farms–not unlike the farms many worked in their hometowns before they were “evacuated.” The employment program, which paralleled other migrant labor schemes like the Mexican bracero program, was in part a response to the massive labor shortages produced by military mobilization, with many workers deployed overseas. It was also a practical means of controlling a restive populace.
As one history of Oregon’s internment camps notes, concerns about protests at the Tule Lake and Manzanar facilities made the government anxious to keep internees productively distracted from their state-sanctioned immiseration.
During the height of the summer, work decreased in the sugar beet fields and the laborers went “into other lines of agricultural work such as haying, threshing grain, potatos [sic], celery, onions, tractor driving, irrigation, and most any other kind of agricultural work.” Six workers were busy removing moss from irrigation ditches maintained by the Warm Springs Irrigation District. Moreover, the worker program had attracted the interest of farmers in adjoining counties of Idaho and some of the laborers were crossing the Snake River to work.
They were subjected to not only harsh labor regimes but also social restrictions like curfews. Though some received praise for being good workers, many suffered blatant racial discrimination from locals. And long after their internment ended, Japanese American communities faced long-term economic erosion due to the social disruption of mass displacement.
But in 1943, everyone tried to make the best of the situation.
The “Relocating a People” pamphlet, which begins with a quote from FDR in 1943 praising the detainees, shows the chillingly banal public attitude toward the detention camp economy. Encouraging area employers to “employ evacuees,” it catalogues the various skill sets offered by detainees, showing the diversity of “marketable” job categories. It was part of a broader scheme to “reintegrate” the internees as the government worked to manage and eventually empty the relocation camps. Ironically, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) that had ripped masses of Japanese Americans from their civilian lives was now determined to manage their safe return to civilization, using the same contract labor schemes that still govern the employment of many immigrants today.
Around this time, the WRA announced it was “now working toward a steady depopulation of the [relocation] centers by urging all able bodied residents with good records of behavior to reenter private employment in agriculture or industry.”
And here they were: thousands of prospective insurance agents, retail clerks, domestic helpers, farm workers and other laborers–after seeing themselves erased from the American landscape by mass detention, they were ready, willing and able to reenter the economy. And what more proof would a prospective employer need of their loyalty than the extraordinary sacrifice the detainees had already made in the name of the greater good?
Sources: “Relocating a People”: archives of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, University of Michigan Library; other images: Densho Digital Archive, Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration.