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Jay Feldman on ‘Concentration Camps on the Home Front’

Posted on Jan 9, 2009
book cover

By Jay Feldman

(Page 2)

Moreover, Howard makes a glaring error of omission common to virtually the entire body of literature on the Japanese-American relocation and internment: By failing to connect the War Relocation Authority program to its antecedent, the Justice Department’s Alien Enemy Control program, he perpetuates the widespread misconception that Japanese-Americans were the only U.S. group targeted during the Second World War.

In fact, the WRA program, rather than having sprung independent and full-blown—as it is almost universally perceived to have done—was a natural and direct outgrowth of the Alien Enemy Control program. By the time the WRA plan was conceived and carried out beginning in February 1942, the assault on civil liberties had already been under way for five years, tracing back to an August 1936 meeting between President Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in which FDR asked Hoover to undertake a secret FBI investigation of “subversive” activities in the United States.


book cover


Concentration Camps on the Home Front


By John Howard


University Of Chicago Press, 356 pages


Buy the book


Starting on the very day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI, on the basis of the investigations initiated in August 1936, carried out a haphazard, almost entirely unnecessary and largely ineffective roundup of Japanese-, German- and Italian-Americans, a number of whom were U.S. citizens. Within 48 hours after Pearl Harbor, nearly 2,000 individuals had been apprehended. Along with a very small percentage of hard-core Nazis and Japanese spies and saboteurs, thousands of innocent people were swept up and sent to Department of Justice internment camps for years, with barely a passing nod to due process. In all, 8,004 Japanese-Americans, 6,847 German-Americans and 2,991 Italian-Americans were taken into “custodial detention” and shipped to more than a dozen Department of Justice camps throughout the country, and in some cases they were held long after the end of the war. Hundreds of others were “repatriated” to Germany and Japan in prisoner-of-war exchanges, among them many U.S.-born children—American citizens—who were sent “home” with their immigrant parents. In the end, not a single person arrested and interned under the Alien Enemy Control program was convicted of committing a war-associated crime against this country.

Simultaneously, in flagrant violation of international law, the United States conspired with the governments of more than 15 Latin American countries to identify, arrest and deport to the United States, with little or no evidence and no legal proceedings, more than 6,500 Latin Americans of German, Japanese and Italian ancestry. The deportees consisted of both immigrant residents and citizens of those Latin American countries from which they were deported. As with the domestic effort, the Latin American prisoners included only a small percentage of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers; unlike the domestic internees, they included virtually no dangerous Japanese. From Latin America, 4,058 Germans (including 81 Jews, some of whom had spent time in Nazi concentration camps), 2,264 Japanese and 287 Italians were taken from their homes and shipped to this country. The program was carried out by the State Department, but when the deportees reached the United States, they were classified as enemy aliens and interned in the Justice Department camps under the Alien Enemy Control program, alongside the domestic enemy aliens. Many of these Latin Americans were also used for POW exchanges with the Axis powers.

While Howard makes several mentions of the DOJ camps in “Concentration Camps on the Home Front,” he never explains their existence or draws the crucial distinction between them and the WRA camps, nor does he mention the internment of German and Italian-Americans or of German, Italian and Japanese Latin Americans.

Howard also concurs with the prevailing view of the Japanese-American relocation and internment as having been based entirely on racism. While racism was clearly and undeniably a key motivating factor, it is not the entire explanation. A fuller picture emerges only when the Japanese-American situation is seen in the full context of the other alien enemy groups’ internments. A cloud of suspicion hung over all three communities, based in large part on the assumption and fear that aliens’ loyalties were automatically divided between the United States and their countries of origin, and therefore their allegiance to this country was questionable, regardless of how long they had lived here. The nativist streak of resentment toward immigrants that had been an undercurrent in American life since the early 19th century cannot be overlooked in attempting to understand the internment of all three ethnic groups.

Still, despite these oversights, there is much to praise in Howard’s book. At its core, “Concentration Camps on the Home Front” holds up a critical lens to American society and values, raising such hot-button issues as race, family, gender politics, capitalism, individualism, immigration and nationalism. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the scholarship of the Japanese-American relocation and internment.

Jay Feldman is the author of “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards” (Free Press, 2005). He is currently working on a book for Pantheon about the scapegoating of minorities in times of crisis.

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By Folktruther, January 17, 2009 at 3:30 pm Link to this comment

CONSERVATIVE YANKEE Yeah, you’re right, Elenor did try to do something but she was not part of the Administration.  Gailbraith had just come from Canada so he was probably not sensitive to the problem.  Gailbraith was a memeber of the Roosevelt administration before he was an American citizen.

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By Conservative Yankee, January 17, 2009 at 8:01 am Link to this comment
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Folktruther, January 11 at 6:17 pm #

“Roosevelt was not a racial progressive, the Southern Dems being part of the New Deal coalition.  John Kenneth Gailbraith, an early New Dealer before he was even a citizen, stated that it never occurred to them to assist African-Americans”

John Gailbraith is/was incorrect, Eleanor Roosevelt proposed “anti lynching legislation” and worked hard to have it passed. She lobbied congress for eight years but her husband quashed this legislation for political gain.

assisting African-Americans did “Occur” to them, they just rejected the idea.

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By digenis, January 14, 2009 at 3:09 am Link to this comment
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Whenever Israel starts one of its many invasions of its neighbours, we get a flood of Holocaust stories or red herrings like this one. There is some importance to the American concentration camps of 70 years ago, but more important is today’s Gaza concentration camp and the war crimes being brazenly commited on its prisoners.

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By Jay Feldman, January 12, 2009 at 10:15 pm Link to this comment
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Folktruther - Quite right on the Palmer raids. What I meant was that the raids weren’t aimed at any particular ethnic group. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were two of the more notable radicals deported. There were many others.

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By Folktruther, January 12, 2009 at 9:00 pm Link to this comment

Jay, the Palmer raids were aimed at radicals, many of whom were Foreigners from Central and East Europe.  Many of the Foreigners were deported, including notables such as Emma Golman. The anti-Foreigner element has long been a current of ideological thought in the US, and intensified with those of different skin color.

I think it is refreshing that you discuss and argue with the commenters and I wish there werre more TDers like you.

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By Jay Feldman, January 12, 2009 at 8:23 pm Link to this comment
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Art Jacobs is correct - I should have said, “While it is true that relatively few Italian- and German-American citizens were interned, many more were relocated and their movements were severely limited.”

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By Art Jacobs, January 12, 2009 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment
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RE:Jay Feldman wrote: “While it’s true that Italian- and German-American citizens were not interned, many were relocated and their movements were severely limited.” 

This is not true… German-American citizens were in fact arrested by the FBI, some were denaturalized and then interned.  In addition, many of us who were children, US-born, were also interned…some for four years of their young lives.

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By Jay Feldman, January 12, 2009 at 12:07 pm Link to this comment
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Xntrk - a few comments in response to your last post:

It’s not simply a matter of semantics. It’s a matter of correcting the historical record. Yes, of course, racism played a major role in the J-A internment. I acknowledged as much. But, again, it’s not the entire explanation. It’s important to understand that the roots of the WRA program lay in the Alien Enemy Control program. The process began with concerns over national security, at least 5 years before Pearl Harbor, and was aimed originally at Communists, Fascists and Nazis. By December 1939, it had evolved into hysteria directed at German, Italian and Japanese aliens as J. Edgar Hoover began compiling the notorious secret ABC lists. But it was only after Pearl Harbor that the idea of rounding up all the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans on the West Coast occurred. While it’s true that Italian- and German-American citizens were not interned, many were relocated and their movements were severely limited.

The Palmer raids of 1919-20 were not aimed at any ethnic group, but were rather an attempt to stamp out left-wing radicals as a danger to American society - a manifestation of the same process that had occurred in World War I, when about 6,300 German aliens were arrested for “security” reasons during the First World War, and 2,300 were interned - for reasons much the same as the hysteria that later led to the internments of WW II. Many Germans and German Americans were also brutally attacked and, in a few cases, lynched during WW I.

The Immigration Act of 1924, which put an end to immigration from more than a dozen Asian countries, including China, Japan, and India, also severely restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe.

The magnitude of the injustice of the J-A internment has unfortunately obscured the relatively “smaller” injustice of German and Italian aliens interned during WW II. But injustice is still injustice, and it must be identified as such. The internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans was part of a larger, more encompassing process.

The pattern is always the same:  in times of crisis (real or imagined; political, social or economic), the government scapegoats minorities (ethnic, racial, political or religious) as a way of creating hysteria, which is then used as a justification for a larger crackdown on civil liberties and the suppression of dissent. When seen in the context of this deep-rooted, anti-democratic tendency, that is the larger lesson of the Japanese American internment.

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By Folktruther, January 11, 2009 at 7:17 pm Link to this comment

Another good piece by Truthdig and good comments as well.  The anti-foreign xenaphobia might have extended from the Palmer raids of Wilson, also a Democrat, foreigners during and after WW1 being assoocated with radicalism.

I think the Quakers did whatever they could to help the Japanese sell their property instead of just abandoning it, but apparantly the small shops were largely destroyed.

Roosevelt was not a racial progressive, the Southern Dems being part of the New Deal coalition.  John Kenneth Gailbraith, an early New Dealer before he was even a citizen, stated that it never occurred to them to assist African-Americans.

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By Xntrk, January 11, 2009 at 5:11 pm Link to this comment
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Jay Feldman, I appreciate your critique of my remarks, but I think we are now arguing semantics. Isn’t the ability to dehumanize neighbors based on their race through the use of patriotic fear mongering and hysteria a classic tool of Racism? Whether it is the KKK in the South lynching Blacks to protect the ‘purity of the White Woman’ to the building of the fence along the Mexican Border [but not the Canadian] is as surely Racist, as it is based on Nativism.

While Italian Enemy Aliens and German Enemy Aliens were interned, the accent is on Alien. Native-born Italians were not locked up. The German’s weren’t locked up during the 1st World War either, altho the Italians were included in the expulsion of the Reds and Anarchists in the 1920s.

It is important to remember that the Irish, Italians, Chinese and Japanese were all considered only half a step above the Negro in the late 18th and early 19th Century. The signs forbidding entry to Asians, Irish, and dogs were too common to even comment on.

In the most rapid expansion of the American population through immigration, it was only the Asians who were denied the right of Citizenship, and after 1921, denied entry entirely.

If it were ‘Nativism’ those rules would have applied to all the Eastern Europeans also, who were also intensely subjected to prejudice and harassment, but not technically denied their Civil Rights and the privilege of entering the country if they met the health standards.

To me, that is Racism. With the Irish, it was anti-Catholic or Religion based, just as our actions against Muslims is today - unless they are also brown-skinned, in which case, they get hit with a double whammy.

So, call it what you want - I think it is Racism, but “A Rose is a rose, is a rose…”

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By jersey girl, January 11, 2009 at 2:03 pm Link to this comment

There are already hundreds of fema camps at the ready here in the U.S.  What are they for? Citizens deemed “terrorists” because they speak out against the govt or american debtors?

With troops being trained to handle “we the people” with the threat of martial law, it’s really not hard to imagine those camps being used for either purpose.

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By Jay Feldman, January 10, 2009 at 12:46 pm Link to this comment
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Xntrk is correct about economic factors being partially responsible for the Japanese-American relocation and internment. I didn’t mention this issue in my review because it was tangential to the subject matter, but in my novel SUITCASE SEFTON AND THE AMERICAN DREAM - in which a major league baseball scout discovers a pitcher in an Arizona internment camp - the economic aspect of the relocation and internment is briefly discussed.

However, Xntrk is missing the bigger picture by saying, “Racism was the cause of the round-up and internment.” As I wrote in my review, racism was only part of the picture. Identifying racism as the sole cause distorts the historical record and obscures the other, equally critical factors that were responsible for not only the Japanese-American internment, but for the interment of German and Italian “alien enemies” as well. Those factors were rooted in national security fears and hysteria, and in the longstanding history of nativism in this country. It is one of the most serious misunderstandings of World War II domestic history and one that is constantly perpetuated - including by John Howard in his otherwise valuable book - that racism was the sole cause of the Japanese-American relocation and internment.

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By nrobi, January 10, 2009 at 9:46 am Link to this comment

The very notion of interment camps has made the neo-cons wet with envy.  Their modus operandi has been to demonize the opposition and then to arrest them without cause, for the sole purpose of silencing these courageous people.
While the shrub’s administration did its level best to intimate that people who disagreed with the illegal and immoral conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not patriotic Americans, they also carried out illegal wiretapping and overtly illegal “framing” of those people, by labeling them “terrorists.”  One group of which I am aware personally, is the Friends Meeting House in Lake Worth Florida.  This Quaker church, stood out because of their labeling as supposedly, terrorists because of their stand against all war, they were labeled a terroristic threat under the TALON program,  and as of today have still not been removed
from the terrorist watch list.
Concentration Camps, the places which will be used to
house those who disagree with the current administration’s policies, have already been started
and are being worked on as we speak.  Another troubling fact, is the Army’s stationing of the Northern Command. This group of soldiers, along with the “Blackwater International Group,” will be used to quell any protest or civil disobedience in the coming years.
We are now, and not becoming a truly fascist state! There is no rhyme or reason to the governments policies, one need only look to House Resolution 1955
for the new definition of homegrown terrorists.
We are faced with as we speak, with the end of the “Grand Experiment,” no longer is this America, but a new and much more fascist state has emerged, Amerikkka! The land of the captive and the home of the oppressed. For no one who earns under $1 Million a year will be safe from the police state that is emerging as we write and speak.
Millions of homeless and hungry people will demand their rights, the Army will be used to quell any disturbance of the peace of mind of those who are the
ruling elite and wealthy.
Just remember that HR1955, gives the local, state and
federal governments the power to declare you and I terrorists and to imprison us without trial or right of habeas corpus, for the duration of the “emergency or war.”
Unite, speak out now, while you still can, for if you
do not there will be no one to speak out on your behalf in the coming months and years.

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By Harry H. Snyder, January 10, 2009 at 9:43 am Link to this comment
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By Jim Yell, January 9 at 7:49 am #

“We are on the edge of the end of democracy in the United States.”

You must have spent your life in some rich, all-white suburb.

There has NEVER been “democracy” in these United States. The founders designed it as a “republic” Freedoms were accorded (origonally) to white males over the age of 21, and even these folks were distrusted by constitutional framers, that’s why they placed an “electoral college” between voters and result.

Dark Skinned Slaves, oriental serfs, woman,children, the insane, and debtors were all considered chattle.

The USA has NEVER, from its inception, been a “free country” It is a very expensive country, and the freedom one gets is the freedon they can afford!

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By mike112769, January 10, 2009 at 6:52 am Link to this comment

How long until we have new camps opened for those of us who dare to disagree with our government?

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By Xntrk, January 10, 2009 at 1:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Neither the reviewer nor [apparently] the author, mentions the economic motives for the Japanese internment on the West Coast. It was no secret in the Bay Area of California and around Seattle that the Japanese owned much of the best and most fertile farm land. I’d imagine the same motivation would lead to the internment of the Italians also, if it was on the West Coast.

These people lost their homes and 4 years of their lives. Their property was supposedly held in trust for them, but it had mysteriously been transferred to others during the owners absence.

This was a dirty secret when I was growing up in Seattle. As kids, we were busy harassing the supposed Japanese spies and trying to find their secret radios. All the time it was the Chinese we were victimizing. Certainly no adult ever said to me that the Japanese were locked up…

When Republican Governor Warren of California became Chief Justice, and later set the Conservatives’ teeth on edge, there was a lot of discussion of his role in stealing the Japanese property during the war - In the alternative press of course, certainly it wasn’t written up in Time. In my memory anyway, the whole topic was not openly discussed.

The eventual apology and pittance paid to the survivors of the camps [many had died waiting] was to little and too late for most of the internees. The real surprise is how little bitterness the Japanese harbor against their Caucasian neighbors.

Racism was the cause of the round-up and internment. But, just as the Jewish property was looted by the Germans during the War, so too was that of the Japanese by all those good law-abiding citizens of the US.

Greed was not really invented by Reagan!

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By Shift, January 9, 2009 at 2:58 pm Link to this comment

What is less know are the Italian American concentration sites.

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By Shirley, January 9, 2009 at 12:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Feldman’s comments were more accurate than most “Japanese American internment scholars” who blantly deny WWII European American internment.  Check out for primary documents on European American internment.  You can also read an interchange with the Japanese American Citizen’s League regarding their denial of WWII European internment at a Portland State University Event. Look under “Major Issue” Portland State/ACLU

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By Jay Feldman, January 9, 2009 at 11:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Celia is uninformed about the broader meaning of “Nikkei.” If she had taken the trouble to investigate a bit further (i.e., by clicking on the link provided), she would have discovered that the term “Nikkei” is not only the name of the Japanese stock exchange, but also refers to Japanese emigrants and their descendants. “Nisei” (not “Nissei” - Celia’s spelling), as she correctly points out, are second generation emigrants, but I did not confuse these two terms or get them wrong. There were Issei (first generation), Nisei, and most likely even a small number of Sansei (third generation) interned during WW II - collectively they made up the “Nikkei” community.

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By Ben, January 9, 2009 at 11:26 am Link to this comment
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Nikkei also refers to the Japanese Diaspora.  In fact, the link within the article leads to the Wikipedia article that explains, in detail the origin of the term.  You may want to do a little due diligence before suggesting that the author made a mistake.

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By Celia, January 9, 2009 at 9:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nikkei is the stock exchange.  Nissei means second generation.  If the author of this article (or even the scholar being written about) got this wrong, what else?  Just continues to show ignorance about a different culture and people.

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By Jim Yell, January 9, 2009 at 8:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

War time is an unbalanced time. Playing to powerful power cliques lead government out on thin ice. A need to unify the public behind policy encourages long term bad policy.

I for one do not dispute the government and peoples right to decide who is welcome here, but once our duly authorized governments sanction and even grant citizenship, than it no longer matters where the person is born and that person should be protected by the same laws that once protected all of us.

So there should be no need for long explainations of why this internment was wrong, except that today under the blanket label of homeland security (a precursor of dictatorship)we find our government doing much the same thing as the discredited internment of citizens in WWII.

The sad thing is everything the country stood for or should have stood for was contradicted by the WWII internment, just as the current validation of torture and wrongful incarceration in the last number of years also does.

We are on the edge of the end of democracy in the United States.

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