Before The Colors Fade: The Return Of The Exiles

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By nightfall of December 7, 1941—the day Pearl Harbor was attacked—F.B.I, agents on the Wast Coast had arrested 1,300 “potentially dangerous” enemy aliens. During the next few weeks the western edge of the country underwent a panic that is hard to understand even in retrospect. Sporadic acts of violence against Japanese, alien and native-born, began to occur. A California state legislator demanded the mass evacuation of “all persons of Japanese ancestry,” and the cry reverberated in the press. By mid-February of 1942 the California attorney general, Earl Warren, was calling for military action to “protect this state from the Japanese situation.” On February 19, President Roosevelt signed the executive order that made such action possible. Many Japanese-Americana who could afford the price of a ticket accepted “voluntary deportation” to other areas of the country. On April 30, the longexpected final order of exclusion came through.

All persons of Japanese descent in the three coastal states were required to report to so-called assembly centers; they were to bring bedding and linen, toilet articles and clothing, knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups. Nothing else.

In the end, the evacuee figure came close to 110,000. There were old and young, sick and well, mothers, grandmothers, infants, aging veterans of other U.S. wars. Half of them were under twenty years old; many neither spoke nor read Japanese. All were forced to leave their homes, lands, and businesses. They were herded into hastily built barracks, surrounded by barbed wire, in remote, often isolated areas of California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and Arkansas.

In 1945, when the Japanese were permitted to return, Earl Warren was governor of California and Robert Walker Kenny was attorney general. Kenny and Warren were political rivals. Both were frequently mentioned as possible presidential nominees for, respectively, the Democratic and Republican parties. It was the attorney general, not the governor, who had to handle the politically sensitive task of the peaceful return of the Japanese to California. In a recent interview with his biographer, Janet Stevenson, Kenny recalled that process and the events leading up to it.

One of the strange things about the whole episode of the so-called relocation was that there really wasn’t much anti-Japanese sentiment in California at the time of Pearl Harbor. Nor even afterward. It had to he whipped up. It took a number of weeks to do it.

I was in the state senate in December, 1941, and I remember we had a resolution offered to the effect that all Japanese-Americans should be barred from civil service employment. Well, it just didn’t get any takers. The thing was referred to committee—which is to say, it got lost.

And Governor Culbert L. Olson (who changed his mind a few weeks later) was making statements about how we should not regard the Japanese in California as responsible for what had happened in Hawaii; they were just as much victims as we Caucasians. … I remember going up in an elevator in the State Building in Los Angeles. There were two Nisei [native-born Japanese-Americans] aboard, and everybody took the occasion to wish them well. Everybody was sorry for them. That was no more than two weeks after Pearl Harbor.

But then the newspapers got going, especially the Hearst papers. People began reading those crazy headlines about sabotage—arrow-shaped i’orest fires pointing at our cities—and spies standing on the beach signalling to submarines. By February they had us so jumpy we couldn’t read our own radar. Somebody in Los Angeles picked up a false signal from a weather balloon, and we had a whole night of ack-ack. The point is that all this had to be fomented.

Didn’t California have a long history of anti-Japanese prejudice?

Back in the twenties, in Hiram Johnson’s time. From 1914 on, a California politician who wanted to get elected had to be just as racist on the Japanese as a Democratic politician in the South had to be on the Negro.

But by 1940 that was gone. AVeIl, maybe not in some of those rural communities where there was real jealousy of the Japanese farmers. Rut for the most part the Japanese had become settled, respectable, useful citizens. The people we were down on by iy/)o were the Filipinos, who were the latest immigrants to arrive and to start competing for jolis. Of course, during the war we couldn’t express that feeling because here were the Filipinos fighting along with MacArthur at Bataan. And since we apparently have to hate somebody, we reverted to our old, bad habits about the Japanese. But it took an effort. It could only have been done in an atmosphere of war nerves.

Once the Japanese had been evacuated, did the feeling against them die down?

Not everywhere. Not in those rural communities—Placer County, Nevada County, Fresno, Orange. You see, there were all these organizations dedicated to keeping it up. Like the California Joint Immigration Committee. That’s “joint” because it was composed of the American Legion, the Native Sons of the Golden West, the state Grange, and—for a while, at least—the state Federation of Labor. Their program had always been “Get the Japanese out of California.” Now they had what they wanted, and they were working overtime to make sure it stuck.