Skip to main content


Robert Walker Kenny and Interned Japanese-Americans

May 2024
15min read

The former Attorney General of California recalls the painful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the efforts to help them return.

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 long-expected 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.


Even a liberal newspaper like the Sacramento Bee was involved. All during the war I remember really shocking advertisements appearing in the Ber . Some outfit that called itself the Home Front Commandoes was oSering to pay “volunteers” to work on their “Deport the Jap” campaigns.


It wasn’t just the lunatic fringe, cither. I was no longer in the senate by this time, but I remember being told that a Presbyterian minister had testified that after prayer and fasting he’d concluded it was our Christian duty to keep the Japanese out of the Western world. He was for deporting them right off the continent!


Of course, we were at war with Japan all this time. People were losing sons and husbands in those battles in the Pacific. That tended to delay our sobering up from this racist binge.


Were we still at war with Japan when the Exclusion Order was revoked?

Yes indeed. Recall the order of events here. Pearl Harbor was December 7, 1941. The evacuation began in April, 1942. By the time I became attorney general in 1943, the Japanese were gone. Ex parte Endo —the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened up the concentration camp gates—was December 18, 1944. The first returnees must have hit California in late January, 1945. We were still fighting for Iwo Jima and Okinawa in February and March. Roosevelt died in April. V-E Day was May 7, 1945. We dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, and Japan surrendered on the fourteenth. By that time we only had a few thousands of our returnees. They were still coming in as late as December.

When did you first hear about the return?

Just a few days before Endo was handed down. I was in Washington, and a high official in the Department of the Interior called to tip me off. The War Relocation Authority, which had the unpleasant job of running the camps in which the Japanese were held, was part of Interior. So I got a little advance warning—about a week as I recall—to begin making preparations for the orderly reception of these people. Warren, as governor, was tipped off too. But as the chief law enforcement officer of the state, it was mainly my concern.

Was there an obvious possibility of trouble?

I think so. Not all the people we’d sent out of California would be coming back. Some had left the camps and settled in less hostile parts of the country. The Midwest, the East. Particularly the professionals—doctors, lawyers. Some had gone into the armed services. Some had decided to renounce their citizenship and go to Japan, when that became possible.

But the chances were that something close to 50,000 people who had been stripped of virtually all their possessions and locked up for two years were going to be turning up before long. Sure there were going to be problems.

Were you expecting them all to turn up at once?

No. There were complicated procedures involved—processing, transportation. Of course, they were all free to return from the day of Endo, or whenever it was the Army revoked its Exclusion Order. But I think if we had expected them all back at once—the way they were sent away—we would have been even more alarmed.

How did you go about making preparations for their “peaceful and orderly return”?

Well, I came back to Sacramento and talked it over with Governor Warren. The one experience we had already had with race riots during my regime as attorney general had been in Los Angeles—what we euphemistically called a “civil disturbance”—in the late summer of 1943. Mexican-American young men, called variously “pachucos” or “zoot-suiters,” were picked on by mobs led primarily by servicemen from the Navy or Fort MacArthur. I think the original fight was over the available young ladies of the neighborhood, but “zootsuiters” were something like the hippies of today. They wore strangely cut clothes and they had kind of ducktailed hair-dos, and this, as you know, seems to enrage some people. At any rate, it enraged the young servicemen and some local patriots. It was really terrible. The kids were chased—I remember one Mexican boy was chased right onto the stage of the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and his clothes were ripped from him, There were thirty-five people killed in those riots! At the time, I was in San Francisco; I went immediately to Sacramento and talked with Governor Warren. He shared my alarm. I came down to Los Angeles and talked to the newspapers. We were able to persuade them to stop printing provocative stories about the riots, and the Army and Navy co-operated by declaring Los Angeles off-limits for servicemen. Within two or three days the trouble was over.


But we’d had a good scare, and I was able to get the state to subsidize a report on the nature of race riots and how to avoid having them. That report was very useful to us when we had the problem of the returning Japanese because the basic assumptions in it were the foundation of what I used to call our prophylactic approach to law enforcement.

Actually we had first used this approach in another connection. When we passed a law outlawing slot machines, there were a number of sheriffs who just couldn’t seem to address themselves to it. So we’d call and say, “We hear you’re having trouble. If you would like us to come down and help you get rid of the gamblers and the slot machines, we’ll be glad to. Just let us know.” This “we-boys” technique put me on the side of the sheriff instead of against him, and it worked verv well.


Basically, the assumption now—in 1943—was that the police could prevent a race riot, and that it was to their advantage to do so. The most important means for doing this was taking an unequivocal stand against this sort of lawlessness when it began. We had a long check list of steps that could be taken in any local police department—ways to pick up warning signals well ahead of time, ways to build better relationships between minority groups and the police, how to stop the circulation of rumors, reduce other kinds of tension. But the big push, of course, was for education—a training course for peace officers in the problems of minority group relations. It was part of the final report—the little blue book, as we called it.

We got copies of the blue book into the hands of every peace officer in the state. Actually it was circulated all over the country. They were having race riots in Harlem and Detroit and many other places in 1943, and there was lots of interest in our material.

One of the first things we did, now that we knew the Japanese were coming back, was to get out an updated edition of the blue book and see that it got around, to ease the path of the returning Japanese and to curb the professional patriots.

What were the professional patriots doing?

All sorts of weird and shocking things. You may recall that up in Hood River, Oregon, the American Legion post had voted to remove the names of Nisei servicemen from its honor roll. Well, the city fathers in Gardena, California, did the same thing.

And there were more serious things—vandalism, dynamitings, fires. Oil lanterns were thrown at the windows of an old Buddhist temple in San Francisco where a group of returning Japanese were being sheltered. There was vandalism in a Japanese cemetery in Saunas. They were announcing up in Placer County that there would be no relief for indigent Japanese. And there were scare shootings. I remember seeing Nisei homes where bullets had gone right through the thin walls and passed within inches of sleeping children. One of the worst was an incident in Placer County, where it was perfectly well known who had shot up the house of a recently returned couple, but the local jury simply tapped them on the wrist and the judge suspended sentence.

Then there was that really dreadful incident in a little town called Loomis. A family of Japanese returned, mother, father, and three daughters, and found their home burned to the ground. That time the vigilantes overreached themselves. The War Relocation people let it be known that this family had four sons in the armed services, one of them already dead overseas, and three of the four decorated for bravery. The town conscience was touched. Money was collected, and I believe one of the churches undertook to see to it that a new house was built.

But there’s no question that there was a real attempt, with organizational backing, to drive these people out of California. The motives were interesting. We conducted quite an investigation around Fresno, where there was a great deal of anti-Japanese sentiment, and we found that much of it was generated by a village banker who had been a great friend of the Japanese when they were being evacuated—when there had been no time to make arrangements. What happened in this little town must have been fairly typical. Our friendly banker said, “I’ll take care of your property for you while you’re gone.” But now the Japanese, whom he had probably never expected to see again, were returning, and they would be asking for an accounting. We had pretty good evidence against this “worthy steward”; unfortunately, before we could proceed he had a heart attack and died. If we had been able to develop it, it might have gone a long way to explain the economic motives of patriotism in that corner of California.

Did your “we-boys” approach get co-operation from most of the sheriffs?


There were only two instances of outright defiance. One was the sheriff in Nevada County. He said, “The Japanese shouldn’t have come back and they’re not entitled to any protection and they aren’t going to get any from me.” He actually tried to stop the Southern Pacific from using Japanese section hands on the right of way!

I’d sent one of my prophylaxis task forces up there to see if they couldn’t cool him off, but I finally had to call Governor Warren. I asked him if he didn’t think we ought to call out the state Guard. Warren, who wasn’t as impetuous as I, said, “Let me call the sheriff.” I don’t know what he said to him. I know what I would have said in his place. “Look here, this crazy Kenny is on my neck, and I’m going to have to call out the Guard.…” At any rate, whatever he said worked.

Then there was the sheriff of Orange County. He took the position that it was just unreasonable of me to ask him to get in wrong politically by defending the Constitution in the matter of these returning citizens. I believe Warren talked to him on the phone, too. Warren really knew how to handle these law enforcement people because he’d been one of them. But he was ready to back me up, and they knew it.

The following year there were only two sheriffs defeated for re-election in California. One was the sheriff of Nevada County, and the other was the sheriff of Orange County.

You mentioned a prophylaxis task force.

The man who headed up that aspect of the work was Charles Johnson. He’d been an appointee of Warren’s; I found him there when I took office in 1943.

Well, he was very interested in this prophylactic technique method, and he got in touch with the War Relocation people, and they would let him know when a group of Nisei were about to return to a given area. Charley and another agent would go down to wherever it was and drop in on a whole roster of citizens: the sheriff, the police chief, the mayor, the board of supervisors or the city council, the editors of the newspapers, and the commanders of the American Legion and the V.F.W. Charley would say, “Now you’re going to get these Japanese-American citizens back, and of course we expect their return to be peaceful and orderly, and what can we do to help you?” Just that “Big Brother is watching you” hint was usually enough.

One of the greatest weapons we had, though, was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—the magnificent all-Nisei regiment that made such a heroic showing on the Italian front and later in the Battle of the Bulge. The 442nd was based in Hawaii, but it included a number of California Nisei. And the War Relocation people had some forty or fifty of these decorated heroes—we used to call them rag-rug boys because of all their ribbons—and they were taken around the state as missionaries of good will. It was a brilliant public relations campaign, and it probably did more good than any other single action.

Another prophylactic technique we used was the posting of a reward. I got some wealthy private citizen in San Francisco to put up !5,000 for information leading to the arrest, and so on, of anyone causing—or even making threats about causing—physical harm to a returning Japanese. I’ve always believed that since the people you’re after are rats, the best way to proceed against them is to offer an inducement to their fellow rats to turn them in. I believe we only had to pay the reward once, but that’s not the point. The object of prophylaxis is to prevent. The knowledge that the reward is there for whoever can claim it deters a certain percentage of incipient criminal behavior.

Did the sentiment against the returnees slack off after V-J Day?

No. We still had a problem. At the time only about 12,000 had come back to California. We were expecting another 35,000 or 40,000, and in increasingly large groups. There was no reason to assume the hatemongers would give up just because the Emperor had.

All in all—when they all had returned—how many incidents of violence were there? Serious incidents?

Perhaps a hundred in all. Serious ones? Well, there weren’t any killings. Not even any serious injuries. That was to a certain extent luck. Also, now, in the post-V-J Day stages, we finally got something going in the way of prophylactic education for police officers.


You recall we had made a plea for that sort of thing back in 1943, with our little blue book, but we hadn’t got many takers. Individuals may have read the material—I’m sure they did—but there were no formal programs, classes, or anything of that nature.

At this time—1945—there was another remarkable man on my staff, another Warren discovery. Bob Powers had been police chief of Bakersfield for a number of years. He was a sort of white blackbird, as the French put it. An unformally educated intellectual. Powers could talk cop talk with cops and sociology with sociologists. When we got our chance to set up the first program of special education in race relations for policemen, Powers bridged the gap. He was what was called in those days a “discussion leader,” a natural.

In September of 1945 the city manager of Richmond felt there was a real threat of “civil disturbance” in his area and called our office for help. Maybe he’d been reading his copy of our little blue pamphlet.

It was decided to run a sort of pilot project in training police officers in race relations. You must keep in mind that nothing like this had yet taken place in California—probably not anywhere in the country at this time. There was no precedent to follow. At my suggestion Powers got hold of the regional representative of the American Council on Race Relations, Davis Mclntire. He had the kind of expertise we needed.

Powers and Mclntire were delegated by the city manager to plan and carry out a course for a selected group of about fifteen policemen. What they finally decided to do was to go to the root of the problem, try to change the basic attitudes of these policemen, attack their prejudices head-on, and let the problem of tactics take care of itself. What they were after was an encounter group. Open-end, round-table, no holds barred.

They made a few phone calls and turned up some consultants, representatives of various minorities. One was Walter Gordon, who was later a federal judge in the Virgin Islands. He was, in those days, a rarity—a Negro policeman. And there was Joe Grant Masaoka, one of that set of Nisei brothers who collected an average of over five medals per man for bravery. There was another Nisei who’d served with the Marines on Guadalcanal. And there was E. W. Lester, who was former deputy police chief of Los Angeles.

What minority did he represent?

The policemen! That was the genius of Powers’ approach. He made the parallel between stereotyped thinking about Negroes and Jews and Japanese—and the stereotyping of cops. He talked about the popular image of the policeman as an ignorant, brutal, flatfooted fellow who could be outwitted by any private detective or layman. And they got it! These Richmond policemen got the parallel between terms like “nigger” and “Jap” and “kike” and “flatfoot.”

There were some ten of these sessions. The general subject would be stated—something like “The Nature of Prejudice” or “Facts About Minority Groups”—and then anything could happen. There were some pretty frank questions asked. One of the policemen wanted to know why so many of the internees up at TuIe Lake had elected to renounce their American citizenship and accept deportation to Japan.

Well, that gave Joe Grant Masaoka a chance to tell the story of the evacuation from a viewpoint none of these policemen had ever considered. The loss of everything a whole generation of hard-working men and women had managed to acquire. The loss of dignity in being herded into camps. The separation of families, like the one that had to move on while the mother was on her deathbed. The fact was, Joe Grant Masaoka’s mother was confined to that hell-hole up in the Owens Valley while her sons were fighting and dying for the country that had put her there.

Was there any way to evaluate the effect of the Richmond seminars?

I suppose the real test of it is what happened next. Or rather, what didn’t. It looked as if things were ripe for just the sort of outbreak the city manager had been afraid of. But it didn’t come. Apparently we had produced, with our encounter group, enough enlightened neace officers to step in and cool it.


Was the course given again?

No, and that was a great disappointment to me. Oh, I’m sure there have been courses in race relations for police officers—many of them. But I’ve never heard of one that used this approach—the encounter. We were ahead of our time, I guess.

Do you think the approach would be useful if applied to today’s ghetto hot spots?

Our police today are a good deal more sophisticated than they were twenty years ago. They know more. Or ought to. But sometimes you wonder. …

One thing I’m convinced of is that you don’t change people much by lecturing them on abstractions. I can’t make myself read that stuff any more. Puts me to sleep. It’s when you get down to specifics—that’s what Powers was able to do: to start people on opposite sides talking to each other about concrete, practical problems; asking embarrassing questions and getting frank answers. Maybe if this sort of program were an ongoing thing between police departments and minority communities, there might not be so many hot spots in need of cooling.














We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.