Don't Know Much

Don’t Know Much About® Internment

(In honor of Dorothea Lange’s birthday on May 26, 1895, I am re-posting this recent piece about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the subject of some of her most important photographs.)


It was on March 23, 1775 that Patrick Henry offered his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in colonial Virgina.

On March 23, 1942 –167 years later– the United States government began taking away the liberty of more than one hundred thousand people–the Japanese Americans viewed as a threat after Pearl Harbor. On that date, the U.S. Army began removing people of Japanese descent from Los Angeles.

Photo by Dorothea Lange of Japanese-American grocery store on the day after Pearl Harbor Source: Library of Congress


Following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, there was a wave of fear and hysteria aimed at Japanese and people of Japanese descent living in America, including American citizens, mostly on the West Coast. In February 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which declared certain areas to be “exclusion zones” from which the military could remove anyone for security reasons. It provided the legal groundwork for the eventual relocation of approximately 120,000 people to a variety of detention centers around the country, the largest forced relocation in American history. Nearly two-thirds of them were American citizens. (Smaller numbers of Americans of German and Italian descent were also detained.)

Photo Source: National Archives

The attitude of many Americans at the time was expressed in a Los Angeles Times editorial of the period:

“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched… So, a Japanese American born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere… notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship almost inevitably and with the rarest exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, and not an American…” (Source: Impounded, p. 53)

There were several types of camps run by the government but the most notable, including Manzanar, were the “Relocation Centers” run by the War Relocation Authority. The camps were located in remote often desolate areas, some on lands purchased from Native American nations. Surrounded by barbed wire, they featured tar paper shacks with no toilets or cooking facilities.”Spartan” would be a kind description.

In 1943, the Army invited Japanese Americans to enlist, and during the war, 30,000 Japanese Americans volunteered to serve in the U.S. military. (Source: National Archives)

The exclusion order was rescinded in 1945 and internees were allowed to leave, although many had lost their homes, businesses and property during their confinement. However, the last camp did not close until 1946.

In 1980, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the internment and, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which provided for a reparation of $20,000 to surviving detainees.

One of those detainees was Albert Kurihara who told the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981:

“I hope this country will never forget what happened, and do what it can to make sure that future generations will never forget.” (from Impounded, Norton)

The National Parks Service offers a Teaching With Historic Places lesson plan based on the camps some of which are now part of the National Parks System including Minidoka in Idaho and the Manzanar camp in California.

Archival Research Gallery (National Archives) of Japanese-American Experience

Library of Congress Collection of Ansel Adams photographs of internment camp at Manzanar

Photographer Dorothea Lange also photographed the internment camps and her censored images were published in 2006 in the book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (WW Norton, 2006).


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