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Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans - Part 1 of 5

On or about August 2, 1979, I received a telephone call from Senator Daniel K. Inouye’s Washington office.1 One of his administrative assistants read me a draft of what became Senate Bill 1647 calling for the establishment of a “Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC).” The call came because I had been advising the staff of the Japanese American Citizens League and others about the campaign for redress.

After hearing the draft I commented that it sounded good to me except that the word “internment” was inappropriate and that “incarceration” was a more accurate term.2 She asked what the difference was, and I explained that “internment” was an ordinary aspect of declared wars and referred to a legal process, described in United States statutes, to be applied to nationals of a country with which the United States was at war. I pointed out that perhaps eight thousand Japanese nationals had been formally interned by the government during World War II, beginning as early as the night of December 7–8, 1941, and that, although a great deal of injustice accompanied this wartime internment, it was conducted legally, and those interned got a semblance of due process.3 What happened to most of the West Coast Japanese Americans in 1942, I continued, should not be described with a word describing a legal process, even though the phrase “internment” was widely used not only in the literature but by many Japanese Americans. After some discussion she said that the difference was clear to her and that the bill’s text would be changed. In a second phone call, the next day, she told me that, unfortunately, the senator had not waited for my vetting and had secured the agreement of a number of other senators to co-sponsor the bill and that he would not countenance any changes.

Thus, not for the first time, inappropriate, euphemistic language was employed, officially, to describe what happened to West Coast Japanese Americans in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Although, over time, the consciousness of Japanese and other Americans has been raised, most notably by the successful redress movement which resulted in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which eventually produced both an apology and a payment of $20,000 to more than eighty thousand survivors, most of the literature about the wartime events still uses language created during and immediately after World War II. In this essay I will first outline, briefly, the history of statutory internment in American history, and then trace and analyze some of the inappropriate language that has been used and try to show why it is important to call things by their right names and how the use of such language helped to mask the true nature of an American war crime.

* * * * *

Internment has long been recognized in both American and international law. By World War II it was regulated by a system of rules—the Geneva Convention—which governed the treatment of prisoners of war and was sometimes extended to civilian enemy nationals, including diplomats, resident in or captured by a belligerent nation. Although the first statute to use the term “alien enemy” was passed during John Adams’s administration, there was no formally declared war, and no internment occurred.4 The first actual internment by the United States government occurred during the war of 1812 when some resident British, mostly merchants, were ordered to remove themselves fifty miles inland. British merchants in New York City, for example, were interned, but left at liberty up the Hudson at Newburgh.

The United States next resorted to the process during World War I. At that time there were about half a million unnaturalized resident aliens of German birth in the United States who were proclaimed “alien enemies” as soon as the United States declared war in April 1917. Some eight thousand enemy aliens—the vast majority of them Germans and almost all the rest subjects of Austria-Hungary—were arrested under presidential warrants, but nearly three-quarters of them were released within a short time. Only about 2,300 enemy nationals resident in the United States were actually interned, 90 percent of them German and all but a few of them male.5

During World War II, internment of Germans and Italians began more than two years before the United States formally entered the war in December 1941. A few seamen from German vessels stranded in U.S. ports were interned shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, as were, after June 1940, perhaps a thousand Italians, seamen and a group of food workers from the Italian exhibition at the New York World’s Fair of 1939–40.6 All of these were persons without permanent resident status; no resident aliens were interned in the period before the United States went to war.

Shortly after the fall of France, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940,7 which required, for the first time in American history, that all resident aliens register annually at post offices and keep the government apprised of any change of address. Among the several million registrants were 695,363 Italians, 314,715 Germans, and 91,858 Japanese, so that, after the United States went to war, there were about a million unnaturalized natives of the Axis powers resident in the United States, all of whom were, according to both American and international law, potential internees.

When war came President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed three similar public proclamations on December 7 and 8, 1941, which, under the authority of sections 21–24 of Title 50 of the United States Code, declared that Japan, Germany, and Italy were at war with the United States and that, accordingly, in the language of the law, “all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of [those countries], being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be in the United States and not actually naturalized,8 shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies.”9 Austrian and Korean resident aliens, who had German and Japanese nationality respectively, were not declared enemy aliens.10

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I wish to thank the editors, the anonymous reader for the press, and, above all, Max Paul Friedman for thoughtful and intelligent suggestions which have, I think, improved this essay.

1. Unfortunately, I have no contemporary record of that call. I have dated it by referring to Mitchell T. Maki, Harry H. L. Kitano, and S. Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

2. I also had—and have—objections to the term “relocation.” “Exile” is more appropriate.

3. See Roger Daniels, “The Internment of Japanese Nationals in the United States During World War II,” Halcyon 17 (1995): 66-75; “L’Internamento di ‘Alien Enemies’ negli Stati Uniti durante la seconda guerra mondiale,” Ácoma: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Nordamericani (Rome; Estate autunno 1997): 39-49; and Kay Saunders and Roger Daniels, eds., Alien Justice: Wartime Internment in Australia and North America (St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2000).

4. Aliens Act of June 24, 1798 (1 Stat . 570). The lack of a declared war prevented any internment—or treason trials—during the Korean and Vietnam Wars or in such shorter actions as Desert Storm.

5. See Jörg Nagler, “Internment of German Enemy Aliens in the United States during the First and Second World Wars,” in Alien Justice , ed. Saunders and Daniels, 66-79. For those who read German, his massive Nationale Minoritäten im Krieg: “Feindliche Ausländer” und die amerikanische Heimatfront während des Ersten Weltkriegs (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2000) is a must for an understanding of the roots of the modern internment of alien enemies by the United States. Two scholarly publications about American World War I internment camps are Raymond K. Cunningham, Jr., Prisoners at Fort Douglas: War Prison Barracks Three and the Enemy Aliens, 1917-1920 (Salt Lake City: Fort Douglas Military Museum, 1983) and William B. Glidden, “Casualties of Caution: Alien Enemies in America, 1917-1919” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1970).

6. John Joel Culley, “A Troublesome Presence: World War II Internment of German Sailors in New Mexico,” Prologue 28 (winter 1996): 279-95, and Carol Van Valkenburg, An Alien Place: The Fort Missoula, Montana Detention Camp, 1941-1944 (Missoula, Mont.: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1995).

7. The act, also known as the Smith Act, was 54 Stat . 670. It had three titles, the first of which dealt with “interference with the military or naval forces of the United States,” the second with “additional deportable classes of aliens,” and only the third with the “registration and fingerprinting” of aliens. Title I was used in the Cold War era to convict many leaders of the American Communist Party. For an illuminating discussion of Titles II and III, see Richard W. Steele, “The War on Intolerance: The Reformulation of American Nationalism, 1939-1943,” Journal of American Ethnic History 9 (fall 1989): 9-35. The registration provisions, unenforced for decades, were applied selectively after 9/11 by the Department of Justice to deport a variety of immigrants, mostly Muslims.

8. Except for a handful of World War I veterans, Japanese were not eligible for naturalization until the law was changed in 1952. Anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, born in the United States is a citizen thanks to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868.

9. Proclamation No. 2525, December 7, 1941, and Proclamations No. 2526 and No. 2527, December 8, 1941. Similar control over Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Rumanian aliens was covered by Proclamation No. 2563 of July 17, 1942; the handful of aliens interned under the last are ignored in the remainder of this essay.

10. For some of the uses to which Koreans were put during the war, see Hyung-Ju Ahn, Between Two Adversaries: Korean Interpreters at Japanese Alien Enemy Detention Centers during World War II (Fullerton: Oral History Program, California State University,2002).


*Roger Daniels, "Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans." in Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura, eds. Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005, pp. 183-207.


© 2005 Roger Daniels

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About the Author

Roger Daniels, Charles Phelps Taft Professor of History Emeritus in the University of Cincinnati now lives in Bellevue, Washington. Beginning with The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (1962), he has written widely on Japanese American history and the history of immigration, including Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (1993; Japanese language edition, 1997; 2nd ed., 2004) and Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (2004). He hopes to complete a manuscript “The Japanese American Cases: A Social History, 1942-2010.”

Updated January 2008

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