World War II


Japan’s aggression in China and Manchuria was weakened by the oil and steel embargo by the U.S., and the Pacific Fleet stood between  Japan and the oil and rubber reserves of Southeast Asia. The United States had broken Japan’s top-secret code, and were aware that an attack against the American Pacific Fleet was imminent.


Unsubstantiated newspaper reports of Japanese spies in U.S.
communities prompted President Roosevelt to assign special investigator Curtis Munson to evaluate the security risk of Japanese American communities in Hawaii and on the West Coast. In November 1941, Munson reported that Naval Intelligence sympathized with his opinions: “The story was all the same. There is no Japanese `problem' on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese… The Japanese here is almost exclusively a farmer, a fisherman or a small businessman.” Reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, and Office of Naval Intelligence also reported similar findings. All of these reports were kept secret by high government and military officials and the public was not told. The results of the investigation were filed away, and more powerful interests were heard. The Japanese community had no access to media to state that they were loyal and patriotic citizens.


On December 7, 1941, Japan’s military attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, shocking communities across the country. War was declared against Japan December 8, followed by Germany and Italy declaring war on the U.S. December 11.  Within days, the FBI had detained thousands of immigrants from Axis countries- 1,291 Japanese, 857 Germans and 147 Italians (business men, language instructors and ministers). With the declaration of war, all Issei became enemy aliens.  Their bank accounts were frozen along with all accounts in Japanese banks.  Martial law was declared in Hawaii with travel, security and curfew restrictions imposed.


Newspapers and radios fed widespread hysteria and paranoia, reporting unsubstantiated accounts of local espionage, spies, saboteurs, and even attacks by Japanese airplanes. - all later proven to be false. The atmosphere turned neighbors against each other, and every action was viewed with suspicion reaching hysteria levels- smoking a cigarette was a signal to the enemy, food crops were laced with poison, short wave radios used to hear Japanese music were used to transmit military communications.


        In another claim, a Treasury Department agent reported that “an estimated 20,000 Japanese in the S. F. metropolitan area were ready for organized action.”  Army authorities took this unproven claim and recommended large-scale internment to Washington.  Mass relocation of all Japanese was suggested by Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, who claimed the “surprise attack” was “the most effective Fifth Column work of the entire column.”  Investigations revealed the work was of ‘Occidentals and Consular members,’ and without evidence of ‘Fifth Column’ espionage, he removed his accusations from his comments to the press, and commended Japanese Americans who had manned machine guns against the
enemy. But the press ignored this, instead headlining the cast of doubt on the Japanese community. Honolulu Naval officers denied sabotage by anyone in the Japanese community in Hawaii, as did FBI special investigations. But intelligence opinions were drowned out.


The L.A. Chamber of Commerce recommended all Japanese nationals be put under “Federal control.”1 The West Coast Congressional Delegation and the California Joint Immigration Committee escalated their demands for the complete removal of all Japanese, “aliens and citizens alike.”  Within weeks, the California lobby achieved success, propelled by anti-Japanese war sentiments, and pressured the government to remove all civilians of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast.