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U.S. History/WWII Internment by U.S.


QUESTION: Although in my view terribly misguided, I can understand the reasoning for the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans to prevent disloyal acts by those folks. I've just learned however that in addition to interning them, the government forced the forfeiture of their savings, stocks, and bonds. What possible justification could there be for the latter?

ANSWER: Hi Richard,

I'll be glad to help with your question. In July 1941 the Roosevelt Administration froze Japanese assets in the US. After Pearl Harbor the US government didn't want that freeze circumvented by ethnic Japanese living in America who could use their economic resources to support the enemy. So, the purpose of the forced forfeitures was to block ethnic Japanese from aiding the Japanese Empire economically, just as physical confinement was meant to prevent them from helping Japan militarily.

I hope that this is helpful, Richard.

- Marc

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks, Marc, but I don't understand (1) why just interning these folks wouldn't prevent using the resources against the war effort, (2) why you call it a "freeze" [see below] and (3) if it was a freeze, why the freeze was not lifted after the war.

My understanding of a freeze is that it's a temporary lock that can later be lifted. According to noted legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky in his book, "The case Against the Supreme Court" (Viking, 2014, p. 54), quoting Prof. William Manchester, these assets were not frozen in the above sense but were forfeited.

ANSWER: Hi Richard,

I'll be glad to try to clarify, and please pardon any repetition for that purpose.

As you may know, there were severe tensions between the US and Japan prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In an effort to contain Japanese aggression, the US government froze the assets of the Japanese government that were located in the US. To be specific, that meant that wealth owned by the Japanese government within US borders could not be accessed by Japan. However, that freeze did not affect any private persons living in the US. That is, Japanese immigrants to the US nor ethnically-Japanese US citizens were unaffected.

The decision to imprison ethnically Japanese people living on the West Coast was, of course, to prevent them from potentially physically aiding the Japanese Empire. But, what if - somehow - the wealth of the interned Japanese Americans was transferred to the Japanese Empire? What if - despite being interned - other persons (friends, relatives, Axis sympathizers) could get their hands on the assets of the internees and aid the enemy? Well, forcing the internees to forfeit their assets was an effort to prevent those assets from being used to support the enemy.

In retrospect, not only wasn't it necessary to force the internees to forfeit their assets lest they get transferred to Japan, it was also not necessary to intern anyone at all. But at the time policy-makers  just wanted to eliminate as many risk factors as possible as quickly as possible. As you may know, in most cases the internees were given only days - sometimes less - to pack up and leave. They lost everything: their businesses, homes, property, as well as the economic assets that you've asked about. Too, bad, said the policy-makers: security and speed matter more. Better for the US that the internees are locked up and dispossessed of anything that might aid the enemy, was the thinking.

After the war, Japanese assets in the US were indeed un-frozen. That helped the Japanese government to rebuild from the war, but did not help the internees whose assets were effectively liquidated. That was permanent. Of course, in the 1980s (I think 1986), internees who were still alive received $20,000 to compensate for anything lost and the hardship incurred. Note that the money was not paid to the families of any internee who had died.

I hope that this does a better job of giving the rationale for the government's action and better distinguishes the freezing of Japanese government assets and the forced dispossession of the assets of the internees.

- Marc

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks again, Marc. I'm appreciate not only your extensive answers but their extraordinary promptness.

I understand from your reply that while the Japanese government's financial assets were frozen, the internees' financial assets were forfeited (liquidated). What I don't understand is why those latter assets were forfeited--not frozen. What possible benefit could even theoretically derive from what seems clearly to be a theft of those assets, as opposed to freezing them?

A secondary question: What exactly happened to those forfeited financial assets? Did they return to the companies that had been paid for them? Did the U.S. government keep them for itself? Or what?

Hi again Richard,

My pleasure; I'm glad that I've been helpful.

I can only answer your first question with my opinion, which I'll be happy to offer. First, I agree with your characterization of the expropriation of wealth from the internees as "theft." So, why is anything stolen? There are only two reasons: One, the thief positively wants the "goods"; or second, the thief DOESN'T want the owner to have the goods. In this case, I think both reasons apply. The Japanese American population was relatively small. Japanese Americans are non-white. The Japanese Empire just committed a "deliberate and dastardly attack" on the US. At the time, in some states, the laws prohibiting interracial unions applied to Asian-white marriages. Given the relative powerlessness of this population, and that it was not universally respected, why not just take their assets? That way they don't have them and other people (white Americans - non-"Japs") do. I don't think there was any effort to balance the interests of the US government and the Japanese Americans. That means the question was "What is best for the US government, all other interests aside?" The answer is just to rapidly intern Japanese Americans and arrogate their assets for distribution as the government saw fit. The benefit to doing that is that it 100% helps the US government and 100% hurts Japanese Americans, a powerless population that was despised by many, especially on the West Coast.

Now, of course, I am not defending the government's action only presenting my opinion about their rationale. Personally I am horrified by the entire episode. It's also disturbing that even a liberal humanitarian like Eleanor Roosevelt did not object. She said something to the effect of "It's a terrible thing, but I suppose it's necessary." For her to think that demonstrates how reasonable - or understandable - the action was. But to us - or at least to me - it seems impossible to fathom. But if you accept the premise that the US government was solely interesting in doing what was best for itself (or, if you prefer, the country) - and not at all concerned about the lives of Japanese Americans - then perhaps it's easier to understand why the US government never entertained less severe action. After all, in early 1942, there was no guarantee that the US would defeat Japan and the Axis powers. If that happened, then what would be the fate of the Japanese Americans? Would they be deported? Remain locked up forever? Would they be freed and have their assets returned? Well, I don't think anyone was thinking that far ahead in 1942. Instead, the pressing issue was to mitigate the potential threat posed by the Japanese Americans. The best way to accomplish that was to strip them of everything they owned, including their freedom. Yes, it's true, freezing their assets would have equally economically disabled them. But why not just take the stuff? I think that was the thinking at the time. Very draconian. But, as perhaps you know, governments are prone to these type of policies during wartime. (There is the notable example of Lincoln suspending Habeus Corpus during the Civil War, but there are others.)

Incidentally, you may be interested to know that one of the reasons for the internment was an actual incident of a Japanese American helping a member of the Japanese military. It's not well-known but it's important because it's helpful in understanding why these kind of decisions were made. Here is a full description of the event, referred to as the Niihau Incident:

Now - in my opinion - the Niihau Incident hardly justifies internment. But, interment was not mandated because of the speculative threat that Japanese Americans would demonstrate loyalty to Japan, but because that indeed happened.

To answer your second question I've dipped into my Magic History File. Here is a link to a detailed account called "Confiscations from Japanese-Americans During WWII." The author's first name happens to be Richard. I cannot improve on anything he has written. I'll draw your attention, however, to a very compelling argument of his: That racism played a significant role in formulating the policies which applied to the internees, a point I have also intimated in answer to your question of "Why that instead of this."

Again, I hope that I have provided some helpful insight!

- Marc  

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Marc Aperio


I'm able to answer most questions about US History, whether related to political, social, economic, or military issues.


I've studied American history for nearly 20 years. I'm currently volunteering for AllExperts in Medieval and European history.

My newest book WE NEED TO TALK: 27 DIALOGUES ON RACE IN AMERICA is available in the Amazon Kindle store. Also the author of AMERICAN REVOLUTION 2016: RATIONALE AND AIMS FOR RADICAL CHANGE

BA History (High Honors)

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