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One of the darkest times in United States history was the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. As the United States raged war against Japan, there was nationwide distrust and even fear based on irrational and racist tendencies. It led to the relocation of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans into specially constructed internment camps, several of which were located in Idaho. This essay will discuss the events leading up to the incarceration, comparison of Minidoka and Kooskia internment camps, and comprehensive analysis of historical implications for violation of legal rights of Japanese Americans.
The events leading up to the imprisonment can be traced back to an early 20th century which led to the beginning of racial tensions. The Japanese began immigrating to the United States in quantity attracted by economic opportunities. Idaho offered work in the beet sugar industry, and the Japanese soon began to find success in farming and merchant trade. There was evident social discrimination from early days which transitioned to legislative limitations by the 1920’s that prohibited non-citizens to own agricultural land.
While still relatively small, Japanese-American communities grew, and the majority consisted of U.S. born citizens by the 1940’s. Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were living in Western United States and as tensions with Japan escalated, so did public and political attitudes. Politicians such as Idaho’s Governor Chase Clark openly voiced racism and opposition to the relocation of Japanese-Americans to Idaho (Sims 103-104).
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which had the primary purpose of preventing espionage. However, before Pearl Harbor, similar events were taking place as Japanese Americans were removed from sensitive military posts or harassed by the public to relocate. The executive order authorized the creation of specialized internment camps to house anyone of Japanese descent.
These people were labeled as “enemy aliens” and were arrested, detained, and not offered the due process guaranteed by the Constitution. The United States collaborated with Canada and Latin American countries to relocate Japanese Americans living there as well. Approximately ten major camps existed, two of them in Idaho named Minidoka and Kooskia. Idaho farmers and politicians believed that having the camps in the state was necessary to put the enemy alien labor to use for the war effort (Wegars).
However, conditions in the two camps differed significantly. Minidoka was a camp supervised by the War Relocation Authority (WRA). It was a massive camp, housing more than 10,000 Japanese Americans which was more than the local population (Sims 104). Although Draconian rules of strict oversight set forth by Roosevelt’s executive order were not strictly enforced, the population remained prisoners and were under careful watch nevertheless.
Conditions were poor as the camp was located away from society in an uninhabitable wasteland. The families often faced a lack of availability for essential services such as schooling. The prisoners were employed to work in the area, a majority of them as hard farm labor for Idaho beet farms. Farmers and local residents resented Japanese Americans and treated them with disrespect in the early years of the war (Sims 107).
Meanwhile, the Kooskia Internment Camp was run by the U.S. Department of Justice. This was critical since it meant the prisoners were protected under the Geneva Convention, an international law which guaranteed humane treatment and conditions. Kooskia was a much more relaxed internment camp than any other under the WRA. It was much smaller, consisting of approximately 250 men. Individuals could volunteer to be transferred here to work on a road and highway system in the state. Prisoners were paid wages for their work and were provided with comfort, shelter, and a relative degree of freedom (Wegner).
The internment of Japanese Americans was clearly a violation of fundamental human and civil rights, which was later recognized by Presidential administrations, legal courts, and civil rights organizations as well as the general public as well. Although the Supreme Court ruled that such actions were justifiable in time of war, President Ford issued a statement that the incarceration was detrimental to American principles (Frail).
The Justice Department rescinded the Supreme Court decision in 2011 and admitted error. Roosevelt’s executive order was an unprecedented, targeted, and illegal decision. While many Americans saw the European Axis powers as evil through their infamous leaders, the Japanese leader was not well-known, and racial social tension contributed to the blame for the Pearl Harbor attacks to shift to the race and culture as a whole. Thus, Japanese Americans were incarcerated while those with German or Italian descent were largely ignored.
An intelligence report by the State Department before the Pearl Harbor attacks outlined that Japanese Americans posed no security threat to the United States, nor was their loyalty under question. Despite such knowledge, the executive order was issued, based on political and social assumptions and discrimination (Goldsmith). Ultimately, the order was a violation of human and citizenship rights.
Many of the Japanese American families were second or later generation immigrants with full U.S. citizenship. Despite potential security risks posed by the anti-Japanese sentiment in American society, the decision was unconstitutional. It violated various fundamental rights outlined by the Constitution, including the First, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, all of which prohibit such overreaching government manipulation and an unjustified limitation of privileges.
Frail, Tom. “The Injustice of Japanese-American Internment Camps Resonates Strongly to This Day.” Smithsonian Magazine. 2017. Web.
Goldsmith, Julia. ” Why American Concentration Camps Became Legal (and Then Illegal).” University of California Berkley Library. 2017. Web.
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Sims, Robert. “Japanese Americans in Idaho.” Japanese Americans From Relocation to Redress, edited by Daniels, Roger et al., University of Washington Press, 2013, pp. 103-110.
Wegars, Priscilla. Imprisoned in Paradise: Japanese Internee Road Workers at the World War II Kooskia Internment Camp. University of Idaho Press, 2010.