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Comparing the American interment of Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans during world war ii

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HOW TO CITE THIS SCHOLARLY ESSAY: Institute for Research of Expelled Germans. "Comparing the American Internment of Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans during World War II." http://expelledgermans.org/germaninternment.htm (accessed Day-Month-Year).

This essay is a comparative analysis of the experience of German-, Italian-, and Japanese-Americans by the United States government from 1941 to 1948, relying upon a survey of the current historiography on the subject. It focuses especially on the many contradictions and questions raised on why the government selected its internees on the scale it did, and why it chose to persecute Germans and Italians so less intently than the Japanese.


Suggested Readings on Internment of Germans, Italians, Japanese in USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc.

Under Executive Order 9066, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government evicted nearly 120,000 residents of Japanese descent from the Pacific coast and transferred them to over 27 “relocation centers” in over 30 states (Toye, 35). Almost seventy percent were American citizens who were either naturalized or born in the country (DiStasi, 112). All but around 7,000—over ninety percent—were uprooted by a policy that targeted the Japanese identity as a whole: nationalists were interned alongside former soldiers of the Japanese army, American businessmen, single mothers, and children (Connell, ix). Simultaneously, the FBI orchestrated the transfer of 2,264 ethnic Japanese from Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Panama to camps in the United States (Friedman, 2 and ix). At the same time, the US government surveilled, arrested, and interned at least 10,905 ethnic Germans and 288 Italians alongside the Japanese (Krammer, ix). Over 4,058 Germans were transported from South America and held in special camps until they were deported to Germany. Internees were isolated from the American public under guard, subjected to reeducation and Americanization programs, forced to swear loyalty to America under interrogation, and their rights to trial and attorney were heavily restricted. Since the internees held diverse professions, came from all age groups, and included both virulent nationalists and self-proclaimed American patriots, the internment program targeted residents according to nationality, rather than individual criminal charges.

For the most part, these events are well known to scholars of Asian-, Italian-, and German-American history, who tend to see internment as a dark chapter in America’s past when due process was suspended and populations were singled out because of their ethnic identities. What is less agreed upon is why the government chose to evacuate “enemy nationalities” the way it did. By surveying the most prominent current research on the Japanese, Germans, and Italians, this paper analyzes the different interpretations of what drove the internment policy and why “enemy nationalities” were selected the way they were. Because the internment policy affected all “enemy nationalities,” the scholarship on the Japanese must be read alongside the research on Germans and Italians. The paper also analyzes some of the unanswered questions that encourage further exploration. The essay is divided into the four main causes of internment that are accepted in historiography: national security, racism, war-time geopolitics, and American nativism. Each section is, in turn, divided into the Japanese, German, and Italian cases. According to most scholars, internment cannot simply be seen as a product of wartime hysteria or a system of racial discrimination against the Japanese by the “white” American government. Race was only one factor behind internment that was applied in specific contexts and even disregarded when the government saw economic or political benefit for the United States. Individuals from all races were interned not simply because of their racial identities, but because the nativist government considered them un-American. The internment program was designed to isolate suspected “enemy nationalities,” verify their American credentials, and mold internees into authentic American citizens.

When we compare the Germans, Italians, and Japanese cases, several contradictions become apparent in US internment policy that raise a number of questions. In the United States, almost the entire Japanese population was evacuated, including citizens and non-citizens. Although many German and Italian internees had US citizenship, the internment of European enemy nationalities focused on illegal aliens. Many scholars argue that the Japanese were subjected to disproportionate internment because of racism by the “white” American government against Asian minorities. However, others point out that the vast majority of individuals who were arrested in preparation for evacuation were “white.” Over sixty-four percent of those evicted from their homes by the FBI after 1939 and threatened with internment came from European “enemy nationalities” (Gloria Lothrop, “Unwelcome in a Free Land,” in DiStasi, 162). Most publications cite contemporary polls showing that Americans were far more afraid of Germans in their midst than Asians (Krammer, 57). Similarly, far more Germans were arrested from Latin America than Japanese, some 4,058 individuals. Unlike the Japanese, Germans and Italians were evacuated during peacetime after 1938, while most Japanese were not targeted until war was declared on Germany and Japan three years later. Unlike the Japanese, who were usually released by 1945, most Germans were not released until three years after the war. After being released, most Japanese were allowed to enter society and were touted by the government as model Americans. Germans and Italians, however, were placed in quite different camps that were designed to hold prisoners of war according to the Geneva Convention. Unlike the Japanese, most German internees were deemed “un-Americanizable” and were deported. This is further complicated by the fact that most Italians were released into American society during wartime on Columbus Day of 1942. Because of these differences, most historians recognize that racism alone does not explain why internment occurred the way it did. Historians have yet to fully explain these differences. What caused Japanese, Germans, and Italians to have such different internment experiences? Why were Japanese internees considered “Americanizable,” while “white” internees were considered irrevocably alien? To help answer some of these questions, we must interpret how contemporary scholars interpret the role of national security, racism, wartime geopolitics, and American nativism for each ethnic group.

Most scholars agree that, above all, the US internment program was caused by the need to prevent subversion during total war. Most Americans feared that the greatest threat would come from within (Fox 1990, 2). While historians recognize the importance of race in the exclusion of supposedly dangerous populations, they recognize that internment was first and foremost a security measure. The anxieties created by war forced the US government to categorize, single out, surveil, and subdue segments of the population that might threaten national integrity. Most publications begin by analyzing the rapid increase in government surveillance on everyday Americans after 1936 under J. Edgar Hoover. As it became apparent that the United States would be involved in total war against the Axis, intelligence reports began categorizing suspects according to their ethnic and national ancestry. Germans, Japanese, and Italians—both citizens and aliens—were recast as potential “enemy nationalities.” Most publications describe a strong atmosphere of fear and suspicion among Americans and the US government over the emergence of “fifth columns” in the United States. The government feared that Germans, Japanese, and Italians living in the country might undermine the war effort or otherwise fail to serve the United States military in a time of crisis. Since Italians dominated much of the coastal fishing and shipping industry and were widely sympathetic to Benito Mussolini, Washington feared that Italian aliens might provide foreign agents with strategic intelligence on American ports. Similarly, the US government was in an extremely vulnerable position because most Japanese lived on the Pacific coastline and in Hawai’i where the Japanese invasion began. As many publications point out, German aliens were especially active in pro-Nazi organizations like the German American Bund, Teutonia, and the Silver Legion that received funding directly from the Third Reich. These factors made security contingencies a matter of self-preservation. Most scholars emphasize that the government was especially concerned with illegal aliens from Axis countries because their loyalty to America could not be determined. Above all, individuals were targeted for internment because of ambiguous national allegiances, rather than simply because of their ethnic background. In the eyes of President Roosevelt and the intelligence bureaus, the urgency of total war necessitated that traditional legal protections like due process and right to attorney be suspended. In order to separate loyal Americans from enemy nationalities, the government had to find new strategies to protect national security.

As the storm clouds loomed over Europe and Asia, the FBI, OSA, and INS determined that security risks could be relocated to remote locations and controlled environments where they could be safely monitored and prevented from carrying out acts of sabotage. Many camps were purposely built in isolated locations, such as in Ft. Missoula, Montana for Italians and Manzanar outside Death Valley for Japanese. Most historians recognize that internment was used as a temporary security measure, rather than a way to systematically confine ethnic groups in the style of Nazi concentration camps or the Soviet GULAG. Stephen Fox is one among many historians who distinguishes internment camps from relocation centers. As a precaution, Germans and Italians suspected of subversion were to be held temporarily in internment camps, where they would be unable to collaborate with foreign agents until the United States was safe at war’s end.

By contrast, the Japanese were placed in what the government called “relocation centers.” These camps were built to temporarily move enemy nationalities away from the vulnerable coastline and into the remote interior, where their activities could be regulated and their loyalty could be verified. In essence, the relocation camps were screening centers where intelligence and immigration officials determined who possessed the credentials to be part of American society among enemy nationalities. Unlike the German and Italian internees, who were usually disallowed to Americanize, the Japanese were usually required to renounce loyalty to Japan. Takashi Fujitani and Howard John view relocation centers as a form of rehabilitation to “nurture” suspect populations into genuine Americans. By filling out questionnaires, taking citizenship tests, and studying American history, Japanese internees were exposed to the freedoms and individualism that defined the American identity (John, Fujitani, 82 and 127). Karen Riley described the camps as experimental “planned communities” where inmates could learn American social values. After thorough reeducation under armed guard, most Japanese were able to verify their Americanness and re-enter American society by 1945. Many were released early. In a similar fashion, the Italian internees were released after the government cleared them of being an anti-American fifth column in 1942. Ultimately, the temporary internment program removed disloyal Italians and Japanese through deportation and verified the Americanness of the rest of the internees through reeducation. Threats to national security were eliminated, while potentially dangerous nationalities were rehabilitated into loyal American citizens. Because the US government did not consider German internees to be capable of Americanization, almost all were expelled.

Because of the underlying purpose of relocation centers and internment camps, most historians interpret the government crackdown on enemy nationalities as a security measure, rather than simply as systematic racial discrimination against minorities. Internment must be seen as a temporary strategy to isolate enemy nationalities from vulnerable locations and military installations, verify the “Americanness” of internees, and mobilize them into upstanding American citizens after their release. In the eyes of the US government, Japanese, German, and Italian racial identity did not necessitate punishment or segregation, but it did suggest that they were possible be security risks. Racial stigmas, such as those held by the “white” government against Asian minorities, could be suspended as soon as the loyalty of enemy nationalities to the United States was established and charges of espionage were cleared. This was the case for both the Italians and the Japanese following their release in 1942 and 1945. However, as most historians observe, the US government relied upon ethnic categories to determine who might be a threat to national security. Without ethnic categories, individuals could not have been singled out as enemy nationalities and targeted for exclusion. For this reason, it is necessary to analyze how scholars interpret the role of race in driving the American internment policy.

The subject of racism, stereotyping, and ethnic “Othering” is a major theme in the historiography on internment, particularly for the Japanese case. Since the US government targeted both illegal aliens and American-born citizens, most publications argue that internees were selected according to exclusive racial or ethnic categories. In the eyes of the government, a person of Japanese ancestry had Japanese nationality whether he lived in Peru, Tokyo, or San Francisco. In other words, an individual descended from Germany, Japan, or Italy could not extricate himself from his enemy nationality regardless of citizenship. Because of the imagined link between individuals and the nationality with which they were born, individuals were almost automatically associated with the activities of the homeland. Italian-, German- and Japanese-Americans were now complicit in the belligerence of the Axis powers. Ethnic identity itself determined who was a suspect, rather than personal activities, criminal charges, or political affiliations. This factor helps explain why the US government used “enemy alien” almost interchangeably with “enemy nationality.” Even if a Japanese man was born in the United States (and was therefore not an alien), the nationality he was born with defined him as foreign, un-American, and dangerous. Almost all historians recognize that racial and national categorization helped make internment possible.

However, this does not mean that populations were evacuated because of their race. If we conclude that internment was caused by racism, several problems arise. If we view the United States as a “white” nation that persecuted “non-whites” like Asians and African-American, as many historians do, why then did the United States use similar methods of surveillance, blacklisting, discrimination, and exclusion against populations that it classified as members of the white race, like Italians and Germans? Similarly, if Japanese internment was a case where a “white” nation singled out the Asian community on racial grounds, why did the US government not target other ethnic groups that it classified as part of the Asian race, including Chinese or Koreans? If white America was so hostile to non-whites, why only a few years later did the government welcome Japanese internees as authentic, model Americans? By contrast, why were white Germans considered irrevocably alien by a white nation and subsequently expelled? More provocatively, if internment was designed to persecute races, why were tens of thousands of Japanese never arrested and thousands more released shortly after being interrogated? Despite impressive collaboration between historians of internment, scholars have yet to fully answer these questions.

According to most scholarship, race played a much more pivotal role in the internment of the Japanese than it did for the Germans or Italians. As a “non-white” community in a “white” nation, the Japanese were as a racial Other that was subjected to discrimination, segregation, and scapegoating. Most publications discuss the internment against a backdrop of a long history of white chauvinism against Asian immigrants who Americans viewed as both inferior and inextricably alien. After most Asians arrived in the country after the nineteenth century, the US government considered them more like guest laborers rather than Americans. In other words, Asians were seen as an isolated, temporary, alien community with no verifiable loyalty to the United States. Americans associated Asians with Oriental despotism, obedience, clannishness, suspicion, emperor-worship, and exoticism. John Dower recognized that Americans considered the Japanese to be inseparably trapped in an “ideological cage” of feudal loyalty to their homeland and the emperor, rather than to the United States (Dower, 20-1). Because American society could not separate Asian immigrants from stereotypes of the Orient, many Americans did not consider Asians qualified for assimilation into the democracy, Christianity, and liberalism that defined the American national identity (Dickerson, 67).

According to most scholarship, such “historic anti-Japanese attitudes” continued almost uninterrupted until the internment program began (Riley, 20). Many publications emphasize the ongoing fears among government officials over the impending “yellow peril” that would pollute American integrity and security. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, immigrant quotas, and anti-miscegenation laws reflected the perception that Asian immigrants were interlopers who exposed the United States to Asian intrusion from within (Toye, 40). Even if they obtained citizenship, most Asians continued to be seen as a foreign nationality that was not authentically American. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and torpedo attacks on coastal cities only verified stereotypes of Asian disloyalty. The Japanese community, never fully American, was now suspected as a direct threat. Internment was almost the next inevitable step in the interest of national security. For many historians, America’s racist legacy helps explain why the US government treated the Japanese so disproportionately in comparison with the European aliens. Rather than arresting the Japanese individually (as with Germans and Italians), the Japanese were considered too dangerous to be free. Because of the nationality they were born with, the Japanese were an enemy nationality sympathetic to the emperor and the Japanese army that now threatened America’s survival. However, this line of argument might explain why the US government was suspicious of all Japanese residents, but it does not fully explain why the government decided to intern almost the entire population. More importantly, the emphasis among historians on American racism is contradicted by the fact that most Japanese were released into society after 1945 as model American citizens, while white Germans were expelled for being “un-Americanizable."

In contrast to the Japanese case, the scholarship on the Germans and Italians comes to quite different conclusions by arguing that racism played a much lesser role in the internment of European enemy nationalities. As mentioned above, most publications portray the United States as a white nation that favored European immigration and gave preferential treatment to European minorities. Dower reflected the skepticism of many scholars that almost all Japanese were punished despite no evidence of espionage, while few Germans were interned despite the 20,000 members of the pro-Nazi German American Bund. Karen Riley claimed that Bundists were even allowed in the US military (Riley, 23). James Dickerson went as far as to say that America felt little reason to punish the Germans because they both supposedly shared the same ideas of a white master race (Dickerson, 119). America’s “whiteness” is widely taken for granted, a whiteness that incorporated all Europeans and disenfranchised “non-whites” like African- and Asian-Americans. There is very little recognition of the widespread discrimination suffered by German and Italian immigrants in the United States, many of whom arrived at the same time as Asian immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although historians briefly point out American stereotypes of Italians and Germans, most conclude that Americans ultimately recognized both groups within the cultural boundaries of the United States. For most researchers, America’s whiteness explains why Germans and Italians were subjected to internment only on an individual basis and with a focus on illegal aliens, whereas the Japanese were evacuated almost completely.

Although the US government was suspicious of all enemy nationalities, Americans could sympathize with white Europeans much more easily than with the Japanese because of America’s European heritage. Many publications on Italian-Americans point out that the government was reluctant to deport American celebrities like Joe DiMaggio or Frank Sinatra solely because Italians were such an important part of American life. As evidence of America’s preferential treatment of white internees, many studies point out the fact that the US government chose to release all Italian internees on Columbus Day of 1942 in celebration of the integral role played by Italian-Americans in the history of the white American nation (DiStasi, 21). Similarly, most publications emphasize that the US political system strongly relied upon German- and Italian-American immigrant voters, labor unions, social clubs, and political lobbies in the eastern United States. These points reaffirm the viewpoint accepted in scholarship that most Italians and Germans were accepted as integral and authentic components of American society. This helps explain why German internees were held in their own internment camps built for “war criminals” and were deported by 1948. The Japanese internees, who were targeted as a whole, could re-enter society after their American authenticity was confirmed in relocation centers. The German internees, on the other hand, were interned individually because they were seen as war criminals who had no place in American society whatsoever.

As further evidence that European enemy nationalities were not targeted on racial grounds, many historians point out that ethnic Jews were interned alongside German-Americans. Stephen Fox and John Christgau pointed out that an uncertain number of Jews, such as former Nazi concentration camp inmate Otto Trott, could not comprehend why after fleeing the Third Reich, they were suspected of being Nazi sympathizers and shipped to internment camps (Christgau, 60 and Fox 2000, 122). The fact that Jews were interned alongside Germans implies that race played only a minor factor in the targeting of “Germans.” In other words, if the US government specifically targeted the Germans on racial grounds, they would not have excluded other ethnic or racial groups like the Jews who fled Germany. The reason why many Jews were included in the internment program was because they were considered illegal aliens with unverified national loyalty. Like ethnic Germans, they were citizens of a nation at war with the United States. These factors suggest that the internment of Germans was driven above all by fears of enemy aliens and their ambiguous nationalities, regardless of racial background. Unlike the Japanese, who may have been targeted on racial grounds, the US government targeted Germans as a dangerous nationality more than a race.

However, the scholarship on the evacuation from Latin America reminds us that racism and the exclusion of “enemy nationalities” often went hand-in-hand, including for Europeans. Between 1939 and 1945, 4,058 Germans and 2,264 Japanese were transferred by ship from Central and South America to US internment camps. After their release in 1945, most were deported. If the US government targeted Germans, Italians, and Japanese abroad, this implies that nationality, language, citizenship, and loyalty to the United States were less important to the US government than race. Outside of the United States, the only way individuals could be targeted was according to ethnic or racial categories, since most ethnic Germans and Japanese in Latin America were not citizens of Japan or the Third Reich. Most studies on Latin America portray a long history of inter-ethnic hostility, with the local populations feeling disenfranchised by the disproportionate influence of an “alien” German or Japanese elite. Peru’s Japanese community dominated seventy-five percent of the country’s economy, industry, and agricultural markets (Connell, x). Under pressure from the United States, Peru, Panama, Chile, and Colombia were anxious to expel hated, foreign races that supposedly denied them sovereignty. Max Friedman asserts that there was so much racial antagonism that the US government was able to expel thirty percent of the German population of Guatemala, twenty-five percent of Costa Rica, twenty percent of Colombia, and over half of all Germans of Honduras (Friedman, 3). For reasons that are still unclear, ethnic Germans were treated far worse in Latin America than they were in the United States, and far more Germans were arrested in Latin America than Japanese. The argument accepted by most scholars that the Japanese suffered disproportionately because of white racism is contradicted by the disproportionate suffering of European enemy nationalities outside the United States.

The historiography demonstrates that we cannot dismiss race as a factor behind internment. Racial categories allowed the government to separate populations according to the threat they posed to the United States. Without ethnic vocabulary, the idea of an enemy nationality would not have been possible. However, as most scholars agree, race alone does not explain the nature of internment. The US government always involved race alongside other powerful markers of human difference, such as citizenship, nationality, and American authenticity. As the Latin American case reveals above, racial discrimination was applied in different ways and in specific contexts. In fact, racial and ethnic stereotypes were often even dismissed when they ran counter to American national interests. Enemy nationalities could become authentic Americans almost overnight, as was the case for the Italians in 1942 and the Japanese after 1945. It is critical to remember that the internment program began in the context of total war. In the eyes of the US government, racial categories often gave way to the economic interests, manpower, and political control that the nation needed to survive the war. Just as much as race, economics and geopolitics determined the fate of enemy nationalities. For this reason, this paper will now analyze how historians have interpreted the role of economics in shaping US internment practices.

Most scholars agree that economic interests helped determine the scale of evacuation, which populations were interned and which were not, and whether ethnic groups were targeted collectively or on an individual basis. Most publications emphasize that the US government was very concerned that internment would be incredibly expensive and require a tremendous amount of manpower that would detract from the war effort. During total war, the government needed every resource available. Running steel to the isolated internment camps, transporting large populations, and staffing the camps with US soldiers threatened the war effort. Race alone was not sufficient reason for the government to exclude entire populations because it was simply counterproductive to US interests. “Dangerous” populations would be excluded only to the extent that it was beneficial to US national security and wartime economics. This factor helps explain why internment occurred differently in Latin America than in the United States, why the Italians were released in 1942, why a relatively small percentage of German and Italian residents in America were evacuated, and why the Japanese were targeted so unevenly throughout the Western hemisphere.

Many publications point out that the Japanese were subjected to much less discrimination, interrogation, and arrests in Hawai’i than on the mainland, despite the fact that the Japanese invasion began in the Hawai’ian islands. Aside from initial arrests of individuals suspected of espionage, no internment camps were built in Hawai’i and almost no residents of Japanese ancestry were transported from Hawai’ian islands to relocation centers in the United States. Their race itself was not sufficient reason to arrest the Japanese en masse. According to most historians, the reason why the US government exempted Hawai’i was because of the integral role of Japanese farmers, fishermen, and businessmen in the economy of the Territory of Hawai’i. As the Hawai’ian case demonstrates, the government chose to permit what it saw as a potentially subversive race of “enemy aliens” to remain free when it was to the economic benefit of the nation during total war. At this point, it is unclear in scholarship why economic considerations were less applicable to the Japanese on the US mainland. Most publications recognize that Japanese aliens and Japanese-American citizens offered significant contributions to the fishing, farming, and entrepreneurial markets of California, Oregon, and Washington. It would seem that displacing the Japanese from the Pacific coast would be highly disruptive to the US economy, much like in Hawai’i. This contradiction is made even more confusing when compared to the Germans and Italians in America, who were spared internment on the scale of the Japanese precisely because they were too important for the US economy.

Most publications on German and Italian internment conclude that economics was a major reason why European enemy nationalities were treated so differently than the Japanese. As with the Japanese, the US government was concerned about the financial and manpower drain of relocating large populations to isolated camps. This problem was much more marked in the case of the Italians and Germans. Whereas there were only some 126,948 Japanese residing in America, there were at least 314,105 German aliens and over 600,000 Italian aliens, mostly on the east coast (Riley, 173 and Dickerson, 10). The Italians were by far the largest immigrant group in the United States. There were several million German-Americans and Italian-Americans with US citizenship. Moving such a massive number of people, even if they were considered dangerous and subversive, was simply too costly. Most research on the Italian case concludes that Italians were spared the treatment of the Germans and Japanese almost solely because of the cost of interning the massive number of Italian aliens. Building upon the argument accepted by most scholars that Italians and Germans were seen an integral component of the American nation, many publications point out that the United States depended upon Italian and German laborers to win the war. Germans and Italians (both citizens and aliens) were a central force in the US automobile industry, in coastal fishing, and industrial manufacturing in northern US states. The United States military depended upon the materials produced by potentially dangerous enemy nationalities on the home front. Economic considerations and the urgency of total war made racial exclusion counterproductive. Because of their role in the American war economy, European enemy nationalities were too important to be evacuated.

Historians often take this a step further by arguing that the US political system depended upon the Germans and Italian minorities. Because of the size of the German and Italian populations, the American parties would lose elections if they supported any policy that discriminated against European enemy nationalities. Lawrence DiStasi argues that the Democrats required the support of labor unions of the northeastern United States, which were often controlled by ethnic Italians and Germans. Stephen Fox and James Dickerson argued that President Roosevelt largely decided to free all Italian internees because he did not want to lose the electoral support of Italian-American voters for the Democratic Party (Dickerson, 162 and Fox 1990, 100). Interning German and Italian “enemy aliens” would have drastic consequences for both the US economy and the political system. Their racial background alone was not sufficient reason to evacuate them. These compromises may not have applied to the Japanese because there were far fewer Japanese voters than there ethnic German and Italian voters. In other words, the US government was able to intern the Japanese with fewer repercussions than if they evacuated Europeans. As these factors demonstrate, US internment practices were just as often shaped by practical considerations of economics and politics as they were by racial discrimination. Against the backdrop of total war, race was secondary to economics and manpower. In scholarship, the importance of economics is even more evident in the removal of enemy aliens from Latin America.

As mentioned above, minorities had disproportionate influence over agriculture, small business, and industry in Peru, Panama, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The US government was concerned that ethnic Germans and Japanese would provide Axis countries with strategic outlets of influence. Enemy aliens might manipulate local governments to sign trade agreements that sidelined US firms and gave preferential treatment to Japan or the Third Reich. So too, the US feared that enemy aliens would coerce Latin American states to abandon their longstanding partnership with the United States and support the Axis powers. This helps explain why Germans were targeted so much more vigorously in Latin America than in the United States. In order to cut off material resources from the enemy during total war, the United States had to “neutralize” foreign companies that it considered hostile. After 1939, Washington and Latin American governments (excluding Brazil and Argentina) agreed to regulate firms and trusts owned by German and Japanese minorities. Companies were neutralized through nationalization under government control, the introduction of quotas for native populations in administrative positions, and the sacking of minority CEOs. In addition to America’s desire to expand its geopolitical monopoly over the Western hemisphere, many historians suggest a more nefarious cause of the US relocation program. Heidi Donald argued that by bringing firms under government control and purging hostile CEOs, the manufacturing and agriculture markets of much of Latin America were now open for US investors and venture capitalists (Donald, 248). In many cases, CEO positions were sold to the highest bidder, thereby allowing the United States to exert direct influence over foreign markets. The US government knew that the evacuation of the Germans and Japanese would strengthen the American economy, protect American geopolitical security over the Western hemisphere, block critical resources from reaching the enemy, and make Latin American governments dependent upon the US economy.

As the scholarship demonstrates, US internment practices must be understood as the intersection of economic, political, and security considerations. Racial categories allowed the US government to separate “dangerous” populations, but they did not always determine how and why populations were interned. Enemy nationalities were only interned to the extent that the government determined that it would benefit the United States. When internment was seen to have a negative effect on the war effort, ethnic exclusion usually did not occur. In the United States, evacuating the Germans and Italians on the same scale as the Japanese would damage America’s industrial capacity and create widespread disenchantment among German- and Italian-Americans, who were considered to be integral components of American society, the armed forces, and the economy. Conversely, far more Germans were targeted in Latin America than the Japanese because it was of greater benefit to the American monopoly over the Western hemisphere. Because racial categories were so flexible, applied differently in various contexts, and even disregarded in favor of political gain, race alone does not fully explain why Germans, Japanese, and Italians were targeted in the first place. Aside from being descended from Axis countries at war with the United States, a critical factor unites the three groups: the US government perceived them to be un-American “enemy aliens.” Our final section analyzes the argument accepted by most historians that internment was just as much the product of American nativism as it was a system of racial discrimination.

When we compare the three groups that were subjected to evacuation, it is apparent that internment was designed to protect “authentic” American society from aliens who did not fit into the cultural boundaries of the nation. Most publications depict the 1940s as a time of explosive patriotism when both the US government and the public demanded “100% Americanism.” In a time of total war, the very survival of America was at stake. In order to protect the United States, the boundaries between those who qualified for American society and those excluded from it had to be reinforced. Resident aliens, regardless of their race or skin color, were irrevocably separate from the United States. Their lack of citizenship, by definition, meant that their cultural affiliation and political loyalties lay with nations other than the United States. Their intentions for residing in America could not be determined. Many historians point out that Italian aliens rarely filed for US citizenship because they hoped to maintain loyalty to both America and Italy. Similarly, prior to internment, most Japanese aliens did not pursue citizenship. In the eyes of the US government, however, failure to actively join American civic society meant that aliens were not authentic Americans. Dual citizenship and multiple identities were oxymoronic. A resident of the United States was either a loyal American or a potentially dangerous alien. Following the outbreak of total war, Germans, Italians, and Japanese aliens were recast as enemy nationalities. In order to protect American national security, the US government considered it a means of self-preservation to single out aliens who resided in the country without demonstrating their loyalty to the United States through active citizenship or naturalization. It was the “foreignness” and “un-Americanness” of enemy aliens that subjected them to internment, rather than their racial background.

The drive to protect America from enemy aliens helps explain why the government chose to intern populations the way it did. While America accepted German- and Italian-Americans who proved that they were strongly assimilated into American national identity, the US government targeted almost all German and Italian aliens for investigation, arrest, and possible internment or expulsion. Their race alone did not warrant their internment, but their lack of citizenship did. When the number of Germans interned (10,905) is compared to the number of German aliens (314,105), it is apparent that the US government was more concerned with pacifying “un-American” populations with ambiguous national identities than with evacuating dangerous races (Krammer, ix and Riley, 173). Nativism also helps explain why Jewish escapees from the Third Reich were interned alongside German aliens. What mattered to the US government was not the racial identities of German internees, but the fact that both Jews and Germans were non-citizen aliens from an enemy nationality with no verifiable service to America. For the Italians, as the largest immigrant group in the United States, the case is similar. Italian-Americans who demonstrated their civic responsibility as American citizens were almost never evacuated. However, most publications point out that the US government either arrested or surveilled over 600,000 Italian aliens residing in the United States. It was the tendency for over 42% of Italian aliens to not pursue American citizenship that made them candidates for internment, not their ethnicity itself (Fox, 1990, 8).

The case was quite different for the Japanese. Unlike the Germans and Italians, at least seventy percent of Japanese internees were non-aliens with American citizenship. However, we cannot simply conclude that the Japanese were targeted indiscriminately because of discrimination by white Americans against Asians. Of the 120,000 Japanese internees, seventy percent (approximately 84,000) were US citizens. However, many studies on Japanese internment camps cite that over 42,000 young children were evacuated alongside their parents (Dickerson, 139). Since children born in the United States were automatically citizens, this means that only around 42,000 of the 126,948 Japanese in the United States were adult citizens. Put differently, most adult Japanese internees were aliens. In comparison with the German- and Italian-Americans, the US government had much less evidence to accept the Japanese community within the boundaries of American national identity. It was much easier for the government to see the Japanese in general as an alien community when compared to the millions of ethnic Germans and Italians who were already well integrated into American society. In a time of total war, the ambiguous identities of the Japanese made them a security risk that might undermine the United States. The internment program was designed to correct this problem by separating authentic Americans from aliens who did not actively pursue American citizenship.

However, the Japanese were given opportunities to become authentic Americans that German and Italian aliens were not. Most scholars argue that Japanese aliens were loyal to both the United States and the Shōwa emperor. By contrast, a significant portion of German aliens were hostile, with many joining radical nationalist organizations like the German-American Bund. For this reason, while most German aliens were expelled, most Japanese were given the opportunity to be “verified” and “nurtured” into genuine American citizens. It was up to Japanese internees to demonstrate their authentic Americanness themselves prior to their release into American society in 1945. In this sense, the Japanese went from being outside the boundaries of American society to being included as part of the American national community. Through the process of internment, the US government ultimately determined who qualified as American and who warranted exclusion from American society. Behind barbed wire, the Japanese overcame their status as an enemy nationality and became genuine American citizens.

As the current scholarship surveyed in this paper demonstrates, US internment was the product of a dynamic interplay between racism, wartime economics, geopolitics, national security, and American nativism. Internment cannot be reduced to any single causality. Each cause both depended upon and reinforced the others. Indeed, ideas of race and ethnicity were present in every scenario and played a central role in the internment process. Without language of human difference, the US government would not have been able to classify populations into “enemy nationalities” and orchestrate their evacuation. Without the idea that every individual is born with a specific nationality regardless of citizenship, Italians, Germans, and Japanese living in America would not have been complicit in the actions of the Axis powers. Their ancestral connections to states at war with the United States would have been irrelevant and would not have warranted their removal. However, we must be careful not to overstate race and ethnicity as the cause of internment. Racial threats were only one concern of the United States alongside the more urgent matters of total war. Race was used differently according to the specific context, time, and place. Americans invoked racial categories when they allowed them to remove threats to national security and when they strengthened the geopolitical position of the United States. When the Americans could not single out hostile Germans in Latin America according to citizenship or nationality, as they did in the United States, they had to rely upon race to identify and evacuate enemy nationalities. By contrast, the Americans completely suspended racial stereotypes when they hindered the war effort. Because the United States needed all material resources for the war effort, the government allowed almost all Japanese to remain in Hawai’i, almost all Italians to work freely on the factory floor, and tens of thousands of Germans to stay behind to sustain the heavy metal industry that the military demanded. During total war, who was included and excluded from American society depended just as much upon economic considerations as it did upon racial differences. For these reasons, internment must not be viewed simply as a system of racialized persecution. Instead, internment was a strategy to secure American national integrity, streamline the war effort, and verify whether or not aliens possessed the credentials to participate in American society. Total war forced the US government to reaffirm the boundaries between authentic Americans and the alien nationalities of ambiguous loyalty. The internment program was as a temporary contingency designed to isolate threats to national security in controlled environments while the government determined who qualified for American national citizenship.

Despite impressive collaboration between historians on internment, several questions remain unanswered that require further exploration. Historians have yet to determine why the US government saw most Japanese internees as model American citizens after they were released, while most Germans and Italians internees were deported. Why were European internees considered irrevocably alien in a society that supposedly gave preferential treatment to Europeans at the expense of non-whites? It is also uncertain why German internees remained behind barbed wire under guard until 1948 before being expelled, three years after most Japanese were released as genuine Americans worthy of citizenship. There is virtually no discussion in scholarship of the widespread discrimination in American society against German and Italian immigrants. Most historians take the “whiteness” of the US government for granted by arguing that the Japanese suffered disproportionately as a non-white Other in a white nation. How does this assumption change our understanding of the internment of Italians and Germans? Are we to dismiss American racial attitudes against Germans and Italians as if they had little impact on the way Europeans were targeted? Could internment truly occur without racism? If Europeans were interned with race as only a limited factor, this might suggest that historians are putting too much emphasis on racism as a cause for Japanese internment. Other questions remain to be explored. On the subject of national security, it is unclear why the US government did not target Bulgarians, Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, or Hungarians living in the United States despite their close partnership with the Third Reich. If the internment program was designed to eliminate the risk of fifth column sabotage, why were other European minorities not included? Similarly, why were ethnic Thai in America not persecuted for their alliance with Japan, despite the fact that the US government classified them both as part of the same racial group? Finally, on the subject of economic factors behind interment, it is widely accepted in scholarship that the internment of Germans and Italians was limited because of their powerful role in the US economy. Why then did the important Japanese contributions to American business, fishing, manufacturing, and agriculture not spare the Japanese from internment on the Pacific coast, as it did in Hawai’i? If these dimensions are explored in a comparative perspective, we may gain a clearer understanding of why the United States government found it necessary to single out populations for organized relocation as a basic measure of national security during total war.




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Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

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Suggested Readings on Internment of Germans, Italians, Japanese in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand

Wohltmann, Michael. "A FUTURE UNLIVED" A history of the internment of German Enemy Aliens on Torrens Island and the marginalization of Germans in South Australia during 1914-1924.

Migration Heritage Centre. "The Enemy at Home: German Internees in World War I Australia." http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibition/enemyathome/torrens-island-internment-camp/

Monteath, Peter. Interned: Torrens Island 1914-1915. Wakefield Press, 2014.

Briefly analyzes wartime internment and investigations. Tamke, Jürgen. The Germans in Australia. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Comparative analysis of Aboriginal, German, and Japanese internment. "Internment." Queensland WWII Historic Places. www.ww2places.qld.gov.au/homefront/internment/

Helmi, Nadine and Fischer, Gerard.The Enemy at Home : German Internees in World War I Australia. UNSW Press, 2011.

Bevege, Margaret. Behind Barbed Wire : Internment in Australia during World War II. University of Queensland Press, 1993).

Fischer, Gerhard. Enemy Aliens: Internment and the Homefront Experience in Australia, 1914-1920. University of Queensland Press, 1989.

Nagata, Yuriko. Unwanted Aliens : Japanese Internment in Australia. University of Queensland Press, 1996.

Neumann, Klaus. In the Interest of National Security : Civilian Internment in Australia during World War II. National Archives of Australia, 2006.

Resources on internment, including artifacts and images. http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/themes/1618/internment-during-world-war-ii-australia

Neumann, Klaus. "Fifth Columnists?German and Austrian Refugees in Australian Internment Camps". Lecture for the National Archives of Australia, April, 2002.

"Germans and Italians Interned in New Zealand." Victoria University of Wellington. nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Pris-_N74723.html

"Enemy Aliens in New Zealand." Victoria University of Wellington. nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Pris-_N72374.html

"Jewish Refugees Interned During the War." Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. http://www.holocaustcentre.org.nz/index.php/research/research-articles/85-jewish-refugees-interned-during-world-war-ii

"New Zealand and World War One Samoan Internees." freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sooty/1916samoaninternees.html

Resource on how to find records of internees at The National Archives. www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/internees.htm