America took nearly one year to free Japanese-Americans after the WW II Irrefutable facts about Internee Camps in U.S.
Posted on March 18th, 2014

 By Bandu de Silva

The administration of any country trying to throw stones at others should look at skeletons in its own cupboards before speaking out. The United States of America, perhaps, with its three century old record, is the last country that could open its mouths about human rights or humanitarian considerations. We are not speaking of the times of British colonial expansion into America when they ousted the French. That was three centuries ago. Though not far away, we are prepared to relegate that chapter to the history books. We look at times within our own memory (at least mine), the times of the WW II, the Vietnam War, the first War in Iraq, “Desert Storm”, (I witnessed both Vietnam and Iraq from their neighbourhood) and the second Iraqi War looking for WMDs, and the on ”going war in Afghanistan which has spilled over to Pakistan.

To come to our subject direct, let me first say that It took the U.S. nearly a year after the WW II to release the Japanese-Americans (77.4 per cent citizens of U.S.) interned in camps which were located in parts of the country which were swamps and dessert which no one wanted. The U.S. had around 112,000 internees in camps which was roughly one third the number in Sri Lankan IDP welfare centresafter the end of the war against terrorism in the island. Yet with all the resources at America’s disposal, the government could not or did not provide such facilities as the GOSL has provided for the IDPs in Vanni. For example, the internees did not have water for washing, say the researchers, Carl and Dorothy Schneiders (Schniders: World War II: Eyewitness History, 2003, Library of Congress Catalogued).

There the Japanese ”Americans deprived of their liberty and property, were thrust into miserable, crowded quarters, in which the lack of privacy made the continuation of normal family life impossible- particularly when the parents were enemy aliens and their children American citizens…… “the internees lived in horse-stables reeking of urine and manure, their linoleum floors covered with dust and wood shavings, their walls white”washed over insects, and they ate their meals in mess halls with wet cement floors…… Later, bleak and grim one-storey barracks were built, some with open dormitories, others partitioned to allot space 20x 20 to a family of four or two couples. In the early days, the internees were cold, they had to eat bad food, and they suffered from lack of water for washing. ………The internees themselves improved their quarters with whatever materials they could scavenge and organized camp life into some semblance of order. They could earn up to $ 19 a month by performing necessary functions around the camp”.

Kate Hobbie who taught at the Tule Lake relocation centre believed that the Buddhist tradition of Shikata ga nai’ (equivalent of our ‘Monwa karannada?’ = it cannot be helped) sustained the Japanese. “You don’t spend your time moping around wondering why you’re there, or saying, ‘This is a terrible injustice” she wrote. 

No Brownie Points

As a student of American history and later a Senior Sri Lankan Ambassador to Europe, I quote this chapter of American history not to gain brownie points over former U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, now Assistant Secretary in the State Dept. and his colleague Eric Schneider or find fault with the U.S. government for atrocities committed during WW II but to point out that under emergency conditions with hawks around as the U.S. had, such situations arise. Wars especially create such conditions. U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rohnquist himself subscribed to that view as I repeated his famous quote: “Inter arma silence leges”.

September 11 brought about such a situation again. It is only when the present US. Administration tries to poke its nose in other people’s affairs using offensive and undiplomatic language combined with threats that these situations have to be raised as counter-points. The U.S. administrators may be using the situation in Sri Lanka as diversionary strategy to take one’s minds off from concentrating on the way the [mis]handling affairs in other parts of South Asia like Afghanistan/Pakistan, bombing those lands and causing missile attacks killing innocent civilians hundreds each time, (collateral damage is the word1) if not trying to bomb these lands to stone age as the U.S. earlier pronounced. (I quote from Strobe Talbot, former Deputy Secretary of State under Clinton Administration and President of Brookings Institution).

But there are lessons for everyone to learn from the situation in U.S. from 1942 to 1946 in evaluating the situation in Sri Lanka and elsewhere though it should not be an indictment on past U.S. policies. The difficulty is that situation arose in a much more emancipated U.S., perhaps, pointing to latent manifestations of an earlier culture from the days when American culture was characterized by aggression, conquest, extermination of the weak and undefended, slavery and exploitation at the time of the formation of the American nation. For example, how human values stood in the 19th century could be seen from the concept of the Negro. He was ‘no-man,’ as the British thought of the Irish,…….but “an animal[s], good only for the harness to till the soil”. (Le Trosne). The emancipation of the slave was tantamount to turning him into a proletariat in order to make him work harder and produce more and bind him more firmly to the production system based on the class structure,” wrote Michel Duchet in “Anthropolgie et histoire an ciecle de lumiere’,Paris, 1971.

So for the Americans today to rise above that conceived superiority over other human beings and get interested in human rights and humanitarian issues in Sri Lanka like the situation of the IDPs in the Vanni centres, they must be considered an emancipated and exalted lot! They should be congratulated for that. But the dilemma that the world faces in understanding the present day American personality is the presence ”it was present till yesterday under Bushism with Madeline Albright at the helm in the State Department ” of the concept of America as the “Indispensable Nation”/ “The Smart Power”.  The Iranians called it “Arrogance”! Not without reason! Condoleezza Rice twisted it to “transformed diplomacy” to give it a benign face; and Hilary Clinton has converted it to “multi-partner world” concept. Surely, America is not only becoming civilized but also realizing that they alone do not make the world!

It is then for this historical lesson it teaches that it is worth recalling the situation in the 1940s in respect of the concentration camps for American-Japanese in the U.S. the land which borrowed the concepts of liberty, fraternity, et al.

Revisiting American Internment Camps

All Americans were not prepared to violate human rights of the Japanese-Americans and others by excluding them from cities and states. The Dept. of Justice was embarrassed [by the illegality?] of the pressures on the government. (Compare with our Police ordering Tamils in Colombo lodges to return). But the Dept. had to fall in line and announced plans to remove Japanese-Americas from ‘restricted areas’ though it first opposed internment. The Dept. of Agriculture was concerned over its effects on agriculture and labour. The decision to round up these people was taken because of pressure from General De Witt who virtually threatened that he would take things into his hand if the government did not. On March 3, 1942. General De Witt designated military areas [zones] in the states of Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona (HSZs) and excluded ‘enemy aliens’ [citizens of the U.S.) and persons of Japanese ancestry from living in them. These ‘No-go ”zones’ for the Japanese ”Americans were extended to other states].

The Attorney General of California, Earl Warren, ‘fanned the mass hysteria by warning that the ‘nisei‘, -Japanese-Americans born in the U.S./ American citizens, posed a greater threat than the ‘issei‘, their parents born in Japan because they were younger and more daring.” (Schneiders, 2003). But the powerful Governor of California, the West Coast Congressmen, the hawkish General De Witt insisted on internment while Earl Warren did the rest. On Feb.19th President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order decreeing that Jap-Ams should leave certain areas by March 14, and pre-dated it to apply from February 27. Despite intelligence reports that a mass evacuation was not necessary, the President signed another Executive Order requiring the Removal of all people of Japanese descent, including American citizens, from any area designated a military zone.

Some Japanese moved voluntarily to demonstrate that they were law-abiding citizens of America. Even before relocation centres were found, the evacuation started. They were huddled up in open parks without shelter and any preparation in contrast to the situation in the Sri Lankan Vanni where the GOSL planned things and made  arrangements with the help of UN agencies to receive the IPDs. Not to speak of voluntary relocation, many of the Japanese-Americans were forced to move to reception centres for relocation.

By the end of 1942 some 112,000 Japanese American men, women, and children and almost two thirds of them American citizens (77.4) born in the U.S. and under the age of 25 years (Let America open its eyes!) had been moved to internee camps. Almost 6000 babies were born in these ‘concentration’ camps for the Japanese which alone should speak of the humanitarian side of the evacuation of these people from their lands!

Almost all the Governors were not as generous as the Department of Justice. They refused to allow these camps in their states. In disgust, General Milton Eisenhower quickly resigned his post as the Director of WSA on the ground that the majority of these Japanese were loyal Americans. Finally, relocation centres were placed in remote lands of the country which ‘nobody wanted’.


America in the 1940s was a country far more materially advanced than Sri Lanka today, but some may say, not culturally, as the internment of the Japanese -Americans and others including blacks, who were her own citizens since Lincoln liberated them points to no concern for human values.  Add if you like, the dropping of Atom Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombing of the latter city was not even planned. The bomb was dropped there because they could not find their second target city on account of thick clouds but found an opening in the clouds over Nagasaki. One can also add the free bombing of Dresden and Hamburg to punish the civilians after Germany surrendered. So comparatively, the picture of the culture of impunity that emerges is not complimentary to the U.S.

In contrast, Sri Lanka has just emerged from a three”decade war against a ruthless terrorist outfit, and struggling with diverse economic problems not only arising from the war but also from the effects of global recession. Nonetheless, she is doing her best to make the lives of the IDPs as less ‘intolerable’ under the circumstances. This transitional accommodation has become necessary in view of a number of reasons which everyone should understand. The people cannot be sent back to their former places of residences because these places have been littered with heavy mines; and infrastructure such as water services, roads and buildings and homes have been destroyed by retreating LTTE terrorists. It would be a crime and gross irresponsibility on the part of the GOSL to send these people back to lose their lives and limbs. That is according to our cultural values. But for the U.S. capitalist system where the word welfare means only running “Soup kitchens” things may be appearing differently. (Now Michelle Obama is visiting them and taking a turn in serving soup to the increasing number of poor arising from the economic down turn!)

How else could one understand the Japanese-American internees being sent away to fend for themselves with only $ 25 each and a train fare?

Closing of Internee Camps takes over one year

Even in the U.S. after the war was over in 1945, General George Marshall warned the government that though there was no military objection to the return of the Japanese to the West coast, there was the possibility that Whites prejudiced against them might attack them. It really happened and many returning Japanese were killed and property damaged. (So these things took place in civilised America also! And there were Congressmen, Governors and the Attorney-General of California to arouse racial animosity/ hysteria).

It took nearly another year after the War for all camps to be closed. Tule Lake, where trouble makers had been transferred, closed last in March 1946. That was nearly a year after the War was over and when there was absolutely no risk of any Japanese-American counter moves. There was no infrastructure like buildings, dwellings provided for the ‘returning’ Japanese. They were on their own. The detainees themselves had to fend for themselves and integrate into the society. Most of them continued in relocation camps until they could begin life anew. Some, however, suffered attacks on their persons and property when they returned to the West Coast.

That was eight months after the Americans dropped the first Atom (uranium-filled) bomb, the “Little Boy” over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the plutonium filled “Fat Man” over Nagasaki three days later which killed 66,000 civilians instantly and injured and exposed to radiation another 69,000 in Hiroshima; and killed 39,000 instantly and injured and exposed to radiation another 25,000 in Nagasaki. On August 14, the Japanese agreed to unconditional surrender and there was nothing to fear from Japanese-Americans. Reconciliation was not to come immediately!

Here in Sri Lanka where there is a greater risk of LTTE cadres which have infiltrated the IDP centres becoming reactive, there is pressure to release them even before the targeted 180 days is reached! How come?

So, to speak of any democratic traditions in the U.S. during emergencies as it arose in the 1940s or after September 11, is sheer bunkum. What applied was what I wrote in these columns not so long ago quoting the former Chief Justice Rehnquist that “in war time all laws were silent.”

Delay unaccountable

Why did it take eight months to release the internees from Camps when there was no prospects of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast of America any longer after Japan surrendered unconditionally? There were no mines to be cleared in any part of U.S.A., not even in Hawaii, no houses to be built for the returnees; no infrastructures to be put in place; no wells to be dug, no community water supplies to be provided; and no roads to be constructed to facilitate the ‘return’ of these Japanese-Americans. In fact, there were no ‘original’ homes for them to return to as they had been ‘deprived’ of not only their liberties but also their properties. The U.S. government had made arrangements through the Federal Reserve Bank and other financial institutions to encourage evacuees to dispose of their property; and the Farm Security Administration took over the responsibility of disposing of agricultural property.

Considering the length of time the U.S. took doesn’t it look curious that U.S. officials like Robert Blake and Eric Schwartz are clamouring that the target set by GOSL is too long and call for releasing them immediately. Do they care about the aftermath? Does the U.S. administration or any one else think that GOSL should give each IDP in the Vanni a ‘santhosam‘ (a little gratuity) and send them back to their former places of residence to face the music of land-mine blasts and suffering without their homes and basic infrastructures, schooling and health care all of which have been destroyed? Is that what they expect these people in the Vanni to go through as people of Japanese descent and her own Jap-Am citizens in the U.S. were subjected to. No. Sri Lanka is not America, of the1940s or of the 21st century. It is a welfare state which cares for its people whatever the people in the Capitalist world think of her. She cannot treat her people as the American government did ” to send them away with $ 25 in hand to fend for themselves thereafter. No wonder there is so much poverty in the U.S. despite the ostensible affluence on the surface.

So, Sri Lanka today is not the U.S. fifty ”five years ago. The WW II did not affect the main U.S. territory direct after the Pearl Harbour. Japan had been beaten, crushed and emasculated, her religions dishonoured by General McArthur. There was no case of giving any assistance to the internees by the U.S. government to re-start life. They only won the freedom to leave the camps. ‘Freedom to leave’! That is all that is uppermost to Robeert O Blake/Schwarts and others; no matter what happens to the IDPs in the Vanni thereafter.

What about the $25 one may ask? Shame for a country now spending hundreds of billions of dollars to support failing industries!

‘Returnee to Where’ one may ask, when in the U.S. their properties had been appropriated so cheaply and disposed of?  So why on earth did the U.S. government take over eight months to release the internees who were her own citizens for the most part? Shouldn’t that question be answered first by Blake, Schwartz & Co?

No Voluntary Confinement

Eric Shwartz, present Assistant Secretary of the Dept. of Population, Refugees and Migration  would be in for a shock if he turns the pages of history and find out that those America-Japanese/ citizens of the U.S. who were interned in hastily established camps in lands no body wanted, were also not voluntary internees though there were some who wanted to go there voluntarily to demonstrate their loyalty to America. Similarly, Assistant Secretary Robert Blake too might think twice before he recommends to GOSL to release the IDPs or face the music or deprivation of U.S. and international assistance. Doesn’t that suggest that the U.S. is getting ready for such a campaign?

Culture of Impunity

There are points that we can learn from the Americans and the Americans from us. Sri Lanka has been a haven for refugees and her history is replete with that information long before the Western civilization was born. Even some of the Muslims came here to avoid persecution in their own countries. Caring for people has been part of the cultural ethos of this country. It is done first at home from looking after elders. Welfare state is a concept to which we cannot turn our back despite IMF/ World Bank prescriptions. It may be difficult for the Capitalist world to understand this.

The American situation I refer to was what obtained under WW II just about fifty years ago. Yes, the Americans are a lot civilized people in this third millennium of history since the birth of Jesus Christ though their history in the land of U.S.A. has a history of no more than three centuries. But civilizations had existed for over several millennia in China, in the Nile Valley and in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ before Christ and well before the Americans understood those word like ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture.’ Unlike in the Western world, we begin our welfare at our homes with our old parents and relatives. That is our age old culture. Mr.Blake should have seen it here and in New Delhi.

The WW II situation was not what one speaks as ‘culture’ today; that was the culture of impunity practicing which both the West and the East (Japan) alike competed with equal ferocity. The impunity in the case of the West continues considering anything that originates in the East is ‘evil’ whether it be Sadam Hussein’s big arsenal built by the West itself which could have destabilized Western interests in oil rich Middle East; the North Korean acquisition of ICBMs and Nuclear arms, Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear energy for peaceful use; or Sri Lanka’s way of trying to rid herself of a terrorist threat to her sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This is how they view things from Washington, London, Paris and Brussels and even from New York, where a beleaguered U.N. under Western pressure has also deviated from its original principles and was seen supporting the U.S. and the Western allies to send over a million Iraqis to the jaws of death through sanctioning carpet bombings and starvation of a population through the application of sanctions even on essential food and medicine. The U.N. Secretary-General and his Secretariat remained impotent against Western moves in Iraq but in contrast, they became very active in respect of a small country like Sri Lanka again, singing to the tune of Western powers.

The present day impunity in the case with the East, in the eyes of the West and the UN officials arises as the UN spokespersons call it, (Remember Louise Arbour) from not listening to the dictates of ‘new’ cultural values of the West like human rights and humanitarian considerations which the West has recently discovered, values which the West did not know when whole populations were driven to slavery in the past centuries, even with the Catholic Church becoming a willing partner in the days Mammon ruled the Church as Prof. C.R. Boxer would say. This culture continued under Bushism as seen from Madeline Albright’s outbursts. The purveyors of the new Western culture of impunity then are not only the Western nations themselves but also the spokespersons of the United nations like former officials Garath Evans, Louis Arbour and now the  Navi Pillais and Nambiars.

Listening to the new Messiahs  

For whatever it is worth, we must listen to these new Messiahs from the West who come to preach to the people in the East (Africa included) and especially, we in Sri Lanka, though we see at our own door-step, human rights violations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and humanitarian problems of refugees increasing in the Swat valley and elsewhere, now that the exodus from Iraq is over. Shouldn’t we ignore these happenings even now in our neighbourhood yielding to the higher culture of impunity of the West with which they carry on the bombings of civilians in their hundreds at a time, not tens of thousands as they did in Iraq a decade or so earlier.

Now one may not hear of a situation where these South Asian countries would be ‘bombed to the stone-age‘ as once assertive U.S. declared. There will be only a few hundreds of civilians killed at a time from bombing in these countries in short targeted strikes at a time. That is not so conspicuous like killing a million in Iraq in one sweep looking for the evasive WMDs a decade back; or so many others in Indo-China decades earlier. This is the new strategy of Western game of impunity. The toll on civilians is called collateral damage. When there is a war in the East, say like in Sri Lanka, it is called ‘genocide.’ The numbers are inflated adding a digit or more. That is no serious problem as the agents of the West did with the support of its agents in the UN which depended on its agent the “Tamilnet”. (Ask Navi Pillai who knows the game!). That sort of thing can camouflage the West’s own impunity in killing civilians in Afghanistan/Pakistan.

IPD Centres in the Vanni

One must not become critical of the U.S. these days because America is no longer that nation which caused Human Right violations during WW II, in Vietnam, and Iraq, except for those incessant bombings that goes on daily sorties in Afghanistan and Pakistan killing a few hundred civilians here and there. There is no Madeline Albright at the helm in the State Department preaching that the deaths of a half million Iraqis was ‘worth’ it in the long run [both through bombing and sanctions]. Or, claiming that Pakistan will be bombed to the stone age under the earlier administration.  That was during the days of highest impunity. Today, Hillary Clinton speaks of engaging the adversaries but Iran seems to be excluded. Iran is still the source of ‘evil for America!  So, President Karazi is campaigning at the Presidential elections of Afghanistan promising talks with Taliban if he wins!

Today, there is no General De Witt to push the Dept. of Justice as he did in the 1940s threatening if the government did not, he would, to confine Japanese Americans, to restricted areas. But we have Eric Shwartz asking the GOSL to allow the people in IDP centres to go wherever they please. Go where? As the Japanese ”Americans were asked to go! But this is no America. We do not even turn out a beggar without pleasing him!

The lesson

The lesson for everyone from the Sri Lankan situation is that it is not one caused by the GOSL as America did when  the American-Japanese were forced into relocation centres. It is one arising from LTTE terrorism. When nearly 300,000 civilians were trapped by the LTTE to be used as a human shield to protect its leadership, no one in the international community rose to condemn the action. The cry was to halt the war in the pretext of humanitarian considerations to save the civilians trapped which was nothing but a ruse to save the LTTE leadership from annihilation. That the GOSL did not cow-down under these pressures coming from every corner in the West with the UN as the West’s agent leading, was good enough to charge the GOSL of ‘genocide’ and try to haul it before the international court. Now, the cry is for the IDPs!

GOSL has taken upon it the responsibility for caring for the IDPs during the interim period of awaiting transfer to their original homes which it is trying to do with a sense of responsibility rather than send them to the jaws of death and suffering as the Americans did to returning America-Japanese to the West Coast by sending them to fend for themselves. Yes, it would have been easier for the GOSL to give each family $25 or even a little more as the Americans did and say look after yourself! Is that what U.S. spokesmen are suggesting based on their experience of treating American-Japanese? Can a responsible government do that? No. Not under our culture. We have different sets of values, far more humanitarian though it might cause some temporary inconvenience. Aren’t the IDPs better off today than they were under Prabhakaran’s dictatorial boots? Didn’t he even rob the food and medicines sent by the GOSL to them (civilians) in Vanni?  Did they enjoy the freedom to get away from his clutches? So, why this crocodile tears only now as The Island Editorial asked?

What the international community should do is to support the GOSL, as a few countries like the U.S., U.K, Canada and Australia, China, Russia and Bahrain are doing, each in some measure. It is notably India, which is doing the utmost, however, providing medical assistance, assisting in demining and in numerous other ways because, as an Asian neighbor, with similar cultural ethos she understands the GOSL’s resolve to help the IDPs. That sort of response would encourage the GOSL to speed up settlement of the IDPs. That could include providing material assistance for the demining process, infrastructure building, and medial support. That is also what the Christian Church could do rather than pay lip service to those who are irrationally demanding that the IDPs be given the freedom to return voluntarily. Will they take the responsibility for the aftermath? Yes, perhaps, there could be those rushing for converts as they do when they see a handicapped child or a parent among estate Tamils as I found happening under my very nose!

There are many potential LTTE trouble makers who have crept into Vanni shelters as the U.S. government itself found in its camps but to a lesser degree. The U.S. had to isolate them at the Tule lake camp and finally re-integrate them a year after the War. When the LTTE allowed an exodus of 45,000 of the held civilian hostages it also released thousands of its own cadres with them. This has caused serious problems.

No one is coming to Sri Lanka’s rescue against threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Sri Lanka has to fight that battle alone with her own resources. So let the GOSL try to solve the issues as far as its resources could take care of them. It is for others to help the GOSL if they care, to speed up the solution of the IDP problem rather than place constraints on it by threats of withdrawal of support and other pressures. I saw how these good Samaritans, Foreign Ministers, Ministers in charge Overseas Aid from the West rushed to Iran under President Rafsanjani falling one over the other, offering assistance to Kurdish refugees who escaped to Iran over snow clad mountains from Saddam Hussein’s clutches. (I was on the spot near Kurdish border offering tea to the hungry refugees). Even America wanted to be there but because of political problems they sent used blankets in U.S. war-planes. Again I was there to see this unusual event of U.S. war planes landing at the Teheran airport for which President Rafsanjani had to offer an explanation.

Why is it that there was no such ready and warm response to Tamil escapees from Prabhakaran’s clutches? Was it because in contrast, these countries had nothing to gain from Sri Lanka by way of big contracts to restore war damaged infrastructure, new harbours and ports, air ports, mining ventures and many more as was possible in Iran? Perhaps, if we opened up the Eppawala phosphate resource to the American company in which a former U.S. Ambassador showed a keen interest, things could have been different. There is nothing more big here to be exploited right now except, perhaps, a little strategic consideration to keep the Chinese away from Sri Lanka.



One Response to “America took nearly one year to free Japanese-Americans after the WW II Irrefutable facts about Internee Camps in U.S.”

  1. Christie Says:

    US helped us a lot in wiping out the Indian terrorist arm branded Tamil Tigers. please read Gota’s War by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It is India, Indian colonial parasites and Indian vermin in the West who are up in arms against the non Indians in the island nation.

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