Did Riots and War End Japanese Internment, Slavery, and World War II?

On July 16 2019, the Facebook page “Close the Camps” shared the following screenshot (archived here) of a Facebook post asserting that riots, rebellion, and war were necessary to put a stop to concentration camps, World War II, and slavery:

The original post was published by Facebook user Rick Glass that same day. In full, it read:

Do y’all know how Japanese internment ended? Riots. There was a huge riot in 1942 where police killed a guy, and a riot in 1943 after another internment death. That same year, the case went to the Supreme Court and they eventually pulled the plug.

You know how Slavery ended? Riots. Uprisings. Rebellion. War.

You know how the Holocaust ended? Riots. Uprisings. Rebellion. War.

You know what didn’t stop any of these atrocities? Voting.

Do you know what it will take to stop mass incarceration and child detention centers? Don’t kill the messenger.

In the post, Glass points to three historical examples where “riots,” “war,” or general uprisings were responsible for an abrupt end to ongoing violations of civil and human rights — Japanese internment camps during World War II, slavery before the American Civil War, and the Holocaust.

A notable coda not mentioned in the Facebook post was its implicit analogue to 2019 events — namely, anti-immigrant sentiment and the use of detainment camps based on presumed ethnicity or nationality. Another controversy involved the proposed inclusion of a “citizenship question” on the 2020 census.

Until fairly recently in American history, the United States Census Bureau denied facilitating the internment of American citizenships in camps in the 1940s. But in 1943, the Bureau supplied census data to facilitate those detentions:

Despite decades of denials, government records confirm that the U.S. Census Bureau provided the U.S. Secret Service with names and addresses of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The Census Bureau surveys the population every decade with detailed questionnaires but is barred by law from revealing data that could be linked to specific individuals. The Second War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily repealed that protection to assist in the roundup of Japanese-Americans for imprisonment in internment camps in California and six other states during the war. The Bureau previously has acknowledged that it provided neighborhood information on Japanese-Americans for that purpose, but it has maintained that it never provided “microdata,” meaning names and specific information about them, to other agencies.

A new study of U.S. Department of Commerce documents now shows that the Census Bureau complied with an August 4, 1943, request by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau for the names and locations of all people of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area, according to historian Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and statistician William Seltzer of Fordham University in New York City. The records, however, do not indicate that the Bureau was asked for or divulged such information for Japanese-Americans in other parts of the country.

The latter two examples (the Holocaust and slavery) were a bit more clear-cut than the third example of Japanese interment. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation during the third year of the Civil War, but did not declare an end to slavery outright:

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Despite this expansive wording, the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war.

Slavery was formally abolished with the ratification of the United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment in December 1865; Confederate troops and regiments began surrendering in April 1865 through November of that year, and President Andrew Johnson issued a Declaration formally recognizing an end to the South’s insurrection.

The events of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps of the Holocaust are similarly nuanced and spread out, but the catalyst for the end of the latter is reasonably described as the events of the former:

In the spring of 1945, Allied forces, including millions of Americans serving in uniform, ended the Holocaust by militarily defeating Nazi Germany and its Axis collaborators.

In the Facebook post’s first line, Glass says:

Do y’all know how Japanese internment ended? Riots. There was a huge riot in 1942 where police killed a guy, and a riot in 1943 after another internment death. That same year, the case went to the Supreme Court and they eventually pulled the plug.

Internment of American citizens of Japanese descent also took place against the backdrop of World War II, but the conclusion of that practice is less well-known than the actions that liberated various camps in Europe by Allied troops as the war drew to a close. The practice began not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941. Public opinion — strongly inflamed by editorial hysteria — led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to sign an executive order in February 1942, relocating more than 100,000 people:

The attack on Pearl Harbor also launched a rash of fear about national security, especially on the West Coast. In February 1942, just two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt as commander-in-chief, issued Executive Order 9066, which had the effect of relocating all persons of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and aliens, inland, outside of the Pacific military zone. The objectives of the order were to prevent espionage and to protect persons of Japanese descent from harm at the hands of Americans who had strong anti-Japanese attitudes.

In Washington and Oregon, the eastern boundary of the military zone was an imaginary line along the rim of the Cascade Mountains; this line continued down the spine of California from north to south. From that line to the Pacific coast, the military restricted zones in those three states were defined.

Roosevelt’s order affected 117,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens of the United States. The Issei were the first generation of Japanese in this country; the Nisei were the second generation, numbering 70,000 American citizens at the time of internment. Within weeks, all persons of Japanese ancestry–whether citizens or enemy aliens, young or old, rich or poor–were ordered to assembly centers near their homes. Soon they were sent to permanent relocation centers outside the restricted military zones.

The well-documented riots broke out on more than one occasion during those years of internment, in response to unjust killings and poor living conditions in the camps:

Violence occasionally occurred in centers. In Lordsburg, New Mexico, internees were delivered by trains and marched two miles at night to the camp.

An elderly man attempted to flee and was shot and killed. After settling in, at least two men were shot and killed while trying to escape.

On August 4, 1942, a riot broke out in the Santa Anita facility, the result of anger about insufficient rations and overcrowding. At Manzanar, California, tensions resulted in the beating of a Japanese American Citizens League member by six masked men. Fearing a riot, police tear-gassed crowds, and one man was killed by police.

At the Topaz Relocation Center, a man was shot and killed by military police for going too near the perimeter. Two months later, a couple was shot at for the same reason.

In 1943, a riot broke out at Tule Lake following an accidental death. Tear gas was dispersed, and martial law declared until agreements were reached.

As the Facebook post correctly states, a Supreme Court case was pivotal in freeing those detained:

After visiting an internment camp in 1942 and seeing the abysmal living conditions of the innocent Japanese-Americans, [American Civil Liberties Union lawyer James] Purcell was determined to bring a habeas corpus lawsuit against this unlawful detainment. Purcell eventually chose [detainee Mitsuye Endo] to be the case’s plaintiff as she was a U.S. citizen, had a brother in the army, and had never been to Japan. Although hesitant at first, Mitsuye ultimately chose to do it, stating many years later, “I agreed to do it at that moment, because they said it’s for the good of everybody, and so I said, well if that’s it, I’ll go ahead and do it.”

On July 12, 1942 Purcell filled a petition challenging Japanese-American internment in federal district court in San Francisco. The court heard the case, but did not issue a ruling until July 1943, when the petition was denied without explanation. Soon after, the War Relocation Authorities offered to release Mitsuye in exchange for dropping her suit. She bravely declined and remained confined for years as her case progressed. In August of 1943, an appeal was sent to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but rather than issue a ruling himself, Judge William Denman sent the case directly to the Supreme Court in April 1944. On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Mitsuye, stating that “the government cannot detain a citizen without charge when the government itself concedes she is loyal to the United States.”

One day earlier, on December 17, 1944, the Roosevelt administration, having been alerted to the Court’s decision, issued Public Proclamation No. 21, which declared that Japanese-Americans could return to the West Coast in January 1945.

Whether riots and instances of uprisings and unrest at the camps were beneficial to liberation efforts is not as clear as the other two instances.  At the time, anti-Japanese editorializing in the news painted the riots as “Axis-related” activity:

Due in part to the timing of the riot/uprising, many contemporaneous external accounts characterized it as a pro-Axis revolt commemorating the one-year anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was part of a raft of negative publicity about the incarceration that led to Congressional investigations that put the WRA on the defensive. The event—along with similar unrest in other camps—influenced the WRA in developing and implementing a policy to identify and segregate the “disloyal” inmates and to encourage the “loyal” to leave the camps and “resettle” in communities outside the West Coast.

Over the years, the riot/uprising has been analyzed numerous times by a range of scholars, and the varying interpretations of the event parallel the change in how the incarceration as a whole has come to be viewed.

The Facebook post suggests that a riot in 1943 catalyzed the Supreme Court’s decision. However, the case in question — Ex parte Mitsuye Endo — was decided in December 1944, not 1943. In that ruling, a number of factors are cited as informing the Supreme Court’s decision, none of which are violence or riots in the camps. In a concurring opinion, one Justice of the time wrote:

Moreover, the Court holds that Mitsuye Endo is entitled to an unconditional release by the War Relocation Authority. It appears that Miss Endo desires to return to Sacramento, California, from which Public Proclamations Nos. 7 and 11, as well as Civilian Exclusion Order No. 52, still exclude her. And it would seem to me that the ‘unconditional’ release to be given Miss Endo necessarily implies ‘the right to pass freely from state to state,’ including the right to move freely into California. If, as I believe, the military orders excluding her from California were invalid at the time they were issued, they are increasingly objectionable at this late date, when the threat of invasion of the Pacific Coast and the fears of sabotage and espionage have greatly diminished. For the Government to suggest under these circumstances that the presence of Japanese blood in a loyal American citizen might be enough to warrant her exclusion from a place where she would otherwise have a right to go is a position I cannot sanction.

A second concurring opinion held that Endo’s rights had been squarely violated:

I conclude, therefore, that the court is squarely faced with a serious constitutional question,-whether the relator’s detention violated the guarantees of the Bill of Rights of the federal Constitution and especially the guarantee of due process of law. There can be but one answer to that question. An admittedly loyal citizen has been deprived of her liberty for a period of years. Under the Constitution she should be free to come and go as she pleases. Instead, her liberty of motion and other innocent activities have been prohibited and conditioned. She should be discharged.

In the post’s other two examples (the Holocaust and slavery), the decisive action taken was largely on the part of those with the ability to work from outside those conditions — resistance on the inside remains historically lauded, but action from the outside was necessary to liberate people. It appeared to be similar in the case of liberating Japanese-American prisoners, crystallized action coming in the form of a successful cause for legal action brought on behalf of a detainee with the dedication to see others freed despite her own unjust imprisonment, refusing the United States government’s offer to release her in order to make the lawsuit she brought moot.