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Perspective: Infamy

Intake center for Americans of Japanese ancestry before they were sent to relocation centers
National Archives at College Park
Intake center for Americans of Japanese ancestry before they were sent to relocation centers

World War II began for the U.S. on December 7, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Intense concern about potential enemies reached a fever pitch in the aftermath of the attack. How could we know who among us might be working with the enemy?

Two government departments came up with very different answers.

Under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI took a standard procedural approach. Months before the U.S. entered the war, non-citizens who had been born in Germany, Italy and Japan were put under surveillance. After the attack, those who had received a high rating on the FBI’s risk assessment scale were detained and investigated. Most were released; only those who were considered to be actual risks were interned.

The plan adopted by President Franklin Roosevelt and the War Department demanded the internment of the entire population of Japanese living in the west. Making a racist argument that the Japanese could not be assessed as individuals, the order included everyone — 120,000 citizens and non-citizens, men, women, and children. They were sent to primitive barracks surrounded by barbed wire. They lost nearly three years of their lives, along with their homes, businesses, and possessions.

It’s a surprise to find J. Edgar Hoover adopting the more enlightened approach and FDR as the reactionary who made a cruel decision that will live in infamy.

I’m Deborah Booth and that’s my perspective.

Deborah Booth retired in Fall 2014 from NIU, where she was the director of External Programs for the College of Visual and Performing Arts.