Pearl Harbor, Internment, and Hiroshima: Historical Lessons
by Paul D'Amato
Wartime hysteria and internment
After December 7, a wave of racist hysteria swept the United States. The FBI immediately began to arrest and detain people of Japanese ancestry who were suspected of "aiding the enemy," even though "not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast." In Norfolk, Virginia, every Japanese person found was immediately jailed. In Nashville, the Tennessee Department of Conservation requested 6 million licenses to hunt Japanese people. The purchasing department rejected the request, noting, "Open season on 'Japs'-no license required." Some restaurants on the West Coast posted signs after Pearl Harbor that read, "This Restaurant Poisons Both Rats and Japs." Newspapers and organizations, especially on the West Coast, clamored for Japanese removal. The Los Angeles Times, in its call for removal, declared, "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched-so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parentage grows up to be a Japanese, not an American." The Western Growers Protective Association snarled:
We've been charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the Brown man.
Joseph Kurihara, a U.S. citizen who served in the First World War, was interned at the Manzanar camp at Tule Lake, California-a camp designated for "troublemakers." "America, the standard bearer of democracy," he wrote after his release at the end of the war, "had committed the most heinous crime in its history, imprinting in my mind...the dread that even democracy is a demon in time of war."
The racism against Japanese abroad reached genocidal proportions. In order to dehumanize the enemy and make killing in large quantities easier, Japanese were represented in the media and by politicians as "animals, reptiles, or insects (monkeys, baboons, gorillas, dogs, mice and rats, vipers and rattlesnakes, cockroaches, vermin-or, more indirectly, 'the Japanese herd' and the like)," according to one historian. The commander of the Pacific forces, Admiral William F. Halsey, paraphrasing Sherman, said to a press conference in 1944, "The only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead six months." He added, "When we get to Tokyo...we'll have a little celebration where Tokyo was." Halsey's motto was, "Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!" The Marine magazine Leatherneck concurred. Under a caricature of an insect with slanted eyes and protruding teeth and the caption "louseous Japanicas," the magazine explained:
Extensive experiments on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan have shown that this louse inhabits coral atolls in the South Pacific, particularly pill boxes, palm trees, caves, swamps and jungles. Flame-throwers, mortars, grenades, and bayonets have proven to be an effective remedy. But before a complete cure may be effected, the origin of the plague, the breeding grounds around the Tokyo area, must be completely annihilated.
The war had a brutalizing effect on the soldiers involved. Life magazine even published a full-page photograph of a blonde woman posing with a Japanese skull sent by her fiancee. This was not an isolated case. Edgar L. Jones, a former war correspondent in the Pacific, listed some of the atrocities committed by American forces in the Pacific:
We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones for letter openers.