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Japanese Internment Study

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 shocked the American public and spurred American entry into World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War to designate military zones and evacuate people deemed a threat to national security. The Order was used to detain approximately 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast. Japanese immigrants (Issei) and their American-born children (Nisei) were evicted from their homes and moved to temporary “assembly centers" on the West Coast. They were then transferred to “relocation centers" administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah.

In March 1942, University of California, Berkeley Sociology Professor Dorothy Swaine Thomas wrote a letter to Rockefeller Foundation (RF) Social Sciences Director Joseph H. Willits, requesting that the Foundation create a program for displaced Japanese American scholars modeled on its European Refugee Scholars program:

We are deeply concerned about this situation, and feel that it calls for immediate constructive efforts . . . to avoid what would otherwise inevitably result in social waste of great magnitude. Since the Rockefeller Foundation has carried through a notable program for the salvage of displaced European scholars, we wonder whether both the precedent and the administrative mechanism are not already established . . .. We believe that someone from the Foundation should be put in charge of a program for placing selected students and faculty members in universities and professional colleges of various sorts, east of the Mississippi . . .[1]

The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars was divided over whether to aid Japanese American scholars, and ultimately declined to get involved. Willits remained sympathetic, wondering “whether there is anything that the Foundation could, by ingenuity, do that would make for a more humane handling, that would conserve personal and international values."[2]

In April, Thomas submitted a new proposal for an interdisciplinary study of Japanese internment. Willits supported the proposal on several grounds. He observed that scholars would one day see this as an important historical event, and it merited documentation for future study. He predicted that it would advance understanding of forced migrations and foster postwar goodwill with the Japanese. Willits also believed it would reflect kindly on the United States and the Foundation: “That this country, through the RF, was sensitive enough to the human rights of those we officially hate, to arrange for a careful study of the effects of this forced migration on these Japanese, will stand out in contrast to the concentration camp techniques of other countries."[3]

With Willits' encouragement, RF Trustees approved a $7,500 grant to begin the study. The Foundation ultimately contributed $38,750 between 1942 and 1948, and Thomas received additional funding from the Giannini and Columbia Foundations and the University of California.

The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study

On May 18, 1942, Thomas secured the cooperation of WRA Director Milton Eisenhower, and the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) was underway. 

Telegram from WRA Director Milton Eisenhower approving the JERS study

Telegram from WRA Director Milton Eisenhower approving the JERS study, 1942 

Thomas employed six Nisei undergraduate and graduate students, themselves internees, to serve as participant observers in the camps. She also hired five white graduate students, three of whom also recorded observations. Collectively, they documented the internment experience from the temporary assembly centers, to the internment camps, to resettlement in Chicago. They kept detailed diaries, filed field reports, collected documents, and recorded internees' life histories.

Thomas remained in contact with Willits throughout the study, regularly sending him both formal progress reports and informal assessments of events unfolding in the camps. Willits was disheartened by the turmoil conveyed in her letters: “The more I read them the more depressed I become. If these were isolated instances of our failure in problems of human adjustment, one could lay them up to the war psychology toward aliens, but one sees it more and more and more." [4] 

Letter from Joseph H. Willits to Dorothy Swaine Thomas, February 11, 1944

Letter from Joseph H. Willits to Dorothy Swaine Thomas, February 11, 1944

Publication, Controversy, and Reappraisal

Thomas published the JERS study in two volumes. The Spoilage (1946) documented the experiences of Japanese Americans deemed “disloyal" and segregated in the Tule Lake camp. The Salvage (1952) followed the lives of “loyal" Japanese who were cleared to leave the camps and resettle in the Midwest. 

The study drew both praise and critiques. Three Nisei women filed suit in 1948 after being denied United States passports because they had renounced their citizenship while interned at Tule Lake. They claimed that the renunciation “was forced upon them," and a United States District Court agreed. In 1949, Judge William Denman of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision, citing The Spoilage as evidence. Willits proudly circulated the decision among RF officers, noting "It is not often that we get clear-cut evidence of the part played by RF funds in contributing to the solution of problems of human relations."[5]

Thomas's study also faced intense criticism. Some JERS staff members complained that it lacked sufficient theoretical framework. Others raised ethical questions, criticizing the study for making little effort to remedy the plight of the internees.[6]

Despite these criticisms, the JERS study generated an invaluable archival record.  In this sense, Willits proved prescient in his arguments made to fellow officers: "Twenty-five years from now historians galore will be trying to write the history of this incident. By then - if nothing is done now, - most of the real material, - which is ephemeral, - will be lost and the histories will be written solely on the documentary material and be consequently deficient."[7]

 

[1] Dorothy Swaine Thomas to Joseph H. Willits, March 11, 1942, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), RG 1.2, Series 205S, Box 11, Folder 81.

[2] Joseph H. Willits to RF Officers, March 18, 1942, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 205S, Box 11, Folder 81.

[3] Joseph H. Willits to RF Officers, May 5, 1942, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 205S, Box 11, Folder 81.

[4] Joseph H. Willits to Dorothy Swaine Thomas, February 11, 1944, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 205S, Box 12, Folder 82.

[5] Joseph H. Willits, "Possible Item for Trustees' Bulletin," November 7, 1949, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 205S, Box 12, Folder 83.

[6] Yuji Ichioka, ed., Views from Within: The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, UCLA, 1989), 10 and 22-23.

[7] Joseph H. Willits to RF Officers, May 5, 1942, RAC, RG 1.2, Series 205S, Box 11, Folder 81.  

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