From Orange County to Poston, Arizona: An Ugly Chapter in American History

Today is the 64th anniversary of a dark day in American history. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, giving the Secretary of War the authority to declare any area of the United States a military area "from which any or all persons may be excluded"and authorizing the internment of what were called in sterile bureaucratic language, people of "Foreign Enemy Ancestry". In practice, this new power, combined with the racist tinged war fervor stirred up by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the longstanding prejudices against Japanese immigrants and citizens of Japanese ancestry, led to rounding up of thousands of "Japs" (as they were called then, regardless of citizenship), mostly along the West Coast. Ten internment camps, as well as fifteen "assembly centers", were built in seven states, and approximately 110,000 people were shipped to them, for no reason other than who their parents were.

California's Manzanar camp remains the most famous of the "Relocation Centers", though for Orange County, Poston, Arizona is much more significant. Most of Manzanar's population came from Los Angeles, while most internees from Orange County were sent to Poston's three camps. Poston was unique among the internment facilities. It had a dual purpose, as the Poston Restoration Project's website explains:

The three camps served not only as a place to house thousands of Japanese detainees but the infrastructure created by and for them also served to recruit more Native Americans from surrounding smaller reservations to the much larger and sparsely populated Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) reservation after the war. The Japanese detainees held at the three Poston Camps were used as laborers to build adobe schools, do experimental farming, and to construct an irrigation system that could later be used by the Native Americans thus aiding the settlement of the area as planned by the Office of Indian Affairs (known today as the Bureau of Indian Affairs).

Using the labor of one despised minority to build facilities for another despised minority– you can't fault the government's sense of efficiency. (You can, however, fault it's sense of irony: the Native Americans moving onto the CRIT reservation were officially called "colonists".)

Poston was also the scene of a brief but interesting attempt to make the government's concentration camps more humane. In 1942, Isamu Noguchi, one of America's greatest sculptors, arrived at Poston, as a voluntary internee. Born in Los Angeles in 1904 to a Japanese father and an Irish-American mother, Noguchi fit the racial profile of an internee, but he lived in New York, which, unlike Anaheim, the War Department didn't consider an important enough city to declare off limits to persons of enemy ancestry. Noguchi– who had apprenticed under Gutzon Borglum, the designer of Mount Rushmore– had been appalled by the naked racism and betrayal of American values the internment camp system represented, and soon after Order 9066 was issued, he founded "Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy" to counter the anti-Japanese-American hysteria sweeping the country. The group, as he later admitted, proved to be a complete failure. Another part of his efforts to turn the racist tide produced results, however.

Noguchi traveled to Washington, D.C. (another city not put off limits– apparently the War Department considered Washington less vital to the war effort than Santa Ana), where he did find one sympathetic official, John Collier of the Office of Indian Affairs. Collier was responsible for the reservation where the Poston camps were located, and he was determined to make the camps models for the rest of the country. "Though democracy perish outside, here would be kept its seeds," he told Noguchi, describing plans for an almost utopian colony instead of a concentration camp. Suitably impressed, Noguchi volunteered to be interned at Poston, where he intended to develop parks and recreational areas. But almost as soon as he arrived, Noguchi discovered that the euphemistically named War Relocation Authority, which controlled the camps, was thoroughly unimpressed by Collier's vision– all the WRA wanted was a standard issue concentration camp. Noguchi applied to leave– since he had entered voluntarily, and only spent his time in New York and Washington D.C., instead of truly important cities like La Habra or Yorba Linda, he was eligible for release– and in seven months, he was granted a "temporary" release. Noguchi never received his permanent release papers, leading him to observe decades later, "So far as I know, I am still only temporarily at large." Noguchi may have been joking when he said that in 1968, but Executive Order 9066 wasn't rescinded until April 19, 1976. So in 1968, he was, legally speaking, still only on temporary release.

None of Poston's other 18,000 inmates qualified for a temporary release like Noguchi. Insights into their lives in the camps can be found in the Japanese American Oral History Project (JAOHP), part of Cal State Fullerton's excellent Oral History Program. Begun in 1972, the project has published three anthologies culled from its interviews, and has also co-publised two novels dealing with life in the camps. One of the novels is by Orange County's Georgia Day Robertson, who, during the war, supervised the teaching of mathematics at the Poston camps' high schools. How far real life in the camps was from John Collier's naively noble vision can be surmised from the title of Robertson's novel, The Harvest of Hate.

Perhaps somewhat fittingly, The Harvest of Hate seems to be available only in the UK currently. The camps dropped from the consciousness of most Americans as soon as the war ended. But a determined group of former internees fought for decades to clear their names of the black mark of interment. Responding to their efforts, President Carter established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. After a thorough review, the commission issued its findings in 1983: the internments were not the result of any military necessity. On August 10, 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, based on the committees recommendations, which entitled surviving internees to a cash settlement and a letter of apology.

The shadows of the camps are still very much with us today. In 2004, Fred Korematsu, who refused to leave his home in San Leandro, California when ordered to the camps and who fought his "evacuation" order all the way to the Supreme Court (he lost, though Korematsu v. United States is generally considered one of the Supreme Court's worst decisions, and in 1998, Korematsu's commitment to civil liberties was recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom), filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of another group of internees– the alleged "enemy combatants" held at Guantanamo Bay.

Korematsu died in March, 2005, to early to see what is going to happen with our latest internment camps. But as Bush administration claims more and more power for the Executive branch, it's worth reflecting on what we know now about the origins and consequences of Executive Order 9066.

(Paul Brennan)


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