“An Enemy Race”

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A war poster reading "Don't blab. Loose traps help the Japs," circa 1942-43. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Though there was already an established culture of discrimination against Asian immigrant groups, anti-Japanese sentiment gained momentum after the events of December 7, 1941—Pearl Harbor. On this “date which will live in infamy,” the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This surprise attack further motivated the US government to officially enter World War II.

The day after Pearl Harbor, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began arresting Japanese men—many of whom were leaders in their communities—who had been placed on a Department of Justice watch list. Within forty-eight hours, over a thousand Japanese men were taken into custody and jailed. Just as swiftly, the US Government began to distribute xenophobic war propaganda that placed the Japanese at the top of America’s list of enemies. Using offensive racial stereotypes, this propaganda (which permeated American media throughout the war) was used to alienate and vilify the Japanese as a whole.

Japanese American loyalty soon became a core issue for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Many Japanese men and women were even forced to take loyalty tests that included questions about their belief in Japanese culture and their allegiance to the United States. These loyalty tests included scenarios that asked what the test-taker would do if he or she had suspicions about a hypothetical neighbor and requests for references to “vouch for your conduct.”

The Western Defense Command general, General John L. DeWitt, classified Japanese and Japanese Americans alike as “an enemy race,” and soon changes to their civil rights reflected that. It would be the only moment in US history when the federal government effectively nullified citizenship on grounds of racial difference.