Internment, Wartime

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INTERNMENT, WARTIME. Internment has long been recognized in American and international law. By World War II, it was regulated by a system of rules—the Geneva Convention—that governed the treatment of prisoners of war and civilian enemy nationals, including diplomats, resident in or captured by a belligerent nation. The United States first used internment during the War of 1812, when some resident British, mostly merchants, were ordered to remove themselves fifty miles inland. British merchants in New York City were exiled up the Hudson at Newburgh, but left at liberty.

The United States next resorted to internment during World War I. At that time about 500,000 unnaturalized resident aliens of German birth were in the United States; they were proclaimed "alien enemies" after war was declared in April 1917.Some 8,000 enemy aliens—the vast majority of them Germans, and almost all the rest subjects of Austria-Hungary—were arrested under presidential warrants, but nearly three-quarters of them were released within a short time. Only about 2,300 enemy nationals resident in the United States were actually interned, 90 percent of them German and all but a few of them male.

During World War II, internment of Germans and Italians began more than two years before the United States formally entered the war. Seamen from German vessels stranded in U.S. ports were interned shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939.In June 1940, when Italy entered the conflict, perhaps a thousand Italians, consisting of seamen and a group of food workers from the Italian exhibition at the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940 were also seized. All were persons without permanent resident status.

Shortly after the fall of France, Congress passed the Alien Registration Act of 1940.Among the several million registrants were 695,363 Italians, 314,715 Germans, and 91,858 Japanese, so that after the United States went to war, there were about a million unnaturalized natives of the Axis nations resident in the United States, all potential internees.

When war came, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed three similar public proclamations declaring that "all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of [Japan, Germany, and Italy] being of the age of fourteen years and upward, who shall be in the United States and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured, and removed as alien enemies." Austrian and Korean resident aliens, who had German and Japanese nationality, were not declared alien enemies.

The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt never intended to intern any sizable percentage of the one million alien enemies. Attorney General Francis

Biddle and his staff in the Department of Justice wanted a minimal program and were aware of the gross injustices suffered by German and Italian resident aliens in Winston Churchill's Britain. In preparation for war, various federal security agencies had prepared custodial detention lists, better known as the "ABC lists," of persons who were deemed potentially dangerous. Persons on the A list were identified as "known dangerous" aliens; those on the B list were labeled "potentially dangerous"; and those appearing on the C list were persons who were believed to warrant surveillance because of pro-Axis sympathies or propaganda activities. As is common with internal security lists, they were largely based on guilt by association rather than on individual investigations, as most of the names came from membership and subscription lists of organizations and publications deemed subversive.

It is not yet possible—and may never be—to give precise figures for either the total number of persons interned or the numbers of each nationality. Several civilian agencies, chiefly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the military authorities made arrests. Furthermore, the surviving records are incomplete. Until the spring of 1943, civilian internees were largely under military custody; most were then transferred to the INS, which had held some civilians since early in the war. At various times the INS reported, with what seems like studied vagueness, on the number of persons it held, but its reports did not always make clear what categories of persons were being counted. In late 1944, J. Edgar Hoover reported that 14,807 enemy aliens had been taken into custody by the FBI, of whom nearly two-fifths had "been ordered interned by the Attorney General and the military authorities." Hoover's seemingly precise figures leave room for doubt. Early in the war many individuals were arrested by various local authorities and held under military auspices in places like Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and they probably were not included in his totals. The 40,000 Japanese nationals who were incarcerated by the War Relocation Authority along with 80,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were alien enemies who were not on the government's lists. The best estimate of the total number of interned persons is something under 11,000, broken down as follows: Japanese, perhaps 8,000; Germans, possibly 2,300; and only a few hundred Italians. Many more were arrested and held in custody for days and even weeks without being officially interned. Of the total, at least 2,254 Japanese, chiefly from Peru, and 4,058 Germans and 288 Italians were brought from fifteen Latin American countries and interned in INS camps.


Corbett, P. Scott. Quiet Passage: The Exchange of Civilians between the United States and Japan during the Second World War. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.An account based largely on U.S. Department of State documents.

Culley, John J. "The Santa Fe Internment Camp and the Justice Department Program for Enemy Aliens." In Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress. Edited by Roger Daniels et al. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986.

Fiset, Louis. Imprisoned Apart: The World War II Correspondence of an Issei Couple. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.The best treatment of the internment of Japanese nationals.

Friedman, Max Paul. Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming. The first multinational approach to this topic.

Gardiner, C. Harvey. Pawns in a Triangle of Hate: The Peruvian Japanese and the United States. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.A pathbreaking work.

Saunders, Kay, and Roger Daniels, eds. Alien Justice: Wartime Internment in Australia and North America. St. Lucia, Australia: Queensland University Press, 2000.An anthology covering experiences in both world wars.


See alsoGeneva Conventions ; Japanese American Incarceration ; andvol. 9:The Japanese Internment Camps, 1942 .

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