Keeper of the Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism

By Richard Drinnon

University of California Press

Copyright © 1989 Richard Drinnon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520066014

Chapter I—
The WRA Story of Human Conservation

Neither I nor most of my staff were well informed regarding
the problems we faced. We lacked information about the evac-
uees and their history. We were generally uninformed regard-
ing the anti-Oriental movements on the West Coast, and the
pressures, rumors and fears that had led to the evacuation.
—Dillon S. Myer, Uprooted Americans, 1971

In early 1944 key officials in the Washington office of the War Relocation Authority discussed their agency with Dorothy Swaine Thomas of the University of California. Head of the "Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study" (JERS) in Berkeley, Professor Thomas chatted knowledgeably with them about various matters, learned they proposed to close one of their two camps in Arkansas, and concluded that the morale of Director Dillon S. Myer, Solicitor Philip M. Glick, Morrill M. Tozier, chief of the Reports Division, and other members of the staff was very high indeed:

There is, in the first place, enormous admiration for Myer. Tozier, in particular, has an extreme case of hero worship. "The boss was magnificent yesterday. He knew all the answers, etc. etc. etc." (Tozier writes Myer's speeches for him.) In the second place, WRA is a typical, New Deal, idealistic agency (I worked for FERA [Federal Emergency Relief Administration] for quite a period under Harry Hopkins and observed exactly the same phenomena). They carry the torch for the Japanese people, but always in abstract, idealistic terms without much understanding of the problems that are being faced in the projects, or of what the people themselves really want. . . . In the third place, the Washington group is held together by the attacks they are receiving from the outside, which makes crusaders of them, and by a terrible fear they will lose their agency.

["High Points in Conversation . . .," January 20, 1944,
JERS 67/14, suppl., cart. 2]

Thomas's few lines catch, for a moment, the WRA leaders in their natural habitat and correctly identify them. The men who ran America's concentration camps were liberals of the genus New Deal.


From second and third levels of the administration, these officials had little understanding of their charges and less of what had called their agency into being. Milton S. Eisenhower has related in his memoirs, The President Is Calling (PIC ; 1974), that Franklin Delano Roosevelt summoned him to the White House on March 10 or 11, 1942, and abruptly enjoined him: "Milton, your war job, starting immediately, is to set up a War Relocation Authority to move the Japanese-Americans off the Pacific coast. I have signed an executive order which will give you full authority to do what is essential. . . . And Milton . . . the greatest possible speed is imperative" (p. 95). Told that Budget Director Harold Smith would fill him in on the details, the startled appointee barely had a chance to ask and get permission to take along his staff from the Agriculture Co-ordinating Office.

"Like most Americans at the time," Eisenhower explained, "I knew very little about the problem of the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast." The administration's fledgling expert on the "problem" even had to be informed by the budget director that it broke down into Issei , the immigrants from Japan; Nisei , their children who were born and educated in this country; and Kibei , their children who were born here but educated in Japan—among the last, he learned, "were people who probably posed the threats to our security." It was all very confusing, especially when Harold Smith added that Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command had pronounced it impossible to "tell the difference between a loyal and a disloyal Japanese-American."

Eisenhower also knew very little about the events after Pearl Harbor that led Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Earlier Admiral Ernest Stark, chief of Naval Operations, should have put to rest fears of an invasion with his flat statement that a full-scale Japanese attack on the West Coast was "impossible." And just the preceding week the army's general staff had recommended against mass evacuation, holding in effect that there was no military necessity. General Mark W. Clark and the other staff officers had, however, been opposed and outmaneuvered by their civilian heads, Secretary of War

Henry L. Stimson and his assistant John J. McCloy, who acted in concert with Provost Marshal General Allen W. Gullion and his assistant Karl R. Bendetsen, along with General DeWitt, and drew support from West Coast congressmen, municipal and state officials, columnists, and assorted patriotic and economic interest groups. Eisenhower knew nothing of this infighting or of the conflict between the Departments of Justice and War, with Attorney General Francis Biddle's wavering efforts to forestall exclusion defeated by Stimson, who easily gained the upper hand with Roosevelt. And, finally, the appointee knew nothing of the cabinet meeting after Roosevelt's command decision when, according to Stimson's notes of February 27, 1942, "there was general confusion around the table arising from the fact that nobody had realized how big it was, nobody wanted to take care of the evacuees. . . . Biddle suggested that a single head should be chosen to handle the resettlement instead of the pulling and hauling of all the different agencies, and the President seemed to accept this."* That single head became Eisenhower and out of the ashes of these conflicts and confusions—all unknown to him—arose the agency that he ran for the first three months of its existence.

"I can hardly believe that at the time of the events I knew so little about them," Eisenhower wrote decades later while trying to put some of the pieces together by drawing on the historian Stetson Conn and others (PIC , p. 112). And if he knew so little at the time, Philip Glick and the other members of the "well-knit team" who followed him into the WRA knew even less, so to speak, and their unfathomable ignorance was shared by the amiable fifty-year-old bureaucrat he chose as his successor, his old friend and protégé Dillon S. Myer, who had risen through the ranks with his help to become assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service and then acting administrator of the Agriculture Conservation and Adjustment Administration. Not under either director were the keepers in the WRA ever distinguished by knowledge of their charges or by understanding of what had placed these particular people behind their barbed-wire fences. Given their careers in agriculture, they would have been more at home in the Farm Security Administration and more qualified for resettling subsistence farmers on productive lands. Yet for the public servants who went from land conservation to people keeping, administration was administration.

* See "Notes and Bibliographic Essay" at the conclusion of the book for a running commentary on sources mentioned in the text and others used as a general background in each chapter.


Did the keepers never weigh the moral implications of their new duties? "I must confess that I spent little time pondering the moral implications of the President's decision. We were at war. Our nation had been viciously attacked without warning," Eisenhower explained in The President Is Calling . "President Roosevelt was the Commander-in-Chief and he had given me my war assignment" (pp. 97–98).

The assignment was in fact to run concentration camps, and these were hardly modern innovations. Perhaps the first on this continent was the bleak rock in Boston harbor named Deer Island on which the Bay Puritans dumped their "praying" Indians during the crisis of the 1670s. Here and elsewhere plenty of others followed. At the turn of this century the Spanish had built such concentration camps in Cuba, the British in South Africa, and the Americans in the Philippines. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1958) Hannah Arendt aptly divided them and their successors "into three types corresponding to three basic Western conceptions of life after death": Hades corresponded to "those relatively mild forms, once popular even in nontotalitarian countries," such as the historical forerunners of the WRA camps just mentioned; Purgatory corresponded to the Soviet Union's slave labor camps; and Hell corresponded to the Nazi camps that were "systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment" (p. 445). Under this typology, the first WRA director had the comparatively moderate task of administering Hades in the sand and cactus of the American West.

Unsurprisingly, Eisenhower rejected such comparisons out of hand: "We called the relocation camps 'evacuation centers,'" he wrote in his memoirs. "Never did we think of them as concentration camps. Technically, the Japanese-Americans were not restricted to the camps, although in fact they could not return to the Pacific coast and movement without safeguards to any other location would probably have endangered their lives, at least in the beginning" (p. 122). Movement surely endangered their lives, from beginning to end. Technically, the inmates were free to walk to the barbed wire and be killed, as happened to James Hatsuaki Wakasa at Topaz, Utah, on April 11, 1943. At the time and still decades later, Eisenhower tried to shield himself and his readers from the simple truth that enclosures where people, most of them citizens, have been penned without being charged with crimes and without being sentenced by ordinary process of law, and then shot if they try to leave, are enclosures correctly called concentration camps. By insisting

Endangered Lives at Manzanar , April 2, 1942. The WRA legend made no
reference to the soldier's battle readiness: "While [a] military policeman
stands guard, this detachment watches arrival of other evacuees of Japanese
ancestry at this War Relocation Center."
[The Bancroft Library]

they were merely "evacuation centers," Eisenhower hid their grim realities under the official lies the WRA called "definitions."

To his lasting credit, Eisenhower hated his job, did what he could to make the camps more bearable, and was permanently scarred by the experience: "I have brooded about this whole episode on and off for the past three decades, for it is illustrative of how an entire society can somehow plunge off course" (PIC , p. 125). At the time he found his duties "agonizing" and word soon reached Roosevelt that he was "sick of the job" (YoI , p. 114). A way out came in mid-June when he was asked to become the deputy of Elmer Davis in the Office of War Information. Before taking up his new post he went to a party at the home of Dillon and Jenness Wirt Myer and enjoyed himself playing their piano and talking to friends. After the other guests had gone, he spoke to Myer about taking over the WRA. The latter already knew something about

the agency, for they had talked about its problems riding back and forth to work in the same car pool and three months before had collaborated to select the top WRA staff from among their colleagues in the Department of Agriculture.

Dillon Myer always mentioned Eisenhower's piano playing when he related how he became director. Afterward they discussed the proposition for a couple of hours, Myer has reported, and when "I asked Milton if he really thought I should take the job, he replied, 'Yes, if you can do the job and sleep at night.' He said that he had been unable to do so. I was sure that I could sleep, and so agreed to accept the position if he felt that I was the one to do it, although it was not something that I would have chosen for myself" (Auto, pp. 183–84). On June 17, 1942, Roosevelt appointed him director.

"I was requested to take on a special war-time job with a Presidential appointment," he added elsewhere, "and unless you have a very good reason you don't turn down a Presidential request during wartime" (Auto, p. 185). Eisenhower's weighing of moral implications was profound contrasted with his own: "I was sure that I could sleep." Actually, he had always been "a good sleeper," and over the next four years—until the official termination of the WRA on June 30, 1946—he prided himself that "with very few exceptions I went to bed at night and slept soundly until time to get up the next morning" (Auto, p. 185).

Myer slept soundly nights as ruler of a vast American archipelago. Originally he had his own independent civilian agency—it was moved into the Department of the Interior by executive order on February 16, 1944—that ran concentration camps scattered throughout the country from the Mississippi Delta across the Rockies and into the Sierras. Officially, the WRA had ten camps. The two in Arkansas, Jerome and Rohwer, were on lands the Farm Security Administration had purchased for poor southern farm families. Three camps were on federal reclamation lands: Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; and Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Three camps were on lands obtained from various sources, federal, municipal, and private: Manzanar, California; Topaz, Utah; and Granada, or Amache, Colorado. Finally, the two Arizona camps, Gila River and Poston, were on Indian reservations. In all, the WRA had under its jurisdiction over a hundred million dollars worth of government property and within the camps confined altogether 119,803 men, women, and children, almost two-thirds of them (64.9 percent) American-born.

At peak confinements (January 1, 1943) the mean number of inmates

per camp was 11,031, with less than 8,000 in the smallest (Granada) and over 18,000 in the largest (Poston). In each camp were about a square mile of flimsy barracks, usually tar-papered, mess halls, schools, hospitals, stores, police stations, and administration buildings. Military police patrolled the perimeters, served as sentries at the gates, and manned the guard towers, but were under orders to move into the centers only upon formal request from the WRA. Within the camps "appointed personnel" (APs) or "Caucasians" counted inmates called "evacuees," studied them, enticed some into the all-Nisei combat team and registered others for the draft, cleared many for "leave," and sorted the remainder into bins labeled "loyal" and "disloyal." In all, about 3,000 APs worked in the camps, in the chief field offices in San Francisco, Denver, and Little Rock, in smaller "relocation" offices in other cities, and in the Washington headquarters. From beginning to end the WRA received appropriations of over 190 million dollars, of which the keepers spent over 160 million.

It was a huge job, a difficult job, and a "Job Well Done," editorialized the civil libertarian Alan Barth in the Washington Post of March 28, 1946: "All the men associated in this undertaking, and in particular Mr. Myer, who fought valiantly and pertinaciously against prejudice for the rights of the unfortunates in his charge, can take pride in a difficult job exceedingly well done." By then about 57,000 "evacuees" had moved back to the West Coast, but about 50,000 had settled eastward in new homes, a planned dispersal Barth hoped would "have some benefits in better integration of the Japanese-Americans into American society." President Harry S. Truman awarded Myer the nation's Medal for Merit for his outstanding service, offered to make him the last appointed governor of Puerto Rico, a post he declined, and then did appoint him commissioner of Indian affairs, another people-keeping role we shall consider later on. And claiming to represent not only its own members "but also the vast majority of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the United States," the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) held a banquet in his honor at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York on May 22, 1946, celebrated him as a "champion of human rights and common decency," and presented him with a testimonial scroll for his "courageous and inspired leadership" (UA , p. 342).

This inspired leadership had already been trumpeted everywhere by the WRA's many publications. While laying bare the keepers' roots in agriculture, Morrill M. Tozier caught the general tone of WRA propaganda in the title of his final report: WRA: A Story of Human Conser-

vation (1946). And having grown larger than life-size in a job Eisenhower could not stomach, Dillon Myer naturally did not spend the next decades brooding over his finest hour. Indeed, in his "inside story" on Uprooted Americans (1971) Myer came close to exulting: The camps had been innocent "way stations," places that "a large number of the evacuees looked upon . . . as havens of rest and security. This was especially true of the elderly Issei. . . . Of the 70,000 people left in centers in 1944, probably at least half had never had it so good" (pp. 291–92). And, looking back over the decades, he stressed the beneficent consequences: "in spite of mistakes the results have generally been good. It was important to prove to the world that World War II was not a racial war but rather a war to maintain our democratic way of life and to leave the way open for other countries to develop the democratic concept" (p. xiv).

With few notable exceptions, popular writers and historians have simply repeated and perpetuated the keepers' story of their own benevolence. It drew plausibility from the undeniable truth that the WRA did not treat the Issei and the Nisei with the harshness Congress, military and intelligence agencies, and perhaps a majority of American citizens thought fitting—this undeniable, but relative, "benevolence" has been so often detailed as to need no restatement here.

But there was another story, one of illegal imprisonment, of systematically breaking up a subculture by the "dispersal" of families and individuals away from the West Coast, of penal colonies for citizens called "troublemakers," of forced labor, of shootings, of arbitrary internment of aliens, of drafting young men for military service from behind barbed wire, and of the basic denial of common decency characteristic of total institutions, including spying and informing, humiliation and intimidation, and such physical abuse as beating and kicking. This was a story not of conservation but of human betrayal, and to understand it we must go back to the chief keeper's beginnings.


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