Born in Washington State, Karl Bendetsen pursued his education at Stanford University, from where he received an undergraduate degree in 1929 and a law degree in 1932. He joined the Officers Reserve Corps, and in 1934 opened a law office in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. He rose rapidly in rank when he was appointed to the office of the Army's judge advocate general, becoming captain in 1940, then major the following year, and colonel in 1942. While serving as head of the Aliens Division of the army's provost marshal general office, Bendetsen played a key role in designing and implementing the plan for the mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans.
The provost marshal general's office sent Bendetsen to Lieutenant General John DeWitt's Western Defense Command to assist DeWitt on matters concerning “enemy aliens.” Shortly after his arrival, Bendetsen drew up plans that became DeWitt's policy regarding “enemy aliens.” It called for the immediate registration of all “enemy aliens” and their photographing and fingerprinting to set up a “pass and permit system” to regulate their movement. On January 4, 1942, DeWitt called a meeting at his headquarters to consider the problem of his military command. “We are at war and this area—eight states—has been designated as a theater of operations. I have approximately 240,000 men at my disposal…. [There are] approximately 288,000 enemy aliens … which we have to watch…. I have little confidence that the enemy aliens are law-abiding or loyal in any sense of the word. Some of them yes; many, no. Particularly the Japanese. I have no confidence in their loyalty whatsoever. I am speaking now of the native born Japanese—117,000—and 42,000 in California alone” (Daniels, 1981 , 45–46).
Employing Bendetsen's plan, DeWitt designated prohibited zones, excluding enemy aliens from 86 Category A zones, and maintaining tight controls over enemy aliens in eight Category B zones on a pass and permit system. In late January 1942, the Justice Department announced and administered the plan, and Tom C. Clark was appointed coordinator of the Alien Enemy Control Program within the Western Defense Command.
Not content with that program, which affected only about 7,000 enemy aliens and less than 3,000 Japanese Americans, Bendetsen and DeWitt met to work on a more comprehensive scheme that would include all Japanese Americans within the Western Defense Command. Bendetsen summarized DeWitt's view to him on January 29, 1942. “As I understand it, … you are of the opinion that there will have to be an evacuation on the west coast, not only of Japanese aliens but also of Japanese citizens, that is, you would include citizens along with alien enemies …”
DeWitt affirmed that synopsis, and Bendetsen urged the general to take a leadership position in securing the Western Defense Command.
Back in Washington, D.C., Bendetsen was instrumental in changing assistant secretary of war John McCloy's mind on the matter. McCloy believed the exclusion zones were sufficient to handle “enemy aliens,” but Bendetsen convinced him of the necessity of a mass “evacuation” of Japanese Americans. McCloy's change of mind was crucial because he was a major figure in the government's decision for mass removal. Bendetsen returned to DeWitt's headquarters where on February 11, 1942, he received McCloy's assurance that the president would authorize the military to “do anything you think necessary,” including enemy aliens and U.S. citizens but “it has got to be dictated by military necessity …” Bendetsen then helped DeWitt to draft what the general called “the plan that Mr. McCloy wanted me to submit” (Daniels, 1981 , 65).
Before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981, Bendetsen claimed he, as a soldier, was just following orders when previously he had boasted he had “conceived method, formulated details and directed evacuation of 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry from military areas” (Daniels, 1988 , 337). The historical record shows Bendetsen, the lawyer, to have been instrumental in DeWitt's military assessment of the situation of “enemy aliens” within his command, and he led, not followed, in the policy to remove and confine some 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.