Harold L. (Leclair) Ickes served as U.S. secretary of the interior from 1933 to 1946 under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. During his time in the Roosevelt cabinet, Ickes also served as director of the Public Works Administration (PWA). In 1944, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) that administered the government's concentration camps for Japanese Americans fell under Ickes's Interior Department. Despite his administrative responsibility as custodian of those camps, Ickes was a fierce constitutionalist and a fiery orator, and was often the lone, oppositional voice advocating for the rights of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Ickes was well aware his pro–Japanese American rights stance rendered him an outsider in the White House as well as a minority in public opinion. He summed up his convictions at a San Francisco press club meeting, reportedly stating to a hostile audience: “I am a Constitution man, fair weather or foul. Right now we're having foul weather” (Girdner and Loftis, 405).
After President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that authorized the removal and confinement of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Western Defense Command, the question of where to put the some 120,000 displaced people was of immediate concern. Ickes urged that the camps set up for them be geared toward positive programs. He made it clear. “If it is to be a program merely of keeping them under guard in concentration camps, we are not interested” (Daniels, 88).
Ickes knew the outcome was far from positive. As he explained in an April 1943 letter to the president: “… [T]he situation in at least some of the Japanese internment camps is bad and is becoming worse rapidly … Even the minimum plans that had been formulated and announced for them have been disregarded in large measure, or, at least, have not been carried out. The result has been the gradual turning of thousands of well-meaning and loyal Japanese into angry prisoners” (Daniels, 149). As he explained, “the abnormal and restrictive environment” of the camps intensified Japanese American “resentment and accentuated frictions,” resulting in violence and protest in the camps (Weglyn, 302, fn. 29).
As the WRA became increasingly subject to harsh criticism, Ickes rose to its defense, despite having branded the agency's so-called relocation centers “fancynamed concentration camps.” He likened the WRA's critics to a “lynch party,” and he promised under his watch the WRA would not be “stampeded into undemocratic, bestial, inhuman action” by the “vindictive, bloodthirsty onslaughts of professional race-mongers” (Weglyn, 218).
As early as June 1944, Ickes wrote the president urging him to revoke the orders excluding Japanese Americans from the West Coast because “there is no substantial justification for continuation of the ban from the standpoint of military security” (Weglyn, 219). Military necessity was the justification for EO 9066. The president chose to postpone that decision until after the 1944 election, but resettlement, though not en masse release of Japanese Americans, had already begun. Ickes, who maintained a farm in Olney, Maryland, hired several Japanese Americans to work there once they had been cleared to leave the concentration camps.
Hot tempered and quick tongued, Ickes reprimanded conservative governors Walter Edge of New Jersey and John Bricker of Ohio together with the liberal mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, when they protested Japanese American resettlement in areas under their respective jurisdictions. In response to the officials' public statements against Japanese American resettlement, Ickes sarcastically observed, “this is a strange fife and drum corps to be playing the discordant anthem of racial discrimination” (Girdner and Loftis, 352).
Ickes favored Japanese American reintegration into American life, and he opposed the repatriation of so-called disloyal Japanese Americans to Japan. While confined in the camps, Japanese Americans were permitted to renounce their U.S. citizenship, which was an extraordinary action on the part of the government. Rarely was renunciation allowed, especially during times of war and stress. On November 1, 1945, Ickes wrote to Attorney General Tom Clark on that matter. “I believe it would be unjust in the extreme to treat all renunciants as a class, without individual differentiation,” he cautioned. “I think that deportation of renunciants could in many cases be called seriously into question on the grounds of legality, justice, and plain decency” (Weglyn, 257). Moreover, Ickes supported the idea of compensation from the government for losses sustained by interned Japanese Americans.
Harold Ickes, although an outspoken advocate for the fair and just treatment of Japanese Americans during and after the war, harbored complicated beliefs about the concentration camps, struggling like many others to balance individual civil liberties against the needs of national security. Yet he was, more than others with similar authority, steadfast in his defense of the Constitution and the civil rights of Japanese Americans.
Kia S. Walton
Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.
Girdner, Audrie and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of Japanese-Americans during World War II. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Weglyn, Michi. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. New York: William Morrow, 1976.