Born in Philadelphia, John J. McCloy was a lawyer and banker. As assistant secretary of war during World War II, McCloy played a prominent role in the mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans as well as the defense of those actions years later. He participated in installing the program of exclusion, calling it the best way to solve the West Coast's “enemy alien” problem. The army's plan to create prohibited zones for enemy aliens, McCloy said, around airplane plants and military installations might “exclude everyone—whites, yellows, blacks, greens—from that area and then license back into the area those whom we felt there was no danger to be expected….” That action can be defended, he assured the military, “we can cover the legal situation … in spite of the constitution …” In that way, “You may, by that process, eliminate all the Japs [alien and citizen] but you might conceivably permit some to come back whom you are quite certain are free from any suspicion” (Daniels, 1981, 46).
Again, in a February 1, 1942, meeting with the attorney general and other Justice and War Department officials, McCloy, a lawyer and in response to the nation's top legal officer, repeated his opinion of the Constitution. Attorney General Francis Biddle called this meeting to inform his War Department colleagues that his Justice Department opposed the mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast despite the army's claim, as put by Allen Gullion, the provost marshal general, of the “military necessity to move citizens, Jap citizens.” After Biddle restated his opposition, McCloy replied: “You are putting a Wall Street lawyer in a helluva box, but if it is a question of the safety of the country
[and] the Constitution…. Why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me” (Daniels, 1981, 55–56).
By early February 1942, the military had persuaded McCloy of the necessity of a mass removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. McCloy had previously believed the establishment of prohibited zones around strategic sites was sufficient for the national security but the army convinced him otherwise. On February 11, 1942, McCloy's chief, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, placed a call to the White House to talk with President Franklin Roosevelt. After that, McCloy called Army headquarters in San Francisco. McCloy reported, “we talked to the President and the President, in substance, says go ahead and do anything you think necessary … if it involves citizens, we will take care of them too. He says there will probably be some repercussions, but it has got to be dictated by military necessity, but as he puts it, ‘Be as reasonable as you can'” (Daniels, 1981, 65). Eight days later, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066), which authorized the military to “do anything you think necessary” justified by “military necessity.”
The man in charge of the operation, Lieutenant General John DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, acknowledged the centrality of McCloy in his plans for implementing EO 9066. As soon as he received word of the president's decision, DeWitt and his staff worked on what he called “the plan that Mr. McCloy wanted me to submit” (Daniels, 1981, 65). Although General Mark Clark, the army's chief of staff in Washington, D.C., opposed mass removal and confinement on the basis that it was impractical, expensive, and required too much military manpower, DeWitt's Western Defense Command proceeded with the preparations supported by the politicians and lawyers in the War Department, McCloy, and Stimson.
McCloy was also a central figure in the change of administration policy from disallowing nisei service in the military to allowing them to serve voluntarily and then by subjecting them to the draft. In May 1942, McCloy wrote, “it might be well to use our American citizen Japanese soldiers in an area where they could be employed against the Germans. I believe that we could count on these soldiers to give a good account of themselves” (Daniels, 1981, 145). That summer, the army recruited men from the concentration camps for its Military Intelligence Service Language School, and in January 1943 the government announced the formation of a segregated combat unit of Japanese Americans. McCloy was a staunch advocate of putting nisei in army uniforms and thereby earn the rights of citizenship. Similarly, McCloy favored the relocation of nisei students from the concentration camps to college campuses, and encouraged Clarence Pickett, executive secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, to take up that work of student relocation.
After the war, McCloy testified before Congress in support of the Japanese American Claims Act (1948), which failed to consider the constitutional issues involved in the mass removal and detention but offered compensation for economic losses sustained as a result. But he defended the government's action before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in
November 1981. He urged the commission to conclude, “under the circumstances prevailing at the time and with the exigencies of wartime security, the action of the President of the United States and the United States Government in regard to our then Japanese population was reasonably undertaken and thoughtfully and humanely conducted” (Daniels, 1988, 337–38).
Gary Y. Okihiro
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.