Dillon Myer succeeded Milton Eisenhower as director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and served from 1942 to 1946. Born in Licking County, Ohio, on September 4, 1891, Myer was one of four children. He spent his childhood days on a farm, and attended the college of agriculture at Ohio State University. After he received his bachelor of science degree in 1914, he took his first job as an agronomy instructor at the University of Kentucky. After two years, he moved to take jobs as an agricultural agent in different cities and as district supervisor of an agricultural extension service. In 1926, he graduated with a master's degree in education from Columbia University. Between 1933 and 1942, Myer held several government related jobs, working within the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and Soil Conservation Service until he accepted the position as WRA director in 1942.
At the helm of the WRA, Myer managed the 10 concentration camps that held Japanese Americans who had been forced from their homes after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. In his book, Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the
War Relocation Authority during World War II (1971), Myer explained the transfer of power from Eisenhower, the WRA's first director, to him. On June 13, 1942, Myer and his wife entertained Eisenhower and his wife and others at their home in Falls Church, Virginia. During the evening, Eisenhower asked Myer if he would consider becoming the WRA's director. A few days later they met again to discuss the offer. “I asked Milton [Eisenhower] if he really thought that I should take the job, [and] he replied, ‘Yes, if you can do the job and sleep at night.' He said he had been unable to do so. I was sure that I could sleep, and so agreed to accept the position …” (Myer, 3). Apparently, Myer's conscience was not as tender as Eisenhower's.
Myer believed that “evacuation” was within the constitutional power of the national government. On July 7, 1943, in testimony before the subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Myer explained that the “danger of invasion of [the West] Coast by Japan and the possibility that an unknown and unrecognizable minority [Japanese Americans] might have a greater allegiance to Japan than to the United States, called for a process that protected national and military security.” He added that the need for speed created the “unfortunate necessity” of removing the entire group instead of treating them as individuals by trying to separate the “disloyals” from the “loyals” (Myer, 1943).
Myer conceded there were many indications showing Americanism among Japanese Americans, but it was impossible, he claimed, to conduct adequate investigations or grant hearings for them. Two-thirds of the Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens and as such were entitled to the Constitution's protection, and 72 percent never visited Japan. Although he was not sympathetic to the forcible eviction of Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes, Myer reasoned he was merely doing his job. At the same time, Myer admitted he had “little previous knowledge of Japanese American people” (Myer, 29).
The WRA, Myer recalled, had to tend to three main tasks. Foremost was caring for the some 120,000 people, ranging from newborn infants to the elderly, in the 10 concentration camps. Second was the longer-range program of resettling the confined Japanese Americans into “normal” communities in the American interior. And third was a public relations campaign to quiet the criticisms emerging from the press about the WRA and its treatment of Japanese Americans, which many saw as too lenient.
Myer described the Japanese Americans as “dazed, confused, and frustrated” (Myer, 31), and he recognized the bleak state of the concentration camps. The army built the barracks, he wrote, of wood and tarpaper, and there were no cooking or plumbing facilities in the barracks. Surrounding the camp was a barbed wire fence with watchtowers and guards. The camps were deliberately located in “out-of-the-way places, largely desert or wastelands,” and they were “desolate and forbidding …” The 10 concentration camps, he admitted, were “abnormal cities” with populations numbering 7,000 to 20,000 each (Myer, 32).
Like all cities, the concentration camps had to have a way to feed the people, house them, ensure internal security, and provide employment, medical care, education, and religious and recreational facilities. There were problems, Myer
wrote, mainly because of the rough conditions in the camps. Confinement led to apathy and bitterness, he observed, and the crowded conditions, lack of privacy, and lack of freedom added to unhappiness among Japanese Americans. Families grew apart, and conflicts arose between the camp administrators and Japanese Americans. Those erupted into mass protest at Poston concentration camp in November 1942, and a riot at Manzanar concentration camp two weeks later.
The next major problem faced by the WRA was the registration crisis in the fall of 1943. Local draft boards had classified nisei men as ineligible for military service, and in September 1942, the government classified them as aliens. But the army announced the formation of a segregated Japanese American combat team in January 1943, and President Roosevelt agreed that the army could benefit from the use of nisei soldiers. The following month, the WRA decided to administer a “loyalty questionnaire” under the misleading title, “Application for Leave Clearance.” Questions 27 and 28 on that instrument asked: are you willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces, and will you swear unqualified allegiance to the U.S. and foreswear loyalty to the Japanese emperor.
The questionnaire and questions 27 and 28 in particular caused a huge uproar in the concentration camps. Many Japanese Americans felt insulted by the questionnaire because they had been placed into the camps by a government that had doubted their loyalty in the first place. In addition, U.S. law prevented issei from acquiring U.S. citizenship, and now the United States asked them to foreswear allegiance to the only nation, which considered them its citizens. Would girls, women, and the elderly answer “yes” to serving in the U.S. military when the general U.S. population was immune from that service? And finally, minors and children were likely to follow the lead and advice of their parents. Despite those complicating factors, the WRA ruled that those who signed “no” to Question 28 were disloyal.
The registration crisis resulted in mass protests, and of the nearly 75,000 who filled out the questionnaires, about 6,700 answered “no” to Question 28. An additional 2,000 qualified their answers, and the WRA classed them as “disloyals.” The WRA moved those “disloyals” into one camp, Tule Lake concentration camp, and treated those Japanese Americans with particular severity.
In April 1944, Myer proposed a plan for closing the concentration camps. The steps involved revoking the military exclusion order, which kept Japanese Americans outside the Western Defense Command, and developing an orderly plan to liquidate the WRA's holdings and camps. In December 1944, the War Department revoked the exclusion order, and the U.S. Supreme Court held, in the case of Mitsuye Endo, the government could not hold loyal Japanese Americans. Justice William O. Douglas, writing for a unanimous court, blamed the WRA for detaining a loyal U.S. citizen against her will. Justice Douglas, of course, erred because the entire U.S. government, including the president, Congress, and Supreme Court, participated in the mass removal and confinement of Japanese Americans.
Throughout 1945, Japanese Americans began leaving the camps, and by July 1945 the WRA announced that all of the 10 concentration camps, except Tule
Lake, would be closed. Jerome concentration camp in Arkansas had closed earlier in June 1944. Tule Lake was the last to close in March 1946, and what remained was the liquidation of WRA property. The WRA closed its regional offices in 1946, and in June 1946 the WRA ceased to operate.
Myer's work as keeper of concentration camps did not end with the WRA's closing. On May 8, 1946, President Harry Truman awarded Myer the nation's medal of merit. In the words of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, “By his scrupulous adherence to democratic concepts in his administration of the War Relocation Authority, Dillon Myer has established a precedent for equitable treatment of dislocated minorities. In doing so, he salvaged for American democracy a minority group … and at the same time he saved the United States from jeopardizing its standing as a democracy in the eyes of other nations” (Drinnon, 163). The next year, President Truman offered to Myer the post of commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
As head of the bureau, Myer supervised about 450,000 Native Americans organized into several hundred tribes and bands. The bureau maintained a staff of about 12,000, including teachers and others who operated 93 boarding schools and medical personnel in 62 hospitals in 17 states and Alaska. Myer instituted a policy of “termination” to assimilate Native Americans by eroding their sovereignty and disregarding treaty obligations. The bureau closed hospitals on reservations, roads fell into disrepair, and infant mortality and incidents of tuberculosis rose. Myer was forced out of his bureau position in 1953.
Dillon Myer died in Silver Springs, Maryland, of cardiac arrest on October 21, 1982, at the age of 91.
Carrie M. Montgomery
Drinnon, Richard. Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Myer and American Racism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Myer, Dillon S. Constitutional Principles Involved in the Relocation Program, Statement by Dillon S. Myer before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, July 7, 1943.
Myer, Dillon S. Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority during World War II. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971.