On March 18, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, creating the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to manage Japanese Americans removed under EO 9066. Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of the military commander Dwight Eisenhower, was named the first director of the WRA. Eisenhower was from the Agricultural Department, and when he called the governors of western states to a meeting in April 1942, he thought of establishing “small inland camps on the model of Civilian Conservation Corps camps which would serve as staging areas for the evacuees as they were moved into private jobs as soon as possible and could resume something like a normal life,” Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs (Daniels, 226). Eisenhower saw the WRA's function as truly one of “relocating” and not confining Japanese Americans.
By contrast, all the governors of those states, with one exception, objected to having Japanese Americans moved into their territories. The most vehement of
them, Governor Nels Smith of Wyoming, came close to Eisenhower and “shook his fist in my face, and growled through his clenched teeth: ‘If you bring the Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree,'” Eisenhower recalled. After that April meeting in Salt Lake City, Eisenhower saw no alternative to “evacuation camps” for Japanese Americans to confine them while giving them “as much self-respect as the horrible circumstances permitted” (Daniels, 226).
Eisenhower realized the injustice of the WRA camps, and in June 1942, he resigned as WRA director. In his letter of resignation, he told the president that public attitudes had to a large degree influenced the shaping of the program of removal and confinement. But he never expressed publicly his opinion of the injustice of the WRA camps, which he insisted on calling evacuation centers. “Never,” Eisenhower wrote, “did we think of them as concentration camps” (Daniels, 227).
On June 17, 1942, Dillon S. Myer became the WRA director. Myer described his responsibilities as foremost caring for the some 120,000 Japanese Americans, and then, getting them out of the camps and resettling them into “normal” situations and communities. Like Eisenhower, Myer blamed public opinion and the outcry against Japanese Americans for the situation of the camps and for criticisms of the WRA.
Located in Washington, D.C., the WRA had regional offices in San Francisco, Denver, and Little Rock, Arkansas, during 1942 to facilitate the establishment of the concentration camps and handle public relations in those areas. Especially when located near white communities, the WRA camps needed the approval of the local residents, which was the main object of the public relations work. By the fall of that year, with the camps established, the WRA closed its regional offices, and later, opened relocation offices in major cities throughout the country to assist in the relocation and resettlement of Japanese Americans released from the camps. At their peak, there were 58 such relocation offices.
WRA director Myer described the initial period of moving in and settling, from May 1942 to March 1943, as one of turmoil. Japanese Americans were dazed, confused, and frustrated, he surmised, and camp conditions were primitive and unstable. The camps were 10 “abnormal cities,” Myer contended, and he and his staff tried hard to provide housing, food, employment, medical care, and social welfare to the people. The WRA was organized into divisions and sections to tend to those needs. The community management division, for instance, contained sections for education, health, community enterprises, government, and women's affairs.
The army provided the basic food supplies, and Japanese Americans worked on vegetable gardens and livestock farms to supplement their diets. WRA policy imposed a limit of 45 cents per person each day for food. The military also supplied the internal security officers and their detachments to serve under the directors for each camp. A Japanese American police force handled minor offenses.
The WRA established camp councils as a form of “self-government,” but restricted offices to U.S. citizens or nisei, although both issei and nisei were allowed to vote. Japanese Americans in several of the camps challenged both the concept of “self-government” and the limitation on elective office to U.S. citizens, which
they saw as undemocratic. Ultimately, the WRA and its camp directors determined camp policies, they declared, and children (the nisei) ruling over their parents (the issei) contradicted Japanese culture and familial relations. In November 1942 at Poston concentration camp, the elected council resigned after expressions of no confidence by the camp's Japanese Americans, and at Manzanar, no council was elected and instead mainly issei block managers administered the camp. Because of those acts of resistance, in early 1943, the WRA ended its ban against issei elected leaders.
More than 30,000 students enrolled in WRA-run schools, which, except for Tule Lake, were accredited by state authorities. More than 7,000 graduated from camp high schools. At first, schools opened without tables, chairs, blackboards, or books and paper, and teachers were in short supply. Teachers included recruits from American Indian reservations and returning missionaries from Japan, and more than 100 Japanese Americans in the camps with some college education served as teaching assistants due to the shortage. Science equipment and supplies were generally scarce and absent.
The WRA maintained hospitals headed by a white administrator in each camp, but Japanese Americans comprised most of the staff of physicians and nurses. Hospitals were modeled on the military's “theater of operations,” and equipment and medicines were accordingly modest and in short supply.
WRA director Myer listed as his most important decisions the determination to relocate Japanese Americans outside the 10 concentration camps rather than to hold them in confinement, to campaign for the nisei to serve in the U.S. military, and to seek an end to the military exclusion orders that kept Japanese Americans from returning to the West Coast. In January 1945, Myer announced the closure of all WRA concentration camps except Tule Lake, and camps began to close their doors toward the year's end. The WRA closed its offices throughout the United States in June 1946.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Myer, Dillon S. Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority during World War II. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1971.