Western Defense Command

At the start of World War II, the United States resolved to defend the entire Western Hemisphere, including North and South America, Greenland, and Hawai'i, against attack. The 19th-century Monroe Doctrine asserted that U.S. interest, which considered the New World a province and sphere of U.S. concern, and the military policy to defend the entire Western Hemisphere was an extension of its pledge to defend the U.S. homeland. Plans for that defense changed with military capabilities such as the threat posed by ships at first and by airplanes in the 20th century.

The National Defense Act of 1920 provided for a military command system for the army. In September of that year, the War Department established nine corps areas, and authorized their commanders with control over those forces within their territories. By 1933, that system of command changed when the War Department established four armies without fixed areas and restricted them to war planning and field maneuvers. As the prospect of war approached, however, commanders were given more authority for battle readiness.

Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt commanded the Fourth Army and the Ninth Corps Area on the West Coast. He assumed responsibility for the defense of his area against external attack in what was envisioned as a theater of operation because the expectation were attacks along the nation's peripheries and not its interior, which constituted the zone of the interior. Indeed, on December 11, 1941, with the onset of war four days earlier, the army designated the Western Defense Command and named it a theater of operations. As head of the Western Defense Command, General DeWitt controlled all army troops and installations in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and Utah.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 signed on February 19, 1942, empowered the military to designate military areas from which “any or all persons may be excluded” and to provide “transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary …” The military was responsible for those provisions because the Executive Order was based on the myth of “military necessity.” The army, in fact, opposed the mass removal of “any or all persons,” believing “mass evacuation unnecessary,” according to an action taken by General Headquarters on the day President Roosevelt issued his Executive Order (Daniels, 71).

In the Western Defense Command, General DeWitt was at first opposed to the immediate removal of Japanese Americans. He saw it as a gradual process, which included German and Italian aliens. He told an army colleague his plan was to “take the Japs first, then maybe the Germans and then last the Italians” (Daniels, 81). Toward that end, DeWitt issued proclamations, the first dated March 2, 1941, which divided Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into two

military areas. Military Area No. 1 was subdivided into a “prohibited zone,” the West Coast and a strip of land along the Mexican border, and a larger “restricted zone” surrounding the prohibited zone. In addition, the proclamation designated 98 other prohibited zones, namely military installations, power plants, and other places of strategic interest. The two zones applied to Japanese, German, and Italian aliens and “any person of Japanese Ancestry,” and an accompanying press release explained the eventual exclusion of all Japanese Americans from Military Area No. 1 and all prohibited zones.

On March 16, 1942, Public Proclamation No. 2 established four more military areas for Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah and listed 933 prohibited zones. DeWitt planned the forced removal of all Japanese Americans from the Western Defense Command, a plan that the War Department opposed. Public Proclamation No. 3 established on March 27 throughout Military Area No. 1 and all prohibited areas enforced curfew from 8 P.M. to 6 A.M. affecting only Japanese Americans and “enemy aliens,” although the latter was not generally enforced for Germans and Italians. And Public Proclamation No. 4 restricted Japanese Americans from leaving Military Area No. 1 where most of them along the West Coast lived. Military control over their lives policed Japanese American freedoms.

On March 24, 1942, General DeWitt issued the first of his Civilian Exclusion Orders, which came three days after Public Law No. 503, an Act of Congress, which criminalized violations of the exclusion orders. DeWitt's Exclusion Order No. 1 directed Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island near Seattle to leave their homes under military guard. Although not the first affected by exclusion (the mainly fishermen on Terminal Island in southern California were the first group of Japanese Americans evicted from their homes), the Bainbridge Islanders began the mass, forcible removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

DeWitt established the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) on March 11, 1942, to manage the mass removal, and put a reassigned War Department staff member, Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, in charge of the operation. The army set up a reception center for the removed Japanese Americans, stored some of their possessions at their own risk, and allowed them to carry only bedding, clothing, and eating utensils sufficient for each family member. The 54 Japanese American families on Bainbridge Island had a mere six days to prepare for the move, which took them to Puyallup, Washington, fairgrounds. That procedure set the norm for the mass removal. By June 5, 1942, Military Area No. 1 was “Jap-free.”

From the WCCA assembly centers, the some 120,000 Japanese Americans were taken to the War Relocation Authority concentration camps. The military handled the forcible evictions and confinement in assembly centers, and the WRA managed the concentration camps. The army, however, remained responsible for security in the WRA camps, many of which were in the Western Defense Command. Its head, General DeWitt, as early as January 1942, expressed his guiding principles in managing his troops and the civilians in his command area. “We are at war,” DeWitt began, “and this area—eight states—has been designated as a theater of operations. I have approximately 240,000 men at my disposal … [and]

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” (Daniels, 45–46).

Gary Y. Okihiro


Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.