Who’s the Nazi? The Complicity of US Anthropologists in WWII Internment Camps

Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. [Chapter Seven, Internment Fieldwork, 143-170]

This chapter recounts the aftermath of US President Theodore Roosevelt’s February 1942 Executive Order 9066, and the involvement of anthropologists in the atrocities that followed. The order allowed the Secretary of War to declare certain areas of the US Territory as military zones, from which individuals of Japanese ancestry were evicted. About 110,000 Japanese-Americans (two thirds of whom were US Citizens) were removed to concentration camps euphemistically called “relocation centers”. Price himself uses the word “concentration camp” (153) (although internment camp is more common). This term is significant in that it is usually associated with Nazi Germany, but Price’s use of it blurs distinctions between the righteous Allied nations and the “evil” Axis. The co-occurrence of racism in allied as in axis nations during the Second World War is also indicated by Earnest Hooton’s genocidal plans for Japan in chapter eight (192), which led the class to conclude, tongue-in-cheek, that it is a challenge to discern “who is the Nazi” (class discussion). Furthermore, these events raise the question of the meaning of citizenship and who is a citizen, an issue that remains highly relevant in today’s political climate.

Price outlines the three different organizations that employed anthropologists to study Japanese-American internees. These included the Community Analysis Section (CAS) of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), where Robert Redfield instituted a “democratic” system whereby internees would be kept distracted from the main cause of their suffering; the Bureau of Sociological Research (BSR) run by the Office of Indian Affairs, where Alexander Leighton employed an illusion of “self-government” to facilitate control of internees until the camp was relinquished to the WRA, and the secretive Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS) run by Dorothy Swaine Thomas at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not interested in cooperating with the WRA and who directed fieldworkers who aimed to “publish a true picture of the evacuation and life within the centers” (Wax, quoted in Price, 160).

In February 1943, WRA staff developed and distributed a questionnaire to all WRA detainees, including the notorious question 28, which asked whether they would commit to unconditional loyalty to the US and renounce any allegiance to Japan. Morris Opler’s fieldwork among camp Manzanar internees showed that the responses of those who refused were often due to “disillusionment with the American system of due process” (155) or a response to racial hatred, rather than indicative of any pre-existing loyalties. Nevertheless, those who responded to question 28 in the negative were branded as disloyals and moved to Tule Lake Camp. Opler warned that the poor conditions in the camps would lead to deepening problems, and his brother Marvin K. Opler wrote sympathetic reports regarding Tule Lake Camp prisoners. Such reports were systematically ignored, as were attempts, such as those by Asael Hanson, to represent the needs of the interned to those in power. Anthropology was used in the camps for pragmatic purposes, such as Weston La Barre’s turning over of “troublemakers” to the FBI, and the study of social movements and their control employed by Leighton.

Class discussion of this chapter revolved around the concept of “harm reduction”. It was suggested that anthropologists working in the internment camps were there to “make [the operation] look good”, and that those who were genuinely interested in the condition of the interned Japanese-Americans were employing the harm-reduction concept. The idea of harm reduction in this context, where the harmful conditions were themselves created by the government that employed the anthropologists, was dismissed as naive and useless. It was argued that if these anthropologists really wanted to make a difference, working in the camps was not the way to go about it, as it forced them into the military hierarchy in which their views, when they did not conform with those of their superiors, were disregarded outright. Instead, these anthropologists might have critiqued the idea of the internment altogether, and perhaps enforced a boycott of the camps by refusing to work with them at all. However, given that, as Price suggests, due to the nature of internment fieldwork and the intentions regarding its use on the part of those in power, the camps didn’t necessarily require specialists in anthropology (Suzuki, quoted in Price, 169), the effectiveness of such a strategy is open to question. Of course, given the different personal and political interests of anthropologists, a boycott might have been difficult to achieve. Even assuming a unanimous boycott was possible, would it be heard? Given the deep-rooted connections of anthropologists to politically motivated funding sources linked to power, would such have been practically possible? Will anthropology ever be able to extricate itself from its dance with power? The farce that is the AAA’s current BDS campaign, which is nothing more than a symbolic statement (class discussion), suggests otherwise.


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