Did the United States Put Its Own Citizens in Concentration Camps During WWII?

The Internment Camps

Internees ate together in a mess hall, which caused family structure to suffer when teenagers chose to eat with their friends.
Internees ate together in a mess hall, which caused family structure to suffer when teenagers chose to eat with their friends.

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) set up 10 internment camps to house Japanese-Americans during the war. The camps, which were in isolated locations in California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Arkansas, were all guarded and enclosed with barbed wire. Each camp was a self-contained community with hospitals, schools and a form of democratic self-government.

Even the WRA readily admitted that conditions within the camps were subpar. The government provided compartmentalized barracks, with one family per room. Each of these small rooms had cots and mattresses, blankets, a stove and a light. Residents used public laundry and bathroom facilities as well as a mess hall for meals. In addition to a small allowance for clothes and other personal expenditures, the wages for those who worked was low compared to outside market. To sustain a more comfortable living, many dipped into their personal savings. However, this wasn't an option for the first-generation Japanese, whose assets were frozen. They had to rely on the money they got selling personal possessions before relocation.

Although the Japanese-Americans staying in these camps tried their best to maintain the semblance of a normal life with leisurely activities like movies and baseball leagues, family life suffered a blow. For instance, during meals, the younger generation jumped at the chance to eat with their friends, and families became fractured [source: Wu]. Parents also lost some of their authority when their children began making the same salary as them [source: Sowell]. The camps offered few options for employment, all of which came with similarly low wages. As a result, life in the camps disrupted the traditional family unity and structure.

In 1943, the WRA distributed a questionnaire to all internees who were 17 or older that was designed to determine their loyalty to the United States. Among other things, it asked if the internee would renounce allegiance to the Japanese emperor. That year, those who passed the loyalty test were allowed to leave the camps for work or school.

Finally, in December 1944, Japanese-Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast, and internees were gradually allowed to leave the camps. Life couldn't immediately go back to normal for most of them, however. In many cases, the internees' property and businesses had been neglected, vandalized or taken over by others [source: Min]. The government estimated that these people's financial losses amassed to $400,000,000 (in 2009, that's roughly equal to $5,219,852,760.80) [source: Sowell].