War Hysteria


A man on horseback galloping through the streets of an American city shouting warnings of the approaching enemy — Boston 1775? No, Seattle 1941. Rather than redcoats, the fear was Japanese bombers. The first weeks and months of World War II on the Pacific Coast produced a war hysteria that ranged from the comic to the tragic, and in the end left a legacy of shame.

Two thousand four hundred miles separate Hawaii from the West Coast of the United States, but after the Pearl Harbor attack Pacific Coast residents felt the distance might as well have been two miles. By the evening of December 7, 1941, a good case of war hysteria gripped Oregon, Washington, and California. Stars in the sky or lights off the coast became Japanese air armadas or invasion fleets. Lee Kennett in his book For the Duration… wrote, “In every war there is an initial, nightmarish phase in which the measure of the enemy has not yet been taken: his strength and capabilities are not known and consequently are often exagerated.”

Many West Coast residents remembered a popular 1909 book The Valor of Ignorance by Homer Lea. The author, who claimed to be a Chinese general, predicted a Japanese American war that would start with Hawaii’s conquest by Japanese immigrants living in the Hawaiian Islands. Japan would then send 100,000 troops from Hawaii to invade California, Oregon, and Washington. Thirty years later this fanciful prediction haunted the minds of many people whose imaginations were more highly developed than their knowledge of the practicalities of warfare.

The Japanese had no plans to invade the continental United States, but the Pearl Harbor attack proved the Japanese navy could make carrier raids on land targets. On night of December 7, San Francisco endured three separate air raid alerts. According to the official statement, U.S. Army Air Force planes pursued 30 enemy planes over the city. Since no hostile planes flew over San Francisco that night or any other night, the army planes probably chased each other. The next day the commander of the Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, exploded at the press, “There are more damned fools in this locality than I have ever seen….These planes were over our community for a definite period. They were enemy planes. I mean Japanese planes…. I don’t think there’s any doubt the planes came from a carrier.”

Up the coast in Seattle the situation on the evening of December 7th turned ugly when a crowd of 1,000 decided to enforce the blackout on their own. A neon sign at a busy intersection stayed lit after the blackout went into effect; so the crowd began throwing things at the offending sign. Eventually the light went out on both the sign and everyone’s common sense; the crowd became a mob that destroyed a six-block area.

On Tuesday night December 9, Los Angeles suffered an “air attack.” Officials warned that the Japanese were coming in five minutes. Of course, there was no attack, but Angelenos took pride in completely blacking out their city in less than an hour. (Londoners would have chuckled at such “speed.”) Earlier that day fliers reported a Japanese fleet of thirty-four ships between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The “warships” proved to be fishing boats. In the early days of the war, overzealous fliers and radar operators often misinterpreted what they saw and reported “air raids” and “invasions.”

Ridiculous rumors soon spread and the wire services even printed some: One rumor claimed that a woman clubbed her Japanese gardener to death with a soda bottle; another rumor reported arrows cut into farm fields pointing toward Seattle; and then there was the return of the Lea story with a California twist — former Japanese residents of the state were training in Japan as an invasion force. In the words of General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell, “Common sense is thrown to the winds and any absurdity is believed.”

By January 1942, Japanese planes and ships had turned into phantom fears and the public’s attention shifted toward a more tangible fear — Japanese Americans. Even before the war many Pacfic Coast residents harbored ill feelings towards Japanese Americans; the war hysteria fueled the fires of their hatred.

Even though the FBI broke up the only Japanese spy ring in the United States in March 1941, even though the FBI arrested 3,000 German, Japanese, and Italian enemy aliens in the days after Pearl Harbor, and even though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover continually assured the nation that the situation was under control, still, many people believed Japanese spies and saboteurs operated indiscriminately up and down the coast. On the day after Christmas, a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce member urged General Allen Gullion, Provost Marshal General, to round up all Japanese nationals. Gullion called General Dewitt to ask his opinion. Dewitt said, “I don’t think it’s the sensible thing to do.”

But then, on January 24, 1942, came the release of the President’s official Pearl Harbor attack inquiry, the Roberts Report. This report confirmed an earlier inquiry by Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that had accused Japanese Americans of treason in Hawaii. Subsequent investigations proved otherwise.

The Roberts Report began a symphony of condemnation. Los Angeles Congressman Leland Ford asked for the internment of both the Issei (first-generation Japanese legally barred from citizenship) and the Nisei (second-generation American-born citizens). Two days later the Los Angeles Times backed Ford’s position and they were soon joined by Governor Culbert Olson and the state’s Attorney General, Earl Warren. Support deepened over the next month when the nationally known liberal columnist Walter Lippmann called for internment. Lippmann believed that a massive Japanese American fifth column was quitely awatiing the Japanese invasion. Soon General Dewitt changed his mind and said, “A Jap’s a Jap….It makes no difference if he is an American citizen.”

Finally on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt bowed to the pressure and issued Executive Order 9066, allowing the army to evacuate anyone considered a risk to West Coast security. The army rounded up over 120,000 Issei and Nisei and sent them to internment camps.

In Days of Sadness Years of Triumph historian Geoffrey Perrett made a shrewed observation on this shameful episode: “The evacuation was partly inflamed regional opinion, partly racism, partly venal local interests out to acquire the victims’ property at fire-sale prices. But most of all it was that ancient phenomenon — the ritual sacrifice. Nearly all the fighting that Americans were doing in the first six months of the war was in the Pacific. The steady succession of humiliation there called out for vengeance.”

No acts of treason or sabotage were committed by Issei or Nisei in Hawaii or in the continental United States during World War II. Instead, thousands of young Nisei men joined the army and were formed into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion. Fighting in the European Theatre of Operations, these two outfits collected 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Congressional Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, and seven Presidential Unit Citations while their families lived behind barbed wire back home.