General John DeWitt and the Internment of the Japanese in America.

Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt was one of the men most responsible for the forced evacuation of over 110,000 people of Japanese ethnicity from the West Coast of America.

general john dewitt

General John L. DeWitt

John Lesesne DeWitt was born in 1880 at Fort Sidney, Nebraska, to a military family. His father, Calvin DeWitt, was an infantry captain during the Civil War. His brothers Calvin, Jr. and Wallace also served in the military and rose to general ranks. John left Princeton in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War were he served four tours of duty in the Philippines.

General John DeWitt

General John L. DeWitt testifying before the House of Representatives

An Army supply officer, Dewitt worked his way up in rank and by 1914, was working for the quartermaster general in Washington DC. During WWI, he served in France with the 42nd Infantry Division as a quartermaster officer. After the war, he became assistant chief of staff for the army’s War Plans Division. In 1930, General John DeWitt became quartermaster general and in 1939, at the age of 59, was given command of the Fourth Army and Western Defense Command.

In the weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, General John DeWitt’s headquarters were confronted with the question of how to deal with immigrants from the Axis Nations who were living on the west coast. By January 1942, the command had devised 86 planned exclusion zones from which enemy aliens were to be removed. Of the 7,000 enemy aliens affected by the new laws, forty percent were Japanese.

Over the next few weeks, increased political and public pressure fell on General John DeWitt to take a tougher stance on the Japanese. By early February, the plan of evacuation had been changed to also include American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The plans for the removal of the Japanese were sent from DeWitt’s office to the Secretary of War and finally to President Franklin Roosevelt for review. On February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 was approved and DeWitt appointed Karl Bendetsen (an army officer championing the removal of the Japanese) to head the newly formed Civil Affairs Division and the Wartime Civil Control Administration. DeWitt put Bendetsen in charge of organizing the removal of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry and putting them into relocation camps.

General John DeWitt

Anti-Japanese sentiments on the West Coast

In 1943, General John DeWitt became the center of controversy when he made a statement saying “a Jap’s a Jap” in referral to Japanese American citizens. This hurt the army’s efforts to build the all Japanese American 442nd Combat Team and gave fuel to anti-German American and Japanese American propaganda. DeWitt defended himself before the House of Representatives who agreed and supported his actions, citing public opinion polls that overwhelmingly approved the removal of the Japanese. General DeWitt opposed having Americans of Japanese ancestry serve in the military or stationing them near the west coast saying: “There isn’t such a thing as a loyal Japanese and it is just impossible to determine their loyalty by investigation—it just can’t be done”.

With American’s of Japanese ancestry in uniform serving and fighting bravely overseas, DeWitt and his attitudes did more harm than good. He was reassigned to command operations in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and later headed the Army and Navy Staff College in Washington DC. General DeWitt’s successor was Lieutenant General Delos Emmons who had been commanding general of the Hawaiian Department and had blocked incarceration and removal of the bulk of Hawaii’s Japanese population. Emmons soon started the process of ending Japanese incarceration on the mainland.

John L. DeWitt retired from the army in 1947. In recognition of his wartime services he was appointed to the rank of General of the Army in 1954 by congress. He died in 1962 at the age of 82 of a heart attack and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

For More on the Japanese American Internment Check Out:

Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II: Images by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Other Government Photographers

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One thought on “General John DeWitt and the Internment of the Japanese in America

  • Peter Kubicek says:

    The internment of Japanese U.S. citizens was the greatest mistake of the War.

    It reminds me two things:

    1.The internment and subsequent slaughter of Jews during the War.

    2. Donald Trump’s rants in the current primaries.

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