Wartime Internment during the 1940s

The Fence-Line of the Camp

Photo of a gaurd tower and the fence-line of Crystal City Internment Camp. From the Holdsworth Photo Collection.

Nearly two months after the United States joined World War II, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which gave the military the power to establish “military zones” across the country and then relocate people who deemed a threat to national security from these zones into “relocation facilities.” While initially enforced on an individualized basis, the eventual result was the large-scale internment of minorities of “enemy alien” nationality. Infamously, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to move from the U.S. Pacific coast into War Relocation Authority (WRA) internment camps with awful living conditions for little reason beyond national descent. Germans and Italians were interned in smaller numbers as well. These camps were known for their bad conditions, the worst even lacking partitions between toilets in public bathrooms and not washing dishes with hot water.

Artist rendition of a map of Crystal City Internment Camp

A hand-drawn map of Crystal City Internment Camp, 1944-1945, from the Densho Digital Archives.

Crystal City Internment Camp, the only family internment camp of its time, contributes a unique perspective to this narrative. Run by the INS under the Department of Justice, it was designed to contain internees while they lived with their families, and was under more stringent regulation than most WRA camps. People WRA and INS camps alike lived on-site, and since it housed children as well as adults, the internment camp provided schooling up to high school and other amenities, such as a make-shift swimming pool and a baseball field. Within the camp itself, internees had a comparatively high degree of autonomy. At the same time, the institution still bore a number of qualities indicative of the larger unjust system it was part of. People couldn't leave on their own, and the camp was fenced off with watchtowers that held armed guards. Many of the Japanese internees of Crystal City were considered especially dangerous simply because they held positions of authority within their communities. Moreover, better conditions do not mean equal conditions. Students often moved to the camp midsemester and fell behind in consequence. Textbooks were not always of sufficient supply, which complicated the education of the children further. Mail was also subject to censorship. Finally, better conditions do not justify the system of "enemy alien" containment to begin with. Focusing on providing and contextualizing internee perspectives of internment, this segment hopes to illustrate that, while more organized and communally run than most WRA camps, Crystal City Internment Camp was still part of a discriminatory system that negatively affected those it contained. This is especially prevalent to the modern viewer, where immigration detention centers continue to isolate and contain people and exact heavy psychological tolls, indicating how mass containment of so-called dangerous populations has deeper roots than at first suspected.

Wartime Internment during the 1940s