Government public opinion research and the Japanese-American internment

 Opinion surveys and interviews fed into policy-making

As I discussed in my 2011 book, Pathways to Polling, before the middle of the twentieth century, a series of organizations and institutions got interested in understanding people’s views and built organizational capacity to carry out opinion studies.

One of those was the U.S. government, with studies fielded to help plan and implement public policy. All of this work was aimed at making policy more effective.

In the 1930s and 1940s, opinion studies were used to try to help poor farmers, although conservative southern legislators and agricultural interests limited how programs were structured and over time, these focused less on sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

Opinion studies were used extensively during World War II.

A shameful national policy of the period, the internment of Japanese-Americans, employed opinion data.

The opinions studied were not those of the Japanese-Americans, but rather focused on opinions in the nation, whites in the west coast, and whites in agricultural areas of the far west.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, acting under political pressure and without time to design and pre-test a survey, interviewers from the Agriculture Department’s Program Surveys spoke to people in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and California’s Imperial Valley. These “preliminary impressions” found a range of views toward Japanese-Americans, with more negative opinions in rural areas, among Filipinos and people who worked with them “or in competition with them.” While distinguishing between particular individuals and the group, there was “a feeling that all should be watched, until we know which are disloyal, but a tendency to feel that most are loyal – if we could be sure which.”

These findings, including political and economic considerations, were presented to high-level government officials and were part of the discussions underlying the deportations. In a late January 1942 meeting where the data were discussed, Secretary of Agriculture Wickard “emphasized the political aspects of the situation reflected in the attitude of the state officials, the abuse of the licensing power, and the acuteness of the problem in the rural areas especially as the planting season approached.”

As various interviewers recognized, although some whites were concerned with national security, pre-existing prejudices and social and economic dynamics also influenced opinions. One young man who owned a 325-acre farm with his father, offered that he had no particular security concerns, but “was for moving them out because they all rent land and pay high rents and this causes he and other rents to have to make high payments for land that they rent.”

Another respondent said that the potential evacuees will “Live in houses poorer than those occupied by Mexicans, work the whole family, and the American farmer cannot compete with them and maintain his standard of living, just as the American business man cannot maintain his standard of living and compete with Japanese business men.” Field interviewer Louis Minch wrote to his supervisor that whites felt a “fear of something unknown.” Japanese-Americans are seen to have “strange customs, languages and religion” and “seem to shun social contacts with other peoples” perhaps “in response to discrimination.”

Multiple surveys were conducted in the Pacific coast states. Southern Californians were the most suspicious, with three-quarters believing that either none or a few were loyal; slightly more than half thought Japanese aliens would “actually do something about the United States if they have a chance.”

Not surprisingly, southern Californians indicated the strongest support for moving Japanese- Americans to internment camps: three-quarters held that view, compared to 50% of respondents in Washington, 56% in Oregon, and 44% in Northern California.

Meanwhile, in the nation as a whole, Germans were seen as more dangerous than Japanese. Once the decision was made to proceed with the relocation, public opinion studies tracked overall public opinion and views in the areas where relocation was taking place and evaluated messages about the relocation, targeted at individuals within and outside of the country.

In 1987, Congress passed and President Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment, authorizing restitution, and calling the internment a “fundamental injustice.”


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.