HR 5879


War Department sponsored legislation debated in the House of Representatives over the summer and into the fall of 1941 that would force Nisei to choose between their U.S. and Japanese citizenship. War with Japan loomed on the horizon, but Japan had not yet attacked Pearl Harbor. If this law passed, all persons with dual citizenship entering into military service or employed in government, not just Nisei, would have to take a formal oath of allegiance to the United States and renounce allegiance to all other foreign governments or give up their U.S. citizenship and be subject to deportation or, at the very least, confinement in a "concentration camp." This bill, presented under House Resolution (H.R.) numbers 5879 and 6109, received a great deal of support from legislators anxious to support the interests of the War Department, but it also became the subject of intense debate and scrutiny. The debate over the language, scope, and meaning of the bills reveals important information about how various agencies viewed Japanese Americans in relation with their citizenship and loyalty, and how far various politicians and government agents were willing to push the legal limits of the Constitution during wartime. Most important, these debates over H.R. 5879 and H.R. 6109 reveal that the issue of dual citizenship was at the forefront of discussions that led to the mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war.

To clarify the dual citizenship status of certain persons in the country, the House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization met on October 29, 1941, to debate War Department–sponsored bill H.R. 5879, "a bill to amend the Nationality Act of 1940 . . . for the clarification of the dual-citizenship status of certain persons, and for other purposes." Japanese Americans were the primary targets of this bill. The War Department was concerned that a number of Japanese, Italian, and German Americans, all of whom might be claimed as citizens by enemy nations despite their U.S. citizenship, were being inducted into the military through Selective Service. Dual citizens, they argued, would be more likely to aid foreign agents in garnering sensitive military information than their counterparts who held only U.S. citizenship.

Representatives had many questions about the bill. If individuals refused to take an oath or to renounce their dual citizenship, would they lose their U.S. citizenship if they were born in the United States? Would this be allowable under the Fourteenth Amendment? Would U.S.-born citizens be subject to deportation or only incarceration for losing their citizenship? Not a single witness came out in direct opposition to the bill, not even Japanese American Citizens League representative Togo Tanaka. Each witness explained that he or she supported the War Department's need to defend the country in a period of crisis, but each also brought up possible problems with a bill written so generally. Several representatives questioned the constitutionality of the proposed bill, particularly its underlying assumptions.[1]

Despite complaints that the language of the bill remained dangerously unclear, the subcommittee continued to revise the bill and pushed it through the House on December 15, 1941. By the time it reached the Senate, though, the peacetime constraints that prevented the War Department from taking a more direct approach to its problem were gone. The United States was at war. More than three thousand suspected disloyal individuals, predominantly Japanese, Italian, and German nationals, had already been identified by the Office of Naval Intelligence and the FBI and interned in Department of Justice camps. The bill died unceremoniously in the Senate.

Authored by Cherstin M. Lyon, California State University, San Bernardino

For More Information

Lyon, Cherstin. Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Footnotes

  1. House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Hearings on H.R. 5879, 77th Cong., 1st Sess., October 29, 1941, 16-18; Commander Hartwell C. Davis, speaking for a bill to amend the Nationality Act of 1940, on November 12, 1941, to the House Subcommittee of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, H.R. 5879, 77th Cong., 1st Session, Congressional Record, 9-10.