During the April 7, 1942 Salt Lake City governors' meeting, George K. Aiken, executive secretary to Governor Charles Sprague of Oregon, presented the state's plan for the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The so-called "Oregon Plan" was ultimately rejected by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) but led to the establishment of a Japanese American farm labor camp in Nyssa, Oregon, the first such labor camp organized during the war.
Background and Development of the Oregon Plan
By mid-March 1942, WRA Director Milton Eisenhower contemplated the establishment of labor camps for Japanese Americans. His tentative plans involved the utilization of abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in states throughout the West. Eisenhower's plans were prompted, in large part, by the growing demand for labor by agricultural producers in the intermountain states. Sugar companies in particular began inquiring about the possibilities of using Japanese Americans in sugar beet fields following the announcement of Executive Order 9066. Sugar was greatly needed in 1942, as all foreign supply lines had been severed. Labor was similarly critical, as those who had planted, cultivated, and harvested sugar beets in past seasons had departed for wartime industrial jobs or joined the military.
Eisenhower, however, was hesitant to make Japanese Americans available as farm laborers. Concerns were raised about potential violence in communities where Nikkei would be sent and military authorities refused to provide protection for any seasonal laborers, citing a lack of adequate manpower. He called a conference in Salt Lake City in part to explain the WRA's plans for resettlement of Japanese Americans away from the West Coast, but also to explore the possibilities of organizing an agricultural labor work force.
Oregon's Governor Charles Sprague was unable to attend the WRA conference, so he sent his Executive Secretary George K. Aiken as his representative. Though he was informed of the conference just two days prior, while in Ontario, Oregon, Aiken developed what would become known as the "Oregon Plan." Working with representatives from the United States Employment Service and the Department of the Interior's Grazing Service, he outlined plans for the relocation of Oregon's estimated 4,000 Nikkei residents. The driving force behind the plan was the need for agricultural labor in the state, especially in Malheur County where 12,000 acres of sugar beets had recently been planted. Approximately 400 laborers were needed within thirty days in order to begin thinning the beets, or else the crops would have to be plowed under.
Presenting the Plan at the Salt Lake City Governors' Meeting
On April 7, 1942, governors and representatives from ten western states met at the WRA conference in Salt Lake City. Aiken presented the plan he developed, which one conference attendee described as the only concrete program delivered during the meeting.
The Oregon Plan called for the relocation of the state's Japanese American residents to abandoned CCC camps in Malheur, Harney, and Crook counties. Fifteen camps were available in Oregon and according to Aiken, were ready for immediate occupancy. Once in the camps, those Japanese Americans who were physically able would provide year-round work for the Grazing Service, the Reclamation Service, and other projects. In Malheur County, they would provide agricultural labor for sugar beets, potatoes, onions, and other crops. Aiken presented other conditions to the plan, namely that the relocation would be conducted under the supervision of federal authorities and that Japanese Americans would be under guard at all times, would be prevented from buying or leasing land, and would be returned to the communities from which they came once the war ended. Furthermore, Aiken also proposed that all Nikkei in Oregon, not just those in Military Area 1, be incarcerated. He assured the WRA that the plan could be completed within ten days from the date of its approval.
Following the meeting, Eisenhower assured Sprague that the plan was being carefully considered by the WRA. However, given the negative responses of other governors and state representatives to WRA plans presented during the conference, Eisenhower decided to not proceed with the movement of any Japanese Americans from the temporary assembly centers into private employment as agricultural laborers.
Meanwhile, Utah's governor, Herbert B. Maw, vocalized his backing of the Oregon Plan. Support in Oregon increased quickly, particularly for the implementation of the plan in Malheur County. By mid-April, the district attorney, county judge, and county sheriff each endorsed the plan, as did a representative of the Amalgamated Sugar Company. Through the end of April, Aiken continued to correspond with the WRA and the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), still anticipating that Oregon would soon implement its plan. However, he learned through newspaper coverage that the WRA was moving forward with the construction of concentration camps. The Oregon Plan, as originally outlined by Aiken, was abandoned, but Malheur County still desperately needed agricultural labor.
Implementing the Plan in Malheur County
In early May, local officials and citizens appealed to Sprague to allow for the implementation of the Oregon Plan in Malheur County. The WRA and WCCA refused to permit any movement of Japanese Americans from Military Area 1 for employment in eastern Oregon unless certain assurances were given: state and local authorities would maintain order and guarantee the safety of the laborers, labor would be voluntary, imported labor would not compete with local labor, the employer would pay prevailing wages, and the employer would provide housing and transportation.
Sprague provided an employment agreement to the WRA and WCCA on May 8, stating that Oregon would adhere to the conditions and procedures outlined by federal authorities. Despite his assurances, the WRA made no effort to release Japanese Americans for agricultural labor. Only after Sprague appealed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, did the WRA and WCCA agree to release some Japanese Americans for agricultural labor.
On May 20, Lt. General John L. DeWitt issued Civilian Restrictive Order Number 2, which allowed for the movement of 400 Japanese Americans from the Portland Assembly Center to Malheur County. The following day, a group of fifteen Japanese Americans left Portland by train. Upon arriving in Malheur County on May 22, they were taken to a tent camp outside of the town of Nyssa. The camp would eventually house approximately 350 Japanese Americans. Farm labor camps were later established elsewhere in Malheur County, utilizing former CCC camps, as originally intended by Aiken in his Oregon Plan.
The movement of Japanese Americans into Malheur County marked the beginning of the WRA's seasonal leave program during the war. Between 1942 and 1944, some 33,000 Japanese Americans left incarceration centers for seasonal agricultural work.
For More Information
National Archives I. Washington, D.C. Record Group 210.
National Archives. Seattle, WA. Record Group 96.
Oregon Historical Society. Portland, OR. Marvin Gavin Pursinger Collection on Japanese American Relocation, circa 1942-1946.
Oregon State Archives. Salem, OR. Governor Charles Sprague Papers.
Books and Articles
Daniels, Roger, ed. "Report on the Salt Lake City meeting from the Records of the Secretary of Agriculture." American Concentration Camps: Volume 4, April, 1942. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.
Fiset, Louis. "Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 90.3 (Summer, 1999): 123–39.
Myer, Dillon S. Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority During World War II. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1971.
War Relocation Authority. WRA: A Story of Human Conservation. Washington, D.C.: War Relocation Authority, 1946.
Young, Morgen. "Russell Lee in the Northwest: Documenting Japanese American Farm Labor Camps in Oregon and Idaho." Oregon Historical Quarterly 114. 3 (2013): 360–64.
Oregon State Library. "Life on the Home Front: Oregon Responds to World War II." https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww2/Pages/default.aspx
Oregon State University Libraries. Special Collections & Archives Research Center. "Fighters on the Farm Front: Oregon's Emergency Farm Labor Service, 1943-1947." http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/fighters
- Dillon S. Myer, Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority During World War II (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1971), 127.
- War Relocation Authority, WRA: A Story of Human Conservation (Washington, D.C.: War Relocation Authority, 1946), 27.
- War Relocation Authority, WRA: A Story of Human Conservation, 28.
- George Aiken was also the publisher of the Ontario Argus newspaper in eastern Oregon and in a January 1942 issue, he presented a plan to use Japanese Americans to solve the farm labor crisis in Oregon. At the time, his proposal was severely criticized and censured by residents in Malheur County.
- Letter from George K. Aiken to Charles Sprague, April 14, 1942, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR, Marvin Gavin Pursinger Collection on Japanese American Relocation, circa 1942-1946 (hereafter referred to as the Pursinger Collection).
- Letter from William L. Teutsch to George K. Aiken, April 15, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Letter from Karl Bendetsen to George K. Aiken, April 22, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Report on Meeting, Conference on Evacuation of Enemy Aliens, Salt Lake City, April 7, 1942, Box 7, Entry 2, Record Group 210, National Archives I, Washington, D.C.
- Letter from Milton S. Eisenhower to Charles Sprague, April 8, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Louis Fiset, "Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 90.3 (Summer, 1999), 126.
- Letter from Charles Sprague to Herbert B. Maw, April 20, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Letter from George K. Aiken to Charles Sprague, April 14, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Letter from Karl Bendetsen to George K. Aiken, April 22, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Letter from George K. Aiken to Del Taylor, April 20, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- "Employment of Japanese Evacuees: Agriculture Outside of Assembly Centers," June 1942, Box 2, Entry 6, Record Group 210, National Archives I, Washington, D.C.
- Letter from Charles Sprague to Karl Bendetsen, May 9, 1942. Pursinger Collection.
- "Governor Sprague Appeals to President for Action," Eastern Oregon Observer, Ontario, OR, May 14, 1942.
- Civilian Restrictive Order Number 2, May 20, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Oregon officials anticipated utilizing abandoned CCC camps to house Japanese Americans in Malheur County, but lacked sufficient funding to repair or operate the camps by May. Instead, a Farm Security Administration mobile tent camp outside of Nyssa housed Japanese Americans until November 1942, when laborers were moved to a former CCC camp near Adrian, Oregon.
- Letter from Ormond Thomas to R. T. Magleby, May 26, 1942, Box 7, Entry 123, Record Group 96, National Archives Seattle, WA.
- Fiset, "Thinning, Topping, and Loading," 123.