Draft resistance

The phrase "draft resistance" refers to resistance by nearly 300 incarcerated Japanese Americans to conscription into the United States Army under the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. Draft resisters came from eight of the ten War Relocation Authority Camps, with the largest numbers coming from Poston and Heart Mountain . Most served time in federal prison for their resistance. Stigmatized by much of the Japanese American community at the time, they have been hailed as heroic resisters of conscience in recent decades by some. But the complexity of their individual cases resists any single label for the group. [1]


The United States had no system of forced military conscription between 1919, when the Selective Service and Training Act of 1917 lapsed, and 1940. By 1940, preparation for war with the fascist regimes of Japan, Germany, and Italy seemed prudent to President Roosevelt and Congress. In September of 1940, Congress passed and the president signed into law the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940, the first peacetime draft in the nation's history. The Act initially required men 18 to 35 years old to register for the draft, and after the United States entered the war in December of 1941, Congress amended it to increase the age for mandatory registration to 65 and to make all men 18 to 45 years old eligible for military service.

Regulations implementing the Act created roman-numeral-based categories to which registrants were assigned by local draft boards on the basis of their fitness for service. The category of I-A was for men deemed "available for military service." A different category, IV-C, was set aside for "aliens not acceptable to armed forces."

By December of 1941, around 5,000 Nisei had already volunteered or been drafted into the U.S. Army, and thousands of other Nisei between the ages of 18 and 35 sat in the I-A classification, awaiting possible conscription. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor , things changed dramatically. Those already serving were either discharged or shifted to menial tasks and training with wooden guns. Those in the I-A category were shifted to IV-C. Most Nisei, as U.S. citizens, were understandably insulted by their placement in a category for aliens. In the eyes of many Nisei, the shift to IV-C confirmed what their mass uprooting and incarceration without due process suggested: that the government no longer recognized them as true citizens.

Resistance to Registration

Draft resistance by Japanese Americans is typically understood as the defiance of conscription notices by incarcerated Nisei in 1944 and 1945, but as Cherstin Lyon argues, the phenomenon can more accurately be understood as starting earlier. In the spring of 1943, when the imprisonment of Japanese Americans was nearing the end of its first year, the U.S. Army decided to create a racially segregated combat unit consisting only of Japanese American soldiers by seeking volunteers from the WRA camps. (The U.S. Navy never accepted Japanese Americans as sailors at any point during the war.) This plan required a method for ensuring that those Japanese Americans who would join the army were loyal to the United States. Military teams fanned out to the ten WRA camps to oversee a process called "registration," bringing with them loyalty questionnaires bearing the Selective Service emblem for draft-age Nisei men to fill out. (For its own purposes, the WRA extended this interrogation protocol to all adult Nisei and Issei in the camps regardless of age or sex.)

These questionnaires triggered the first serious rumblings of resistance to the plan to bring Japanese Americans back into the army. In addition to asking Nisei men a variety of questions probing the extent to which they appeared to identify as "American" or "Japanese," the forms also notoriously asked them to say whether they would be willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces wherever ordered and whether they would be willing to renounce any allegiance to the Emperor of Japan. At every camp, to varying degrees, this inquest brought a variety of latent resentments, anxieties, and tensions to the surface. Questions abounded: Were the Nisei actually entitled to the rights of citizenship, and if so, why had they been exiled and imprisoned without due process? Why were they stuck in a draft classification for aliens? Why could they volunteer only into a racially segregated military unit destined for combat, rather than having the full range of options available to white Americans? Were they actually being asked to commit to volunteering, or were they merely being asked whether they would be willing to volunteer at some future date? If they volunteered, how would their Issei parents and younger siblings fare on their own in the WRA camps, or wherever else they might be sent?

Although these concerns and questions wracked all of the imprisoned communities, the registration process went off smoothly at several of the camps, including Poston and Minidoka . At several camps, including Heart Mountain and Topaz , committees formed to demand clarification of the citizenship status of the Nisei as well as answers to countless other questions. These committees, in particular the one at Topaz, succeeded in slowing down the registration process considerably. The response to registration was especially explosive at Tule Lake ; their resistance was so pervasive that camp administrators ultimately called in the military police to arrest a large number of residents of one especially recalcitrant residential block .

The registration crisis of 1943 was not truly an instance of draft resistance; at that time the military was seeking volunteers and the draft remained closed to the Nisei. However, registration surfaced many of the issues and resentments that would later lead young men to resist the draft after it was reinstated.

Draft Resistance

Having assembled a racially segregated combat team with far fewer volunteers from the camps than expected and a large contingent of Nisei from Hawaii, military officials turned their attention in the latter half of 1943 to the question of whether to reinstate the draft for the inmates in the camps. By December, an affirmative decision was made, but the timing was far from opportune. Casualty rates among the troops of the 100th Infantry Battalion in Italy were high, and news of deaths and grievous injuries was filtering back to the camps, leading some military officials to worry that the Nisei would believe they were being drafted simply as cannon fodder. In announcing the reopening of the draft on January 20, 1944, the military emphasized that this was a restoration of equality for the Nisei, in that they would "again be classified by their Selective Service Boards on the same basis as other citizens." Japanese Americans quickly saw through this, however; they understood that however equal their Selective Service classification, what awaited them upon being drafted was racially segregated combat duty in the army and categorical exclusion from service in the navy.

As young men in the camps began to receive official orders to report for physical examinations preparatory to induction, the discussions and debates that accompanied registration resumed, but now in a much more focused way. Individual young men had a specific decision to make: should they or should they not comply with these orders? Declining to volunteer in 1943 had carried no ramifications; willfully refusing to comply with an order of the Selective Service Administration was a federal crime punishable by fines and prison time.

Those Nisei who chose to resist the draft did so in different ways and for different reasons. Some young men reacted to the reopening of the draft by filing applications to renounce their citizenship or to be expatriated to Japan. Often these applications reflected an effort on the part of the young men not to be separated from their Issei parents; for others, the applications revealed that their anger over removal and incarceration had led them to doubt that they had a viable future in the United States or that their American citizenship had any remaining value. This strategy of avoiding the draft proved unsuccessful, however; the government quickly took the view that renunciations of citizenship and petitions for expatriation filed after the reopening of the draft were just impermissible efforts to evade the draft, and those who filed such petitions remained bound to answer the military's call.

At some of the camps, the decision-making about whether to comply with or resist the draft was solitary or confined to very small groups. This was the case at Minidoka, for example. Minidoka saw little public discussion about the merits of resisting the draft; the atmosphere there was permeated by expressions of support for the draft from the camp newspaper, exhortations to compliance from camp administrators, and a morale-boosting propaganda visit to the camp from the celebrated Nisei flier Sergeant Ben Kuroki . But one by one, 32 young men ultimately made the decision not to respond to the call. The dynamics were not dissimilar at Amache , where 31 Nisei refused, at Topaz, where the number was five, or at the two Arkansas camps, Jerome and Rohwer , where there were four. Those who have studied the draft resistance at these camps conclude that these acts of resistance were not grounded in a carefully articulated legal objection to incarceration or conscription. They were instead grounded mostly in disillusionment about the flimsiness of their status as citizens, anger over their confinement, and obligations to family. (There is no record of criminal prosecutions for draft resistance at Manzanar or Gila River .)

By contrast, at two of the WRA camps, Heart Mountain and Poston, the issue of draft resistance surged to the forefront of public discussion. Not surprisingly, these were the two camps that produced the largest number of resisters: with 106, Poston had the largest overall number, but it was also by far the most populous camp, so Heart Mountain's 85 resisters gave that camp the distinction of the highest rate of resistance. At both of these camps, the issue of draft resistance was pushed into public discourse by leaflets and circulars that articulated legal and moral arguments against incarceration, conscription, and the racial segregation of Nisei soldiers in the army. At Heart Mountain, these leaflets and circulars came from a well-organized group called the Fair Play Committee ; at Poston, they were the work of a single individual named George Fujii. In both places, the public articulation of legal and moral objections and the organization of public meetings leant a sense of coherence and common purpose to the cause. While the government ultimately cracked down on the leaders of these movements, with the support of more conservative elements within the Japanese American community that favored military service as a demonstration of Japanese American patriotism, the movements were remarkably successful, for a time, in capturing the imagination and support of a broad swath of the imprisoned population at the two camps.

Trial, Imprisonment, and Pardon

All of the draft resisters from the eight WRA camps where resistance occurred were charged with the same federal crime in the federal courts of the districts where the camps sat. That crime was refusing to report for induction when duly ordered to do so under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, in violation of section 311 of Title 50 of the United States Code. Given the identity of the charged crime and the similarity of the circumstances that led the young men to refuse, one might have expected similar trials and similar results in the various federal trial courts that heard the cases.

In the event, quite the opposite happened. In Wyoming, a group of 63 of the Heart Mountain resisters waived their right to a jury trial and were tried by a federal district judge in what remains the largest mass trial in Wyoming history. The judge dismissed out of hand the resisters' constitutional objections to their incarceration and conscription, convicted them, and sentenced them to terms of three years in federal penitentiaries.

In Idaho, the federal judge hearing the cases of the Minidoka resisters had earlier gone on record avowing his distrust of all people of Japanese ancestry and his support for mass incarceration. These should have been grounds for recusal, but the judge did not step aside. Instead, he ran an appalling assembly line of lightning-quick separate trials for each of the resisters, recycling jurors from trial to trial so that some of the jurors heard as many as 11 trials in the space of a week. Not surprisingly, all who went to trial were convicted. Here, the judge imposed prison terms of three years and three months.

In other federal courts in Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas, judges imposed sentences ranging from six months to three years, with the lighter sentences generally falling on those who had saved the court the trouble of a trial by pleading guilty.

In Arizona, the variation in outcome was even more striking; there, perhaps because the final sentencing hearing came in 1945, very late in the war, the trial judge convicted all of the resisters of the crime but imposed a sentence of a one-penny fine.

In only one case was the pattern of convictions broken. In the summer of 1944, Judge Louis E. Goodman of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California heard the prosecutions of the 27 young men who had resisted the draft at the Tule Lake Segregation Center. The plight of these young men struck Judge Goodman differently from the judges in the other districts. After a brief trial, he concluded that it was "shocking to the conscience" to incarcerate an American citizen on suspicion of disloyalty, conscript him into the military, and then prosecute him for refusing. He dismissed the charges against the Tule Lake resisters as violations of their right to due process of law under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The government chose not to appeal this decision, so the Tule Lake resisters were the only ones to beat the charges and avoid time in a federal penitentiary. (That is not to say, of course, that they avoided imprisonment: their reward for their legal victory was a return to confinement at Tule Lake.)

Virtually all of the Nisei draft resisters served their prison time at three federal prisons: Leavenworth in Kansas, McNeil Island in Washington, and the federal prison camp in Tucson, Arizona. Confinement conditions ranged from maximum security at Leavenworth to loose confinement for farm work at McNeil Island and roadwork at Tucson.

On December 23, on the recommendation of an amnesty board chaired by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, President Harry S. Truman pardoned all of the Nisei draft resisters of World War II.

The Question of Motive

For many decades after the war, the Nisei draft resisters bore the stigma of their wartime choices in the Japanese American community. Much of the stigma derived from suspicions about the resisters' motives for refusing the draft. Some saw them as cowards who simply didn't want to risk their lives; some saw them as traitors who masked their disloyalty in the language of civil liberties; some saw them as selfish zealots who did not understand that the nation was at war and refused to set aside their own dogmatic views on rights and freedoms to serve the broader interest in establishing Japanese American loyalty.

More recently, with the benefit of scholarly study of the resisters and changing generational perspectives, some have taken a directly opposite approach, referring to the entire group of draft-refusing Nisei as "resisters of conscience."

Both of these approaches are mistaken for treating hundreds of individuals as a monolith. Scholars have uncovered evidence of a wide range of motivations for resisting the draft, many but not all of which fit neatly under the label of "conscience." For example, a Nisei who refused the draft because, as the eldest son in a Japanese family, he felt a duty not to abandon his parents in camp cannot be understood as resisting the draft for reasons of conscience. At the other end of the spectrum, a Nisei who knew that he would have failed his physical examination if he had shown up for it, but refused to go anyway because he could not abide the violations of his rights as a citizen can be understood only as acting on the dictates of his conscience. In truth, the effort to find a single label for this group of several hundred men does a disservice to the complexity of the choices facing them and the realities of the life circumstances that led each of them to refuse.

Authored by Eric L. Muller , University of North Carolina

For More Information

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

Eric L. Muller. "A Penny for their Thoughts? Draft Resistance at the Poston Relocation Center." Law and Contemporary Problems 68 (2005): 119-157.

__________. Free to Die for their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.


  1. This article excludes from consideration the draft refusal of a very small number of Nisei conscientious objectors such as Gordon Hirabayashi and George Yamada. For an account of Yamada's resistance, see Charles Davis and Jeffrey Kovac, "Confrontation at the Locks: A Protest of Japanese Removal and Incarceration during World War II," Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 107, no. 4 (Winter 2006), pp. 486-509.

Last updated Dec. 20, 2023, 6:46 p.m..