Office of Naval Intelligence

The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) was formed in 1882. Its primary function was to gather information on foreign navies with the goal of modernizing the American navy. But during World War I and the years after, the ONI also entered into the world of domestic security, a role solidified by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. Japanese Americans were one of the groups investigated by the ONI prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. The ONI found little danger of fifth column activity in the community and no reason for mass removal, recommendations ignored by the army.

Formed as part of the Bureau of Navigation in 1882, the ONI began life in 1882 and initially served a mostly public relations function for the navy. It also began to gather information in Europe on the more advanced European navies that helped the U.S. upgrade its navy in the 1890s and 1900s; these activities came to constitute the primary mission of the ONI. The ONI gained influence in the first Roosevelt administration and after a lull, saw it rise again with the country's entrance into World War I, moving for the first time into the domestic security arena. ONI historian Jeffery M. Dorwart argues that in the period between World War I and the end of World War II, this was part of the ONI's second set of duties "to provide security to the naval establishment and to the nation against foreign or foreign-inspired espionage, sabotage, and subversion." [1]

From the 1920s, the ONI had a particular interest in the rising naval power of Japan, conducting investigations on Japanese fortifications on Pacific islands and in September 1929, breaking into the office of the Japanese Inspector of Naval Machinery at the Metropolitan Tower in New York to acquire information on Japanese military aircraft and weaponry. In the 1930s, the ONI turned its focus to domestic surveillance of "subversives and radicals" to the point of being accused of neglecting "legitimate threats to the naval establishment." [2] These two interests undoubtedly predisposed ONI interest in Japanese Americans as the threat of war between the U.S. and Japan heated up in the 1930s.

On June 26, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a memo that gave the FBI , the Military Intelligence Division (MID) of the U.S. Army, and the ONI "sweeping authority" on internal security matters and directed the three agencies to coordinate their work and exchange information. The ONI director, Rear Admiral Walter Stratton Anderson, met weekly with MID director General Sherman Miles and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover through 1940, and pushed his agents to put together files on suspect domestic suspect groups including Nazi, fascist, and communist sympathizers and Japanese. ONI information was shared with the FBI and contributed to the custodial detention lists known at the ABC lists .

The ONI's point person in the surveillance of the Japanese American community on the West Coast was Kenneth Ringle , the assistant district intelligence officer for the Eleventh Naval District in Los Angeles. The bilingual Ringle traveled up and down the coast and built a network of Japanese American informants. He also led a break in of the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles that led to the breaking up of a Japanese spy ring. (See Tachibana case .) In Hawai'i, Ceil Coggins built a similar network in Hawai'i and like Ringle came to believe strongly in the "loyalty" of Nisei, later advocating strongly that they be allowed to fight in the U.S. armed forces. [3] Ringle issued a series of reports that largely vouched for Japanese American loyalty and argued against mass exclusion. Ringle's and the ONI's views were largely ignored by the army, which successfully pressed for mass removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

As the incarceration of Japanese Americans wore on, the ONI played a role in determining the "loyalty" of Japanese Americans seeking to leave the camps in 1943–44 as part of the Japanese American Joint Board . The ONI continued to keep watch of the Japanese American community in the camps and in their resettlement outside of the camps. For example, an ONI officer issued a detailed 30 page "Counter-Intelligence Report on Recent Developments in Japanese Situation, Twelfth Naval District" dated March 28, 1945, that looks at the first three months of 1945, covering the early returnees to the West Coast and the situation at Manzanar , Topaz , and Tule Lake . [4]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

Coffman, Tom. The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai'i . Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003.

Dorwart, Jeffery M. Conflict of Duty: The U.S. Navy's Intelligence Dilemma, 1919–1945 . Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

Muller, Eric. American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Office of Naval Intelligence. "Proud History." Accessible at

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans . Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Taylor, Sandra. Jewel of the Desert: Japanese American Internment at Topaz . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.


  1. Jeffery M. Dorwart, Conflict of Duty: The U.S. Navy's Intelligence Dilemma, 1919–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1983), ix
  2. Dorwart, Conflict of Duty , 85
  3. Tom Coffman, The Island Edge of America: A Political History of Hawai'i (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003), 80–82.
  4. This report along with another shorter report on Heart Mountain from December 1944, is in American Concentration Camps: Volume 8, 1944 and 1945, Japanese in Hawaii , edited with an introduction by Roger Daniels (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989); see also Sandra Taylor, Jewel of the Desert , 265–69 for a summary of this report.

Last updated June 19, 2020, 4:09 p.m..