Repeal of Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950 ("Emergency Detention Act")

A political campaign between 1967 and 1971 led by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) that is considered a precursor to the national campaign for redress . The Emergency Detention Act (also known as Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950) was nicknamed a "concentration camp law," and granted the government in emergency the power of preventive detention, a power upheld by the Supreme Court through its decisions on the Japanese American internment cases. The Title II repeal campaign was initially taken up by grassroots groups such as the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) on the West Coast, but as the campaign developed, it provided a unique venue that united different factions within the Asian American community into a broadly organized Asian American movement. The campaign also helped Japanese American activists to develop coalitions with various ethnic and political groups concerned with civil liberties issues.

The Emergency Detention Act of 1950

The Emergency Detention Act comprised Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950 (also known as the McCarran Act). Passed during the height of the McCarthyist anti-communist fervor over President Truman 's veto, the Internal Security Act enacted communist registration in Title I (Subversive Activities Control Act). Title II authorized the attorney general "to apprehend and ... detain ... each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe that such person probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage" in the event of "war, invasion, or insurrection in aid of a foreign enemy." Emergency detention was never enforced under this law, because the presidential declaration of "internal security emergency," the condition upon which this law was activated, was never issued.

The Emergency Detention Act was proposed by liberal members of Congress. As Congressional conservatives, such as Richard Nixon and Patrick McCarran, endorsed the communist registration bill, pro-administration Democrats, such as Warren Magnuson and Paul Douglas, drafted an emergency detention bill as an alternative, which they hoped would substitute for the communist registration provision. The emergency detention procedure was modeled after the Japanese American wartime incarceration, a legal precedent of mass detention of citizens without due process. The supporters of the bill considered it an improvement over the Japanese American mass incarceration, because the detention would be conducted on individual basis. Ironically, the emergency detention bill was added to the communist registration bill, which became the Subversive Activities Control Act (Title I), and was passed as the Emergency Detention Act, Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950.

In accordance with the provisions of the Emergency Detention Act, the Department of Justice set up six detention camps: Florence and Wickenburg, Arizona; Avon Park, Florida; Allenwood, Pennsylvania; El Reno, Oklahoma; and Tule Lake , California. The camps were maintained in "stand by" status by the Federal Bureau of Prisons until 1957.

Grassroots Campaign for the Repeal of the Emergency Detention Act

The Emergency Detention Act had no legal effect, particularly after the budget allocation for the camps was ceased in 1957. The law, however, once again attracted people's attention under the rising social and political unrest in the late 1960s. Public anxiety about concentration camps spread as a rumor circulated in African American and radical activist communities that the government was preparing to round them up and house them in concentration camps. The rumor was not totally unfounded. A freelance journalist, Charles Allen, Jr., toured former detention camp sites, and in 1966 reported in a booklet titled Concentration Camps, U.S.A. that the United States had an estimated total capacity for 26,500 in the detention camps. In July 1967, a Nisei named Raymond Okamura of Berkeley wrote to the JACL that Japanese Americans should publicly oppose Title II. The JACL replied that nothing could be done since the Justice Department denied the existence of the camps.

In 1968, Asian American student activists in the San Francisco Bay area formed the AAPA and started rallying on concentration camp issues as they joined in the civil rights activism such as the multiracial campaign to free the Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. Progressive Nisei, such as Raymond Okamura and Edison Uno , supported the cause. They pressed and succeeded in persuading the JACL to organize a public campaign for Title II repeal. Okamura became a JACL member, and he and Mary Ann Takagi formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Repeal of the Emergency Detention Act, which was joined later by Edison Uno. The Ad Hoc Committee developed an educational campaign that logically connected the Japanese American internment, the general plight of ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S., and "concentration camps" as a means of political repression by the U.S. government. Representatives of the Japanese American community organized public meetings and also appeared in the media to talk about their historical experiences of incarceration, warning the public of the possibility of concentration camps detaining innocent people, either in the panic of national emergency or as a repressive measure against social and ideological dissent.

In the early stage of the repeal campaign, the mainstream faction of the Japanese American community, represented by Mike Masaoka , opposed JACL's involvement. But the campaign quickly gained support from many chapters of the JACL, and a resolution of support for Title II repeal was passed at the 1968 JACL national convention. The Ad Hoc Committee approached Japanese American members of Congress to create a repeal bill. Then the JACL national headquarters and local JACL chapters organized petition and letter writing campaigns to request elected representatives at all levels to support the repeal bill. The Ad Hoc Committee maintained their coalition with other community, ethnic and political organizations, including left-wing and radical groups. Masaoka, concerned with a backlash from the mainstream, demanded that the Ad Hoc Committee submit all the campaign plans to him in advance for his comment, particularly plans concerning the efforts to secure the cooperation of local chapters of various civil rights organizations. The Ad Hoc Committee rejected his demand and insisted that Masaoka should work for the Committee, not the other way around. The Ad Hoc Committee succeeded in gaining support from a wide spectrum of local and national organizations of diverse race, religion, concern, and political ideology, as they worked inclusively with anyone opposed to the idea of "American concentration camps." For example, when a large group of the American Indian Movement activists occupied Alcatraz Island, the Ad Hoc Committee rallied for the Japanese American community's support for the Native people by bringing boat-loads of food and provisions as donations. Notable also was the fact that the Title II repeal campaign connected Japanese Americans all over the country. Particularly important was the fact that the campaign connected JA activists on the East and West Coasts. The campaign laid a foundation for the national campaign for redress in the 1980s.

Congressional Process of the Repeal of the Emergency Detention Act

Several bills containing the Repeal of the Emergency Detention Act was introduced in Congress, but the main bills were S1872, sponsored by Senator Daniel K. Inouye , and H.R.11825, sponsored by Congressmen Spark M. Matsunaga and Chet Holifield. The House bill was sent to the House Committee on Internal Security, which held an eleven-day hearing between March and September 1970. Various members of Congress, prominent political and legal figures (including Ronald Reagan), and representatives from diverse civic, ethnic and political organizations (including the Black Panther Party) testified in front of the committee, overwhelmingly supporting Title II repeal. Former Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren sent a letter endorsing the repeal as someone "who as a state officer became involved in the harsh removal of the Japanese from the Pacific Coast in World War II."

Despite the incompatibility between the historical memories of different groups and individuals who expressed support for Title II repeal, a consensus was built thanks to the presence of Japanese Americans in the campaign as loyal and innocent citizens wrongfully incarcerated in concentration camps solely because of their racial characteristics. After extensive hearings and complex Congressional maneuvering, Congress passed the Repeal bill, now H.R.234, on September 14, 1971, by an overwhelming majority (356-49). H.R.234 not only repealed Title II but also prohibited "the establishment of the emergency detention camps." President Richard M. Nixon signed it into a law on September 25, 1971. The Emergency Detention Act ended its twenty-one years of life without ever being invoked.

Authored by Masumi Izumi , Doshisha University

For More Information

Izumi, Masumi. "Alienable Citizenship: Race, Loyalty and the Law in the Age of 'American Concentration Camps,' 1941-1971." Asian American Law Journal 13 (2006): 1-30.

Izumi, Masumi. "Prohibiting 'American Concentration Camps': Repeal of the Emergency Detention Act and the Public Historical Memory of the Japanese American Internment." Pacific Historical Review 74: 2 (2005): 165-193.

Okamura, Raymond. "Background and History of the Repeal Campaign." Amerasia Journal 2: 2 (Fall 1974): 73-94.

Last updated May 12, 2014, 8:17 a.m..