A Slap’s a Slap: General John L. DeWitt and Four Little Words

Today’s post is written by Alan Walker, a processing archivist at Archives II in College Park.

Lt. General John L. DeWitt was in charge of the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command in 1942 and was instrumental in the development of Executive Order 9066, which directed the internment of all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

By the spring of 1943, Japanese Americans were volunteering to serve in the armed forces, and there was growing sentiment to allow them and their families to return home. When asked his views on these developments during testimony before a subcommittee of the House Naval Affairs Committee, DeWitt is reported to have said “A Jap’s a Jap – it makes no difference whether he is an American citizen or not.”

File Photographs Folder 3 - DeWitt Gives Testimony April 13 1943
Lt. General DeWitt testifies before a subcommittee of the House Naval Affairs Committee.

Here is an extract of DeWitt’s testimony before the subcommittee (which his staff apparently prepared):

“…that is the development of a false sentiment on the part of certain individuals and some organizations to get the Japanese back on the West Coast. I don’t want any of them here…

…At one time, we has a great many Japanese in military units on the West Coast. They were all at my request transferred out by the War Department to other organizations. At the present time there are eight Japanese in the area by permit…They are required to wear identification at all times…

As far as I am concerned I am not concerned with what they do with the Japanese as a whole just so they are not allowed to return to the West Coast. My superiors know I consider it unsafe to do so.

…The danger of the Japanese was, and is now, -if they are permitted to come back- espionage and sabotage. It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty.”

DeWitt’s word hit the newspapers and radio, and everything blew up. DeWitt was immediately directed to explain himself. Here is a transcript of a telephone conversation between DeWitt and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy:

Two days after his testimony, DeWitt gets a call from Gen. George Veazey Strong, the U.S. Army Chief for Intelligence (G-2):

Later that same day, DeWitt speaks again with Secretary McCloy:

Aside from these mild rebukes (“Your remarks out there are raising Cain around here.” and “That was unfortunate at best – that ‘Jap’s a Jap’ business.”), DeWitt was never censured for his remarks, and his career did not suffer as a result; he later became commandant of the Army and Navy Staff College.

In 1963 DeWitt’s son donated his papers relating to military service to the National Archives. These documents are found in a file labeled “Evacuation of Japanese” (NAID 7764206), along with this self-serving tally of public opinion (again prepared by his staff) regarding DeWitt’s stance against Japanese Americans:

It’s interesting to consider how we decide what to keep and what to discard that represents our life, our work, and our legacy. In his later years, did John DeWitt ever voice regrets over his actions during the war? Were Japanese Americans to be always and forevermore “Japs”?

All records from “Gen. John L. DeWitt Personal Papers – Records Relating to Military Service, 1921-1926”, National Archives Identifier 7432140

2 thoughts on “A Slap’s a Slap: General John L. DeWitt and Four Little Words

  1. Is there a way for me to read General John L DeWitt’s papers that are linked to this on this site.
    I am unable to read scanned paper images on this web page.

    1. Besides the records that were used for this blog post about General Dewitt, no other records from this series have been scanned for uploading and viewing. If you would like to see the remainder of the records or receive copies of them please contact: Archives2reference@nara.gov


      National Archives at College Park – Textual Reference (RDT2)
      8601 Adelphi Road
      College Park, MD 20740-6001
      Phone: 301-837-3510
      Fax: 301-837-1752

Comments are closed.