When you read the literature about the concentration camps in which the War Relocation Authority (WRA) confined some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from 1942 to 1945, you come away with a pretty grim picture of that federal agency. At very best the WRA is depicted as administering the confined communities through benign decree; at worst the agency is caricatured as a malign enforcer. The inmates, for their part, could choose between resisting the administration or trying to ignore it the best they could.
After extensive primary source research in the records of the white "project attorneys" at the WRA's Heart Mountain Relocation Center, I have come away with a markedly different account of how the camps ran, at least on large matters of community governance. In several areas -- the design of community government, the running of the camp's criminal justice system, and the incorporation of the many "community enterprises" (retail and service establishments) -- the administration engaged in lengthy negotiation with Japanese Americans rather than ruling by decree. This process of negotiation and mutual accommodation often led t0 results at variance with official WRA policy and that respected inmate preferences. And the WRA lawyers on the ground in the camp were often instrumental in producing these results.
I document all of this in a new article "Of Coercion and Accommodation: Looking at Japanese American Imprisonment through a Law Office Window," which appeared online yesterday in the journal Law and History Review and is also on SSRN. It is a micro-history, focusing on just one of the ten WRA camps. For that reason, my conclusions are necessarily tentative; my chief argument is that the WRA-inmate relationship needs a fresh look.
This paper is part of a longer-term project of looking closely at these "project attorneys" -- lawyers who occupied a gray zone of conflicting loyalties to their employer (the WRA) and to the confined population. To varying degrees most of these lawyers struggled with questions of conscience, trying to do what they believed to be work for the good in what they knew to be an unjust system.