The Power of Language

This essay was published in Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America in 2006.
Learning for Justice Staff
Grade Level

During World War II, the government used vague and misleading terms to describe what was being done to people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Today, some historians and educators believe it is important to use terminology that more accurately reflects what actually happened. Examples of words to avoid include:

Internment: Internment generally refers to detaining “enemy aliens” when the nation is at war. Some two-thirds of the Japanese Americans locked up during World War II were U.S. citizens. Moreover, no one in the camps [was ever] accused or convicted of a crime. Incarceration or imprisonment is more accurate.

Evacuation: The federal government ordered virtually everyone of Japanese ancestry to leave the West Coast and arrested those who didn’t comply, a process it labeled “evacuation.” Forcible removal, exclusion or forced exodus is more accurate.

Non-alien: The federal government used this term to describe people of Japanese descent who were born in the United States. This disguised the fact that the government was locking up U.S. citizens without regard for their constitutional rights. Citizen is more accurate.

Relocation Centers or Internment Camps: Both terms were used by the federal government to describe the 10 camps where more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were held without charges for three years during World War II. The camps were ringed with barbed wire and guard towers. Living conditions were harsh. President Franklin D. Roosevelt privately referred to such centers as concentration camps—a term also used publicly in some business and political circles. Prison camp also is considered appropriate.

Copyright © Teaching Tolerance.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Based on the reading, what can you infer is the reason why the government used “vague and misleading terms”?
    By using these terms, the government did not have to recognize the harshness and illegality of what they were doing.
Reveal Answers
Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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