Skip to content
Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Pacific NW Antiwar History

Ch 2: Cracks in the Consensus: World War II

by Jessie Kindig

As elsewhere in the country, World War II in Seattle involved the  mass participation of soldiers, a boom in wartime industry, and public displays of support. Yet there were cracks in the consensus: the student movement of the 1930s, active in the Northwest, challenged both the spread of fascism and the drive to war, while a few Japanese residents of Seattle protested their loss of civil liberties in the internment camps.

During the 1930s, a nationwide student movement developed that, at its peak, involved hundreds of thousands of students. Through its identification with the American labor movement and its links to the radical organizations of the World War I decade, the 1930s student movement was very different from the antiwar activism that developed on campuses in the 1960s. Made up of a coalition of liberals, pacifists, communists, and socialists, students in the 1930s sought to identify with the mass labor struggles of the decade, oppose racial discrimination in the US and fascism abroad, and advocated for domestic relief programs. The largest student demonstrations of the period were explicitly anti-war and anti-fascist, and aimed at avoiding another world war.[1] At the University of Washington, student activists in the American Students’ Union (ASU) organized protests, meetings, and anti-ROTC campaigns to such an extent that the dean of the University handed their information over to the FBI. At the University of Oregon in Eugene, students led a 1,000-person campus protest as part of the 1935 national Student Strike Against War.[2]

During World War II, Washington State produced more war materiel per capita than anywhere else in the country. Warships, bombers, tanks, transport, plutonium for the atom bomb, wood products, and minerals were produced in Seattle’s air fields, shipyards, and laboratories and from new mills in Spokane, Vancouver, and Tacoma. Geographically strategic in a war against Japan, Seattle was transformed by the war effort. In addition to industry, the University of Washington hosted military personnel and a Navy unit, while academic departments from home economics (training students to can food for shipment overseas) to chemistry (which developed a laboratory for chemical warfare) were induced by the Department of Defense to provide for the war.[3] Yet the civilian-military consensus was also strained by the war: on August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb exploded on Hiroshima, residents near Hanford, in south central Washington, were told for the first time what had been produced on the 400,000-acre lot near their homes.[4]

World War II also led to another form of resistance, as a minority of Japanese Americans – some from the Seattle area – spoke out against their wartime internment. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt, authorized the removal of 110,000 Japanese immigrants and ethnic Japanese citizens from the West coast to internment camps inland, relocating 7,000 people from the Seattle area alone. In 1944, President Roosevelt announced that he would begin drafting interned Japanese American citizens for the war effort. Though many of the interned welcomed the order as a way to prove their loyalty and patriotism, others did not. At the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, Japanese Americans organized a Fair Play Committee and protested both the order and their incarceration. The Fair Play Committee organized a camp-wide draft refusal movement, and one out of every nine men drafted in the camp refused to report for induction.

Four of the leaders of the Committee had direct ties to the Pacific Northwest: Minoru Tamesa was an oyster farmer and millworker from Highline, south of Seattle; Jim Akutsu was born in Seattle and studied civil engineering at the University of Washington, later working as an engineer in the city; Guntaro Kubota had worked in the lumber camps on Mt. Rainier; and editor James Omura was born on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle. They, along with eighty-one other resisters, were put on trial by the federal government and served time in prison.[5]

The history of World War II in the Northwest, then, is much more complicated and contested than an era of victory gardens, industrial boom, and unquestioned wartime patriotism.


next chapter:
Ch. 3: Resistance to Cold War Logic

Copyright (c) 2008 Jessie Kindig

[1] Robert Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young: Student Radicals and America’s First Mass Student Movement, 1929-1941 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[2] Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young, 93, 99 and 334.

[3] James R. Warren, The War Years: A Chronicle of Washington State in World War II, (Seattle: History Ink and UW Press, 2000), xi-xix.

[4] Warren, The War Years, 193; see also Brian Casserly, Securing the Sound: The Evolution of Civilian-Military Relations in the Puget Sound Area, 1891-1984 (PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle, 2007).

[5] For the story of the Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee, see the PBS documentary Conscience and Constitution and the resources on their website: