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Letters from the Japanese American Internment
Clara Breed
Clara Breed - Leaving Home - Home Away From Home - The Slow Return - Legacies

On December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there were more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the United States. Within a few months, this entire population was gone. Out of fears of espionage and sabotage along the Pacific, the government removed Japanese American men, women, and children from their homes and placed them in internment camps in the interior of the country. Two-thirds of the internees were U.S. citizens. None of them was ever charged with a crime.

The Japanese American National Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in Los Angeles, presents personal accounts of the internment in an online exhibition, Dear Miss Breed: Letters from Camp. Before the war, Clara Estelle Breed was the supervising children’s librarian at the San Diego Public Library, where she came to know many young Japanese Americans. When they were evacuated from San Diego, she was at the train station to see them off. She handed out stamped, self-addressed postcards and urged them to write to her when they reached their destination. In 1993, she gave her collection of more than 250 postcards and letters to one of her correspondents, who later donated it to the museum.

Miss Breed spoke out publicly against the internment policy, believing that democracy "must be defended at home as well as abroad." But by taking an interest in the internees, she was not merely taking up a cause. Her correspondents were her friends. Like anyone writing to a friend, the internees tended to report on personal concerns and ordinary matters: their parents, their classes, the dances they held, the books they were reading, the movies they saw. It is a great irony that the letters tell us as much about life as a young American in the 1940s as they do about the internment—the punishment imposed upon these young people because they were not fully recognized as Americans.

Here we use four of the Miss Breed letters in a lesson plan on the study of letters as primary source documents. As students compare the writers’ differing points of view, they might see more clearly that the history of an event or period of time is never a single story.

We hope that you and your class will go further in your studies by logging on to the Smithsonian's A More Perfect Union at

Clara Breed Photo

Clara Breed, 1920s.
Letter to Miss Breed: September 27, 1942

Letter to Miss Breed: September 27, 1942

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