Japanese American internment

The Event: Federal government’s forced evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to internment camps during World War II

Date: 1942 to 1945

Location: Relocation centers in western states between California and Arkansas

Significance: In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized U.S. military officials to remove persons from areas of the American mainland designated as military zones. More than 110,000 Japanese Americans were considered security risks and forced to dispose of their West Coast homes, businesses, and property and move into ten desolate relocation camps from California to Arkansas. The internment deprived the affected Japanese Americans of their civil liberties as U.S. citizens or residents.

Internees eating a meal at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California’s eastern Sierras. (NARA)

Internees eating a meal at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California’s eastern Sierras. (NARA)

As the start of World War II, about 120,000 Japanese Americans resided in the United States. Most lived in California and other Pacific coast states. The 40,000 first-generation immigrant Japanese, or Issei, were generally over the age of fifty and excluded from citizenship by the Immigration Act of 1924. The 80,000 second-generation Nisei were under age eighteen, and most were American citizens.

Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government detained 2,000 Japanese Americans who were considered security risks. The shock of the Pearl Harbor attack; the Japanese military takeover of Guam, Hong Kong, Manila, and Singapore; and reports of Japanese atrocities in the Philippines created an atmosphere of hysteria on the West Coast. Many Americans feared that a bombing attack on theWest Coast might be next. They also believed that Japan had resident spies living on the coast and feared that Japanese Americans would aid their racial brothers. Numerous inflammatory and invariably false reports of Japanese attacks on the American mainland flashed through coastal communities. However, no reports of attacks on the American mainland were authenticated until the Japanese shelled an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, California, on February 22, 1942, and the Oregon coast near Fort Stevens on June 21. Neither attack did much damage.

The biggest impetus for internment came with the release in late January of a government investigation of the Pearl Harbor attack. The report, compiled by U.S. Supreme Court justice Owen Roberts, claimed without documentation that Hawaii-based espionage agents, including Japanese American citizens, had aided the Japanese striking force. The press and interest groups further spread fear and prejudice that denied the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans.

Evacuation Order

Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy was responsible for a military decision on the fate of Japanese Americans and ordered Colonel Karl Bendetsen to prepare a final recommendation for General John DeWitt, chief of the Army’s Western Defense Command. In early February, DeWitt officially requested authority to remove all Japanese Americans from the West Coast because they belonged to an "enemy race” whose loyalty was suspect. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Attorney General Francis Biddle, Assistant Attorney General James Rowe, and Edward Ennis, director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit, questioned the internment on racial grounds as unconstitutional and unnecessary. Stimson warned that removal of Japanese Americans on a racial basis would "tear a tremendous hole in our constitutional system.” Biddle told Stimson that the Justice Department would not evacuate any American citizen.

The internment strategy was finalized on the evening of February 17, 1942, in the living room of Biddle’s Washington home. Biddle had told Stimson that afternoon that he no longer opposed internment after being assured that the Army, not the Justice Department, would handle the mass roundup and detention programs. McCloy persuaded Biddle to participate in publishing the executive order and confronted Rowe and Ennis, who were furious about Biddle’s reversal of position on internment. Despite having reservations, Stimson advised Roosevelt that DeWitt should be authorized to proceed.

On February 19, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized U.S. military officials to remove any and all persons from areas of the United States designated as military zones. The order did not apply to persons living outside theWestern Defense Command. No explicit reference to Japanese Americans was necessary. The secretary of war was authorized to establish detention centers to protect West Coast military facilities from sabotage and espionage. The original order did not specify what should happen to the evacuees or exclude voluntary withdrawal. Japanese Americans were encouraged to leave the prohibited Pacific coast military zone voluntarily. About 15,000 moved in with midwestern or eastern relatives or friends. Roosevelt established the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to administer the voluntary resettlement and designated Milton Eisenhower as its director. Many inland states warned that the eastward movement of Japanese immigrants posed problems. The governors of Wyoming, Idaho, and Kansas adamantly opposed resettlement of Japanese Americans.

 Japanese American Internment Camps

Evacuation and Internment

On March 27, 1942, the Army stopped voluntary withdrawal and began evacuating the remaining Japanese Americans. Within weeks, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were given forty-eight hours to dispose of their businesses, homes, and property and report to makeshift assembly centers at fairgrounds and racetracks. At Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California, detainees were jammed into hastily converted horse stalls until they could be transferred to permanent relocation centers.

The War Department moved internees to ten inland internment camps from California to Arkansas. All ten sites were located on barren, federally owned land, usually Indian reservations. The first evacuees were sent in June to Manzanar, California — a desolate, 6,000-acre site surrounded by guard towers, searchlights, machine-gun installations, and barbed-wire fencing. The internees endured boiling summer heat and frigid winter cold and sandstorms, confined without any recognition of their constitutional rights.

Each family was crammed into a spartan, 20-by- 20-foot uninsulated cabin. The residents tried to live as normally as possible, organizing farm plots, markets, schools, newspapers, and police and fire departments. Eisenhower, deeply troubled by the involuntary internment, resigned asWRAdirector. In 1943, many internees bristled when Dillon Meyer, Eisenhower’s replacement, forced all internees to undergo interrogation to establish their loyalty to the United States. About 8,500 internees, mostly young Nisei men, refused to forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor or indicate willingness to serve in the U.S. military forces; they were deemed disloyal and sent to a camp at Tule Lake, California. About 3,000 of those considered loyal were recruited into the 442d Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese military unit that battled bravely in Italy.

Many internment camps operated through the remainder of the war. The WRA found homes and jobs for 17,000 Japanese Americans in 1943. Late that year, Biddle pressed Roosevelt for accelerated releases of internees from the camps. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes warned Roosevelt in June, 1944, about the negative historical legacy of the detention centers. Stimson favored freeing the loyal Japanese Americans after the 1944 presidential election. The WRA had relocated about onequarter of the internees by August, 1945.

Constitutional Challenges

War Department officials observed anxiously as several lawsuits challenged the constitutionality of the relocation program. Surprisingly, only three cases involving Japanese Americans contesting the internment orders reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The three challengers came from varied backgrounds. Minoru Yasui, a lawyer and Army Reserve officer, broke the curfew order in Portland, Oregon. Gordon Hirabayashi, a Quaker pacifist and college student in Seattle, Washington, violated the curfew and exclusion orders on religious grounds. Fred Korematsu, a twenty-three-year-old American-born Nisei shipyard welder, dodged the exclusion order in San Leandro, California, and hoped to escape the West Coast with his Italian American friend.

In each case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the war powers granted to the president and Congress by the U.S. Constitution eclipsed the due process and equal protection claims of the three Japanese Americans. On June 24, 1943, the Court rendered unanimous decisions in Hirabayashi v. United States and Yasui v. United States supporting the government’s stance on the curfew orders (and avoiding the coerced evacuation and compulsory internment issues). In the former case, Justice Frank Murphy, however, warned that the relocation program tested constitutional powers by substantially restricting the personal liberty of American citizens based on the accident of race or ancestry.

An Army document defending the evacuation became an issue in Korematsu v. United States (1944). Colonel Bendetsen, DeWitt’s deputy, drafted the Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942. The 618-page report listed "military necessity” as DeWitt’s official explanation for the internment program. Justice Department lawyers initially saw the report in January, 1944, when preparing their briefs for the Korematsu case. The Final Report stirred a spirited debate between the Justice and War departments. Bendetsen cited hundreds of examples of subversive activities on theWest Coast in 1942 to defend the forced evacuation as both militarily necessary and constitutional. The Justice Department, however, soon discovered that Bendetsen had distorted his facts about a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) turning up more than sixty thousand rounds of ammunition and many rifles, shotguns, and maps that had come from a sporting goods store and about espionage involving supposedly illicit radio transmissions.

The Justice Department attorneys, in a footnote, sought to disavow the Final Report when arguing the Korematsu case. They questioned both the military’s factual assertions that the evacuation was a military necessity and the allegations of espionage, sabotage, and treason by the Japanese Americans. McCloy insisted that the footnote be deleted because it would shatter the consensus the Supreme Court had patched together in the other two cases and would probably prompt the Court to rule the entire relocation program unconstitutional. The top Justice Department officials yielded to McCloy’s pressure after two days of spirited debate and deleted the footnote, depriving the Court of grounds upon which to challenge the Final Report assertions. The Court otherwise might have ruled in Korematsu’s favor.

In the Korematsu case, the Supreme Court on December 18, 1944, upheld the detention program. The case provided the greatest challenge to the constitutionality of the evacuation program. Justice Hugo L. Black’s majority opinion affirmed Korematsu’s original conviction for violating the evacuation decree but carefully avoided ruling on the legality of his subsequent internment. Black argued that strict scrutiny must be given to all legal restrictions that curtail the civil rights of a single racial group and decided that military necessity provided ample grounds to believe that the government’s actions met the strict scrutiny test. Justices Roberts, Murphy, and Robert Jackson sharply dissented. Jackson protested that the Court majority was affirming the principle of racial discrimination.

The previous day, the West Coast military authorities rescinded DeWitt’s original evacuation order and permitted the remaining camp residents to reenter the Western Defense Command. Beginning in January, 1945, those Japanese Americans who had passed loyalty test screenings were gradually released from the camps. Several thousand who were considered disloyal were detained until after World War II ended.

Legacy of Shame

The internment of Japanese Americans left a legacy of shame. The Japanese American internees suffered about $400 million in property losses because of the evacuation. In 1948, Congress paid them a paltry $37 million in reparations. Four decades later, it responded to calls for redress by passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which awarded $20,000 in reparations to each detainee who was still alive. Meanwhile, the Commission onWartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians reviewed the factors that led to Executive Order 9066 and examined its consequences. In 1983, the commission concluded that "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” by the Roosevelt administration led to Executive Order 9066 and a "grave injustice” to Japanese Americans.

The commission’s findings and newly discovered evidence from government files prompted legal efforts to remove the criminal records of the wartime defendants. A federal judge rescinded Korematsu’s conviction, holding that the Supreme Court had approved Roosevelt’s order on the basis of "unsubstantiated facts, distortions, and misrepresentations” to the Court by high-ranking officials. In 1998, President Bill Clinton bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Korematsu. The detention undermined the cultural authority of the elderly Issei, liberated their Nisei children from provincial tradition and cultural isolation, and expedited the Nisei’s assimilation into the larger society. Younger Japanese Americans rapidly ascended the ladder of social mobility and became among the besteducated Americans, with incomes substantially above the national average. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 created what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) termed "the greatest deprivation of civil liberties by government in this country since slavery.” Roosevelt mobilized the country for ultimate victory inWorldWar II, but the internment program remains a stigma on his wartime record.

The Japanese internment decried American ideals of justice. The ceaseless uneasiness of government officials with their own policy and the cautious manner with which the Supreme Court treated the evacuation cases testify to the awkwardness with which American culture dealt with the internment incident. The internment of Japanese Americans refuted the nation’s best image of itself as a tolerant, inclusive, fair-minded melting pot society— a vision long nourished in American lore and one strongly reaffirmed by the World War II conflict.

David L. Porter

Further Reading

Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983. The commission concluded that "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” resulted in "grave injustice” to the Japanese Americans.

Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Describes and analyzes the decision to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast, their confinement, their reaction to their unjust treatment, and the repercussions of the internment.

Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. Questions whether racism, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership fully explain the U.S. government incarceration of Japanese Americans and offers revealing new interpretations of their internment.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Well-researched work examining the Yasui, Hirabayashi, and Korematsu court cases, exposing the government’s coverup of data that could have disproved its claims of "military necessity” for evacuation and internment.

Ng, Wendy. Japanese American Internment During World War II: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. This reference work provides six thematic essays on the history and meaning of the Japanese internment, short biographies of the major personalities in the internment, and a selection of primary documents.

Tateishi, John, ed. And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps. New York: Random House, 1984. This poignant, bitter, inspiring oral history gives the personal recollections and experiences of thirty Japanese Americans who were part of the only group of American citizens ever confined to detention camps in the United States.

War Department. Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from theWest Coast, 1942.Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1943. This report, requested by JohnDeWitt, lists "military necessity” as the official government explanation for the evacuation and internment.

See also: Anti-Japanese movement; Asian American literature; Hawaii; Japanese American press; Japanese immigrants; Japanese Peruvians; Loyalty oaths; Oregon; Prisoners of war in the United States; World War II.

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