Unfounded fears that Japanese American citizens might sabotage the war effort led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order that all Americans of Japanese descent be forced into internment camps.

Overview

  • President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 resulted in the relocation of 112,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast into internment camps during the Second World War.
  • Japanese Americans sold their businesses and houses for a fraction of their value before being sent to the camps. In the process, they lost their livelihoods and much of their lifesavings.
  • In Korematsu v. United States (1944) the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of internment. In 1988, the United States issued an official apology for internment and compensated survivors.

Executive Order 9066

In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the Secretary of War to declare certain areas within the United State as military zones, and to restrict access to those areas on the grounds of wartime military necessity. The president’s order came less than three months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, amid concerns that Japanese American citizens might pose a threat to national security. These concerns were driven by public hysteria grounded in racism and false reports of sabotage and collaboration with the enemy.
Posters ordered Japanese American citizens to report for internment. Image courtesy National Archives.
Under the Executive Order, some 112,000 Japanese Americans—79,000 of whom were American citizens—were removed from the West Coast and placed into ten internment camps located in remote areas. Japanese Americans were given only a few days' notice to report for internment, and many had to sell their homes and businesses for much less than they were worth. In so doing, they lost much of what they had accrued in the course of their lives.1^1
The camps—like the one at Manzanar, California, located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains—were surrounded by fences, barbed wire, guard towers, searchlights and machine guns. Families incarcerated in the camps lived in uninsulated cabins or converted stables. They occupied their enforced idleness by organizing schools and camp newspapers, by running barber or beauty shops, and more. A small number were cleared for work outside the camps.2^2
Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945
Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.
Japanese Americans were ordered to leave the "Exclusion Area" on the West Coast of the United States and to move to remote internment camps. Map courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Korematsu v. United States (1944)

Fred Korematsu was an American-born twenty-three-year-old welder of Japanese descent living in the San Francisco Bay area. In May 1942, he was arrested for failing to comply with the order for Japanese Americans to report to internment camps.3^3 With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Korematsu sued on the grounds that as an American citizen he had a right to live where he pleased.4^4 But in a 6-3 decision in Korematsu v. United States the Supreme Court ruled that interning Japanese Americans during the war for purposes of "military necessity" was constitutional.
Photograph of Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fred Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 1942, Korematsu refused to comply with the internment order and was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled against him, citing the "military necessity" of Japanese internment. Image courtesy Capital New Service.
In his dissenting opinion in Korematsu, Justice Frank Murphy asserted that the internment program “goes over ‘the very brink of constitutional power’ and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.” He added: “I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States.”5^5
In 1984, a federal court voided Korematsu’s conviction, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Fred Korematsu.6^6

Aftermath and redress

In the aftermath of the wartime internment, young Japanese Americans who had been interned went on to become among the best educated Americans, earning salaries more than a third above the national average.7^7
The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided financial redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee from the camps. In 2001, Congress made the ten internment sites historical landmarks, asserting that they “will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency."8^8

What do you think?

What were the consequences of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 for Japanese Americans?
What would you do if you and your family were suddenly told that you had to leave your home and jobs to live in an internment camp?
What lessons can we learn from the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War that we can apply to today’s world? How can we assure that such actions against an entire class of people never happen again?
Article written by John Louis Recchiuti. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. On internment, see Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and The Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2013), 339; Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, Harry H.L. Kitano, eds., Japanese Americans, from Relocation to Redress (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991); Wendy L. Ng, Japanese American Internment during World War II: A History and Reference Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002).
  2. See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 754.
  3. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 756.
  4. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 757.
  5. “Abyss of racism . . .” quoted in Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese-American Internment Cases (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 335. “I dissent . . .” quoted in Otis Stephens and John Scheb, American Constitutional Law, v. 1 (Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2008), 224.
  6. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 759.
  7. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 760.
  8. William Yoshino and John Tateishi, "The Japanese American Incarceration: The Journey to Redress," excerpted from Human Rights, American Bar Association, Spring 2000.
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