Seventy years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the decree that authorized the exclusion and imprisonment of 110,000 West Coast residents of Japanese descent.
Citing “military necessity” following the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, FDR issued the order amid wartime hysteria and unfounded fears of fifth-column espionage along the country’s Pacific coast. The order, unsurprisingly, created its own kind of quiet fear and hysteria among those targeted, who were rounded up and relocated without trial or hearing. Two-thirds of them were American citizens, U.S.-born children of Japanese immigrants who were far more interested in Clark Gable and Greta Garbo than in covertly serving Emperor Hirohito and General Tojo.
Evacuees were given a matter of days to prepare for their forced removal, first to temporary assembly centers located on the grounds of racetracks and fairgrounds, then to 10 hastily erected “internment camps” in remote, desolate pockets of the country such as Poston in the scorching Arizona desert and Heart Mountain in Wyoming. A mad scramble to sell off businesses and find storage for goods ensued, since individuals were allowed to bring with them only what they could carry. Many sold prized belongings for pennies on the dollar. Families destroyed letters, photographs, diaries and poems for fear that if their homes were searched, such materials would be considered evidence of loyalty to Japan — or proof of espionage.
Pearl Harbor allowed long-simmering racial tensions to come to an ugly boil. A Dec. 22, 1941, Life magazine feature titled “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese” reported that “U.S. citizens have been demonstrating a distressing ignorance on the delicate question of how to tell a Chinese from a Jap,” and thus were victimizing “our staunch allies” with “emotional outbursts.” Annotated photographs of General Tojo and a Chinese civil servant pointed out telltale differences between the two ethnicities: the “higher bridge,” “scant beard” and “parchment yellow complexion” of the Chinese compared with the “flatter nose,” “heavy beard” and “earthy yellow complexion” of the Japanese.
To understand how fear and hysteria precipitated one of the darkest chapters of American history, one needs to look back to the late 19th century, when Japanese immigration to the U.S. began. By the early 1900s, there were 150,000 Japanese immigrants living in the mainland United States, most of them on the West Coast. When Japanese farmers began buying up land, the welcome mat initially extended to the immigrants was ripped from under them. White commercial interests, labor unions and nativists began agitating against this newest wave of immigrants (just as they had done a decade earlier against Chinese newcomers). The Alien Land Act of 1913 put a stop to the ability of Japanese people to purchase land, ratcheting up tension between the U.S and Japan. The Immigration Act of 1921 halted all further Japanese immigration. By the 1930s, as Japan began its expansionist incursions in Manchuria and China, the American power elite increasingly viewed Japan as potential military and economic rival.
By providing the legal basis for FDR to bypass the constitutional rights of the imprisoned citizens, Executive Order 9066 ripped asunder Japanese farming and urban communities and split up families. FBI agents searched the homes of educators, businessmen, and community and religious leaders and sent them off to a separate network of FBI prison camps, including those in Crystal City, Texas, and Fort Lincoln near Bismarck, North Dakota.
The unconstitutional imprisonment played out against a power struggle between Secretary of State Francis Biddle and John DeWitt, head of the military’s Western Defense Command. Biddle argued for a limited exclusion zone around important military facilities, but DeWitt, aided by a rabid press and a political majority in favor of mass incarceration, prevailed. DeWitt warned residents that they “live in combat zones liable to air attack and invasion at any moment,” while Navy Secretary Frank Knox came back from his investigation of Pearl Harbor with unfounded reports of treachery by Japanese Hawaiians “from the shores and from the sampans.”
A detailed February 1941 State Department report on the loyalty of Japanese residents of Hawaii and the West Coast to the U.S. — which FDR had access to but ignored — found “a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group.” Many of the imprisoned Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) were desperate to prove their loyalty to the U.S. Indeed, they volunteered for military service in droves, giving rise to one of the bittersweet ironies of the war: the 4,000-member all-volunteer Japanese-American 100th Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat team, which fought bravely for its country even as that country violated the civil rights of other Japanese-Americans — including the parents of soldiers in the unit. Prison camps created “Honor Rolls” listing sons serving, and blue star banners were hung in barrack windows to signify a son or daughter in the service. (It should be noted that the 442nd became, for its size and length of service, the most decorated regiment in U.S. military history.)
There was, of course, some resistance. Three Nisei, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Fred Korematsu, were arrested in 1942 for defying Executive Order 9066, and their convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1943 and 1944. After documents came to light in the 1980s showing that the federal government had suppressed its finding that West Coast Japanese-Americans were not a threat to national security, the convictions of Yasui, Korematsu and Hirabayashi were overturned.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) to study Executive Order 9066 and its effects. In its report, the commission called this wartime chapter “the bitter history of an original mistake, a failure of America’s faith in its citizens’ devotion to their country’s cause and their right to liberty” that stemmed from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The result was the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Regan. The legislation accorded redress payments of $20,000 and a signed letter of apology from the president to each surviving prisoner. The experience of their forced removal and imprisonment has left many Japanese-Americans acutely aware of the fragility of any minority’s civil rights. In her book “Years of Infamy,” author Michi Weglyn reminded readers of “the very fragility of their rights against the exploding passions of their more numerous fellow citizens,” warning, “they who say that it can never happen again are probably wrong.”
Nancy Matsumoto is a Manhattan-based author who writes frequently on Japanese-American issues.