by John Lee ’02
Too often we look back with shock and disbelief at nations
like Germany during WWII, and wonder how a seemingly “civilized” country
could have helped cause the Holocaust. We as Americans, living under
the upright laws of the Constitution, can never imagine such heinous
crimes against mankind taking place in our virtuous nation of democracy
and equality. Unfortunately, we often fail to recall our nation’s own
history, with its brutal treatment of Native Americans and it’s enslavement
of countless numbers of Africans. We forget the plight of thousands
of people whose futures we have destroyed through our own reckless deeds.
Although our nation has never witnessed an event like the Holocaust
within its borders, there was a time when such brutality could have
been an American reality.
Following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December
7, 1941, the United States entered one of its darkest moments in history.
After officially declaring war on the Japanese Empire, the American
government decided to strike its first blow by lashing out at fellow
citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry living in the United
States. A movement of tremendous proportion soon commenced, and resulted
in the incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans. They were moved
into 10 wartime communities constructed in remote areas between the
Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mississippi River. Ironically, over
70 percent of the imprisoned Japanese were American citizens. Executive
Order 9066 was signed in 1942, making this movement official government
policy. The order suspended the writ of habeas corpus and denied Japanese
Americans their rights under the Fifth Amendment, which states that
no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due
process. Roosevelt justified the order on the grounds of military necessity,
declaring that Japanese Americans were a threat to national security.
Anti-Japanese sentiments had been developing in the U.S.
long before WWII had even begun. To most Americans in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century, all Asian immigrants posed a threat to
the American standard of living and to the racial integrity of the nation.
“These attitudes were not seen as racist at the time, but simply American”1.
Legislation as early as the 1850’s exclusively singled out Asian Americans
and barred them from many of the rights that were granted to other white
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, American naval officials
were unwilling to admit any form of ineptitude on the part of the U.S.
military; therefore as an alternate scapegoat, they blamed the surprise
bombing on the treachery of Japanese Americans living in Hawaii. In
the days that followed, a barrage of stories was printed in the news
slandering the Japanese natives living both in the islands and on the
mainland. The following headlines were taken from the Los Angeles
Times following the incident:
FLASHES MESSAGE ASHORE
WITH MAPS AND ALIEN LITERATURE SEIZED
CAMERA HELD IN BAY CITY
JAP MENACE (2)
After a great deal of pressure from his cabinet, President
Roosevelt decided to accept a mass evacuation plan that would forever
uproot the lives of thousands of people. On February 19, 1942, what
many have called “a day of infamy”, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive
Order 9066 which initiated the confinement of the Japanese Americans
into concentration camps. The term “concentration camp”, initially used
to describe Japanese living quarters later became discontinued after
the discovery of Nazi camps in Europe. Forced to sell their homes and
businesses at great losses, Japanese Americans were compelled to move
into areas that initially had very little to support them. The poorly
constructed camps were surrounded by barbed wire and were heavily guarded
by troops who had guns pointed at the Japanese internees, undoubtedly,
a strikingly similar arrangement to the Jewish concentration camps in
Europe. Although the death toll did not number as high as it did in
the Nazi controlled areas, the few Japanese Americans who were “accidentally”
killed by American troops were “just as dead as the millions of Jews
who were killed deliberately by the Germans…”(3)
Through a series of proclamations beginning in 1942, Japanese-Americans
were officially labeled “enemy aliens”, and were restricted to remain
in highly defined military zones. Although martial law was not declared,
military generals were permitted to make orders at the Japanese internees
and punish those who did not comply. They were treated as traitors who
had committed an unspeakable wrong, despite even the numerous times
American officials gave notice to the loyalty displayed by most of the
Eventual removal of Japanese prisoners from concentration
camps took over four years. There were debates as to leaving a number
of them in the camps because they had exhibited disloyalty to the U.S.,
a nation that had unfairly held them prisoner for several years.
A huge injustice was committed against a people who had
done nothing to deserve this treatment. There only flaw was to be born
into a country that did not accept them. This incident was merely a
“link in a chain of racism” that had begun half a century ago, when
whites and Asians first confronted the idea of living together in America.
These abuses against Japanese Americans cannot be forgotten. The importance
of acknowledging this dark moment in America’s past is to realize that
the possibility for racially motivated acts by individuals and even
by the government of the U.S. is an undeniable reality.
This sad moment exemplifies just how far people can go
Roger Daniels, Prisoners without Trial
Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese
American Internment Cases (London: Oxford University Press, 1983.