Japanese Incarceration – Executive Order 9066 (1942)

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 immigrants.

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:





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 Japanese Americans.

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

Recommended Works:

Roger Daniels, Prisoners without Trial

Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (London: Oxford University Press, 1983.