February, 1942: Japanese American Internment

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans lived on the Pacific coast of the United States. Roughly one-third of those were known as issei–foreign-born Japanese who had migrated before the exclusion of Japanese immigrants in 1924 and were barred from United States citizenship. The rest were nisei–their United States-born children who were U.S. citizens and for the most part strongly American-oriented. The government had in place plans for the arrest of enemy aliens whose loyalty was suspect in the event of war.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans lived on the Pacific coast of the United States. Roughly one-third of those were known as issei–foreign-born Japanese who had migrated before the exclusion of Japanese immigrants in 1924 and were barred from United States citizenship. The rest were nisei–their United States-born children who were U.S. citizens and for the most part strongly American-oriented. The government had in place plans for the arrest of enemy aliens whose loyalty was suspect in the event of war.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, approximately fifteen hundred suspect Japanese aliens were rounded up. Those not regarded as security risks were, along with German and Italian aliens, restricted from traveling without permission, barred from areas near strategic installations, and forbidden to possess arms, shortwave radios, or maps. The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, gave new impetus to the long-standing anti-Japanese sentiment held by many in the Pacific coast states. The result was loud demands from local patriotic groups, newspapers, and politicians for removal of all Japanese Americans. Leading the clamor was California State attorney general Earl Warren, who warned that their race made all Japanese Americans security risks.

Within the military, the lead in pushing for the roundup of Japanese Americans on the Pacific coast was taken by Major General Allen W. Gullion, the Army’s chief law enforcement officer as provost marshal general, in a bid at bureaucratic empire building. His key lieutenant in pushing this program was his ambitious aide, Major (later Colonel) Karl R. Bendetsen, chief of the Aliens Division of the provost marshal general’s office. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, the commander of the Army’s Western Defense Command, was an indecisive and easily pressured man with a history of anti-Japanese prejudice. At first, DeWitt opposed total removal of the Japanese Americans. By early February, 1942, however, he added his voice to the calls for such action. “In the war in which we are now engaged,” DeWitt would rationalize, “racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race.” He warned in apocalyptic terms about the dangers raised by the “continued presence of a large, unassimilated, tightly knit racial group, bound to an enemy nation by strong ties of race, culture, custom, and religion along a frontier vulnerable to attack.”

Those views were shared by his civilian superiors. The decisive figure was Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, who in turn brought Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to support total removal. Attorney General Francis Biddle and most Justice Department officials saw no necessity for mass evacuation, but Biddle yielded to the War Department on the issue. Most important, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, from motives of political expediency as much as from any anxiety over possible sabotage, gave his full backing to the military program.

On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to designate “military areas” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” Congress followed by adopting legislation in March making it a criminal offense for anyone excluded from a military area to remain there.

The Internment Camps

No one appeared to have given much thought to what would be done with the evacuees. At first, the military simply called upon the Japanese Americans living in the western parts of California, Oregon, and Washington, and in the strip of Arizona along the Mexican border, to leave voluntarily for the interior of the country. Resistance by interior communities to the newcomers led the Army to issue, on March 27, 1942, a freeze order requiring Japanese Americans to remain where they were. The next step was the issuance of orders requiring Japanese Americans to report to makeshift assembly centers pending transfer to more permanent facilities. By June, 1942, more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans had been evacuated. The evacuees were transferred from the assembly centers to ten permanent relocation camps in the interior, each holding between ten and eleven thousand persons, administered by the newly established War Relocation Authority (WRA).

Internees lining up at a Southern California assembly center in April, 1942, awaiting transportation to inland camps, where most of them would live through the duration of the war. (National Archives)

The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by armed military guards. The typical camp consisted of wooden barracks covered with tar paper, and each barrack was subdivided into one-room apartments–each furnished with army cots, blankets, and a light bulb–to which a family or unrelated group of individuals was assigned. Toilets and bathing, laundry, and dining facilities were communal. Religious worship (except for the practice of Shinto) was allowed. Schools were later opened for the young people. Although the evacuees grew some of their own food and even undertook small-scale manufacturing projects, most found no productive outlets in the camps for their energies and talents. The WRA promoted the formation of camp governments to administer the day-today life of the camps, but those governments lacked meaningful power and rapidly lost the respect of camp populations.

Conditions in the Camps

Conditions were at their worst, and the resulting tensions at their height, at the Tule Lake, California, relocation center, which became a dumping ground for those from other camps regarded as troublemakers. The upshot was terror-enforced domination of the camp by a secret group of pro-Japan militants.

A nisei recalled poignantly the scene of the evacuees being taken off to a camp: “The sight of hundreds of people assembled with assorted baggage, lined up to board the buses at the embarkation point, with rifle-bearing soldiers standing around as guards, is still imprinted in memory. And I can still remember the acute sense of embitterment. …” Life in the camps, said another, held evils that “lie in something more subtle than physical privations. It lies more in that something essential [is] missing from our lives. … The most devastating effect upon a human soul is not hatred but being considered not human.”

At first, Dillon S. Myer, the director of the WRA from June, 1942, on, regarded the relocation centers as simply “temporary wayside stations.” In 1943, the WRA instituted a program of releasing evacuees against whom there was no evidence of disloyalty, who had jobs waiting away from the Pacific coast, and who could show local community acceptance. By the end of 1944, approximately thirty-five thousand evacuees had left the camps under this release program. The Roosevelt administration had, by the spring of 1944, recognized that there was no longer any possible military justification for the continued exclusion of Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast. To avoid any possible political backlash, however, the Roosevelt administration waited until after the 1944 presidential election to announce the termination of the exclusion order and allow nearly all of those still in the relocation centers to leave at will. Many of the evacuees, fearful of a hostile reception on the outside, continued to cling to the camps. In June, 1945, the WRA decided to terminate the camps by the end of the year and later imposed weekly quotas for departure, to be filled by compulsion if required.

A dust storm envelopes the Manzanar, California, internment camp in the eastern Sierras, where internees had to endure harsh weather conditions. (National Archives)


The evacuation and internment was a traumatic blow to the Japanese American population. Since evacuees were allowed to bring with them only clothes, bedding, and utensils, most sold their possessions for whatever they could get. Only slightly more than half of the evacuees returned to the Pacific coast, and most found their homes, businesses, and jobs lost. Japanese Americans suffered income and property losses estimated at $350 million. Of even longer-lasting impact were the psychological wounds. Internment dealt a heavy blow to the traditional Japanese family structure by undermining the authority of the father. Many nisei, eager to show their patriotism, volunteered for service in the United States military. The Japanese American One Hundredth Infantry Battalion and 422d Regimental Combat Team were among the Army’s most-decorated units. On the other hand, more than five thousand nisei were so embittered by their experiences that they renounced their U.S. citizenship. Thousands more would carry throughout their lives painful, even shameful, memories from the years spent behind the barbed wire.

Defenders of civil liberties were appalled at how weak a reed the U.S. Supreme Court proved to be in the war crisis. The first challenge to the treatment suffered by the Japanese Americans to reach the Court involved Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington who had been imprisoned for refusing to obey a curfew imposed by General DeWitt and then failing to report to an assembly center for evacuation. Dodging the removal issue, the Court on June 21, 1943, unanimously upheld the curfew. Refusing to second-guess the military, the Court found reasonable the conclusion by the military authorities that “residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.” On December 18, 1944, a six-to-three majority in Korematsu v. United States upheld the exclusion of the Japanese from the Pacific coast as a similarly reasonable military precaution. The Court, in the companion case of Ex parte Endo handed down the same day, however, barred continued detention of citizens whose loyalty had been established. The ruling’s substantive importance was nil, because it was handed down one day after the announcement of the termination of the order barring Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast.

The Supreme Court never formally overruled its Hirabayashi and Korematsu rulings. Later decisions, however, transmuted Korematsu into a precedent for applying so-called “strict scrutiny” to classifications based upon race or national origin–that is, that such classifications can be upheld only if required by a compelling governmental interest. Pressure from the Japanese-American community led Congress in 1981 to establish a special Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment to review the internment program. The commission report concluded that the internment was not justified by military necessity, but had resulted from race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership. At the same time, petitions were filed in federal courts to vacate the criminal convictions of resisters to the evacuation. The climax was the unanimous decision by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1987–which the government declined to appeal to the Supreme Court–vacating Gordon Hirabayashi’s curfew violation conviction on the ground that the order had been “based upon racism rather than military necessity.” In 1988, Congress voted a formal apology along with $1.25 billion in compensation to surviving internment victims.