President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The U.S. government relocated more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens, to internment camps during World War II. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the face of constitutional guarantees to equal treatment before the law for all citizens but pressured by national security concerns, signed the order of internment. Following the internments, the courts, the public, and the government came to recognize the relocations as racism.

Summary of Event

On December 7, 1941, Japanese warplanes bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On the following day, the United States declared war with Japan. The declaration soon was followed by a fear that persons of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast could assist Japan in attacking the U.S. mainland or could commit acts of sabotage. The U.S. government prepared a study of the issue for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. [kw]Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans, President (Feb. 19, 1942) [kw]Internment of Japanese Americans, President Roosevelt Orders (Feb. 19, 1942) [kw]Japanese Americans, President Roosevelt Orders Internment of (Feb. 19, 1942) Japanese American internment Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Japanese American internment[Japanese American internment] World War II[World War 02];Japanese American internment Japanese American internment Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Japanese American internment[Japanese American internment] World War II[World War 02];Japanese American internment [g]United States;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Racism;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Government;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Espionage;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Law and the courts;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] [c]Military;Feb. 19, 1942: President Roosevelt Orders Internment of Japanese Americans[00680] Stimson, Henry L. DeWitt, John L. Hirabayashi, Gordon Kiyoshi Korematsu, Fred Yasui, Minoru Endo, Mitsuye

Entrance gate to the Manzanar War Relocation Center near Independence, California, along the eastern Sierra Nevada.

(Library of Congress)

The study, submitted to Roosevelt at the end of January, 1942, claimed that persons who might be loyal to Japan, including second-generation Japanese Americans, constituted an unacceptable risk in the western United States. Despite opposition from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, the president decided that “successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.” On February 19, he issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, to appoint a military commander to identify areas of the United States that should be placed under special restrictions. These restrictions included the relocation and interment of those deemed a threat to national security.

On February 20, Stimson appointed Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt as the commander of the Western Defense Command Western Defense Command, comprising the three Pacific Coast states and Arizona. On March 2, DeWitt designated two military areas within the four states as subject to later restrictions. On March 18, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9102, creating the War Relocation Authority, which was tasked with organizing the relocation of persons whose loyalty to the United States was questioned. On March 21, Congress criminalized violations of the orders of the president, the war secretary, or the military commander of the Western Defense Command.

Effective March 27, DeWitt ordered an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for “alien enemies” of German, Italian, and Japanese ancestry and for all Japanese Americans in southern Arizona and the coastal areas of California, Oregon, and Washington. Orders were issued the same day requiring these newly classified “enemies” to report to designated sites, pending reassignment to detention camps.

The Japanese internees, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, had no alternative but to comply and to sell all their possessions, including businesses and properties, before reporting to Civil Control Stations such as that at Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, south of San Francisco. At Tanforan, the internees were housed in stables before being transported to various internment camps. Some thirty thousand internees were allowed, on a case-by-case basis, to leave the camps to live in states outside the military-controlled area during the war.

Some Japanese Americans, however, refused to comply with the orders, which they believed were unconstitutional. Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, disobeyed the curfew and refused to report to the designated Civil Control Station in Seattle. Minoru Yasui, a graduate of the University of Oregon, disobeyed the curfew order in Portland. After the two were arrested and convicted, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;and Japanese American internment[Japanese American internment] Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously on June 21, 1943, that a rational basis existed for the curfew and the relocation orders. In its Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) Hirabayashi v. United States and Yasui v. United States Yasui v. United States (1943) rulings, the Court reasoned that the orders reflected the government’s urgent need to act to prevent domestic acts of sabotage as well as a possible Japanese invasion of the U.S. mainland.

The Court would rule in other cases, but with a different legal outlook. Fred Korematsu, a resident of Oakland, California, had challenged the relocation order by refusing to report to Tanforan and be separated from his Italian American girlfriend. Mitsuye Endo of Sacramento, California, also had challenged her relocation order after being detained at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Central California. The Court issued rulings in both cases on December 18, 1944. Two days earlier, Japanese American soldiers, many of whom had been allowed to enlist in the Army after their relocation, fought bravely as members of the 442d Regiment, which notably relieved an American unit that had been trapped behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge.

Although the Court upheld the validity of Korematsu’s relocation order, the vote in the case of Korematsu v. United States (1944) Korematsu v. United States was 6-3, and the majority changed the basis of its decision from a rational-basis test to a rigid-scrutiny test, arguing that “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect.” Although the majority ruled that national security considerations met the rigid-scrutiny test, dissenting justices decried the orders. It concluded that “racial discrimination of this nature bears no reasonable relation to military necessity and is utterly foreign to the ideals and traditions of the American people.”

Endo insisted on pressing her case, even though she had been offered resettlement east of the military area. The Court, in Ex parte Mitsuyo Endo, unanimously ruled that Endo should be discharged from the relocation center to return home to Sacramento. In accordance with War Relocation Authority procedures, officials at the relocation centers had to segregate internees who were loyal from those who were disloyal. Endo had been one of the many considered loyal, so her petition for release from confinement was granted. However, by this time, all internees were free to leave. The camps were shut down beginning January 2, 1945, when the order was rescinded.


In 1948, Congress had authorized some monetary compensation for those who had been interned. Third-generation Japanese Americans, however, considered the 1948 compensations insufficient and pressured Congress for more action. In 1980, Congress set up the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians Civilians to study the matter. On February 24, 1983, the commission’s report, Personal Justice Denied, recommended further redress, characterizing the internment as “unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity.”

On November 10, 1983, Korematsu’s conviction was overturned in a federal court, which found that the federal government had knowingly altered, suppressed, and withheld important and relevant information from the Supreme Court in its earlier case on Korematsu. Hirabayashi’s convictions were reversed as well in later rulings.

In 1988, Congress officially apologized for its actions, which, it agreed, were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” It authorized $1.2 billion in reparations to survivors of the internment camps, amounting to $20,000 (at minimum) for each former detainee. In 1992, when Congress provided an additional $400 million in benefits because the $1.2 billion fund had run out, President Bush, George H. W. George H. W. Bush issued another official apology.

The most important legal impact was to establish the principle of “strict scrutiny,” that is, that no government action or law can ever treat individuals in a different matter on the basis of ancestry or race. Although national security considerations met that test during World War II, separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites in the South, for example, did not. Korematsu’s case, therefore, provided a foundation for dismantling racial segregation throughout the United States after the war. Ten years later was the landmark Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Brown v. Board of Education, which began the desegregation of public schools. Japanese American internment Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Japanese American internment[Japanese American internment] World War II[World War 02];Japanese American internment

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boehm, Randolph, ed. Papers of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1984. Indexes most documentary resources on the subject, as stored on microfilm reels. These documents were consulted by the commission before it issued its report.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1992. The report, summarizing findings and making many recommendations that were later implemented by congressional legislation, was published in 1997 by the University of Washington Press. Foreword by internee Tetsuden Kashima.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. A revised edition that attempts to explain why Japanese Americans were victims of considerable prejudice. The author also discusses the relocation experience and the redress movement that culminated in payments to victims and official apologies after 1980.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Houston, Jean Wakatsuki, and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During World War II. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Houston’s now-classic personal account of being uprooted, at the age of seven, with her family and being housed at an internment camp. Written from the perspective of an elementary-school child. An oft-used school resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tateishi, John. And Justice for All: An Oral History of the Japanese American Detention Camps. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999. Interviews with thirty Japanese people who were detained in internment camps during World War II. Although the book was originally published in 1994, the author provides a 1999 afterword that updates the lives of the thirty interviewees.

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Categories: History