To All Persons of Japanese Ancestry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In February 1942, during the opening months of America's involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which specified that any persons or group of people that might be considered likely to commit acts of espionage could be relocated out of sensitive areas, mostly along the West Coast of the United States. Though general in wording, those who pushed for the order, such as General John L. DeWitt, were specific in their intent: the removal of all people from Japan or of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and their placement into internment camps for the duration of the war. By May 1942, the facilities were ready and the evacuation orders went up, giving the entire Japanese American community a few days in which to wrap up their affairs and report for relocation to internment camps, which were scattered across some of the most desolate areas of the American West.

Summary Overview

In February 1942, during the opening months of America's involvement in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which specified that any persons or group of people that might be considered likely to commit acts of espionage could be relocated out of sensitive areas, mostly along the West Coast of the United States. Though general in wording, those who pushed for the order, such as General John L. DeWitt, were specific in their intent: the removal of all people from Japan or of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and their placement into internment camps for the duration of the war. By May 1942, the facilities were ready and the evacuation orders went up, giving the entire Japanese American community a few days in which to wrap up their affairs and report for relocation to internment camps, which were scattered across some of the most desolate areas of the American West.

Defining Moment

Immigrants from Japan had faced discrimination ever since they first arrived on America's shores in the 1860s. Though many, by the early 1940s, owned small businesses and farms, they were still viewed with suspicion, especially in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Despite the fact that the children of Japanese immigrants (Nisei) had largely done everything they could to fit in to their homeland and become model citizens, when World War II broke out they were immediately viewed by many in the American military and government as a threat. Both Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, argued that the loyalty of the Nisei could not be trusted in the event of a Japanese invasion of the mainland United States, and that they were likely to aid and commit espionage on behalf of the Japanese military.

In response to this perceived threat, President Franklin D. Roosevelt followed Knox and DeWitt's recommendation, and issued Executive Order 9066, which would direct about 117,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans to report to detention camps for the duration of the war. DeWitt in particular, as the military commander of the entire West Coast, was able to exercise almost unlimited authority to remove anyone perceived as a threat. While the order did not specifically call out Japanese Americans, they were clearly the target, as no such wholesale removals of German Americans or Italian Americans were conducted (although German and Italian Americans were interned on a smaller scale around the country). DeWitt had made no secret of his fundamental distrust of Japanese Americans. Although President Roosevelt had received a report from Curtis B. Munson on December 20, 1941, that discussed the loyalty of the Nisei, the voices of the military commanders carried more weight during the early stages of the war, and the order authorizing DeWitt to detain the entire Japanese American community was issued.

Ten relocation (or internment) camps were set up throughout the West, nearly always in isolated areas far from the cities that were the focus of wartime production in the region. Once the facilities were ready, DeWitt wasted no time in carrying out the order. Japanese Americans were given very little time to settle their affairs, and had to leave everything for which they had worked their entire lives behind. There was no assessment of the loyalty of individual Japanese Americans, and they were not charged with any crime that would justify their detention. Rather, in a clear violation of their rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, they were summarily transported to the camps and detained until the conclusion of the war.

Author Biography

General John L. DeWitt, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, was commanding general of the Western Defense Command as America entered World War II, which placed him in charge of the security of the factories and facilities in the American West that provided much of America's war matériel. Between the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and February 1942, DeWitt discussed several different ideas for securing his region from possible acts of espionage, but eventually settled upon the wholesale exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the region. He considered the Nisei an especially vital threat, as he assumed they would ally with and assist the Japanese military should they stage an invasion of the US mainland. He recommended removal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued Executive Order 9066, which gave DeWitt the authority to remove all Japanese Americans from the coastal areas of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Historical Document

Western Defense Command and Fourth Army Wartime Civil Control Administration, Presidio of San Francisco, California

May 3, 1942

Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry Living in the Following Area:

All of that portion of the County of Alameda, State of California, within the boundary beginning at the point where the southerly limits of the City of Oakland meet San Francisco Bay; thence easterly and following the southerly limits of said city to U.S. Highway No. 50; thence southerly and easterly on said Highway No. 50 to its intersection with California State Highway No. 21; thence southerly on said Highway No. 21 to its intersection, at or near Warm Springs, with California State Highway No. 17; thence southerly on said Highway No. 17 to the Alameda-Santa Clara County line; thence westerly and following said county line to San Francisco Bay; thence northerly, and following the shoreline of San Francisco Bay to the point of Beginning.

Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34, this Headquarters, dated May 3, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o'clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 9, 1942.

No Japanese person living in the above area will be permitted to change residence after 12 o'clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 3, 1942, without obtaining special permission from the representative of the Commanding General, Northern California Sector, at the Civil Control

Station located at:

920 “C” Street,

Hayward, California.

Such permits will only be granted for the purpose of uniting members of a family, or in cases of grave emergency.

The Civil Control Station is equipped to assist the Japanese population affected by this evacuation in the following ways:

1. Give advice and instructions on the evacuation.

2. Provide services with respect to the management, leasing, sale, storage or other disposition of most kinds of property, such as real estate, business and professional equipment, household goods, boats, automobiles and livestock.

3. Provide temporary residence elsewhere for all Japanese in family groups.

4. Transport persons and a limited amount of clothing and equipment to their new residence.

The Following Instructions Must Be Observed:

1. A responsible member of each family, preferably the head of the family, or the person in whose name most of the property is held, and each individual living alone, will report to the Civil Control Station to receive further instructions. This must be done between 8:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M. on Monday, May 4, 1942, or between 9:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M. on Tuesday, May 5, 1942.

2. Evacuees must carry with them on departure for the Assembly Center, the following property:

(a) Bedding and linens (no mattress) for each member of the family;

(b) Toilet articles for each member of the family;

(c) Extra clothing for each member of the family;

(d) Sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls and cups for each member of the family;

(e) Essential personal effects for each member of the family.

All items carried will be securely packaged, tied and plainly marked with the name of the owner and numbered in accordance with instructions obtained at the Civil Control Station. The size and number of packages is limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group.

3. No pets of any kind will be permitted.

4. No personal items and no household goods will be shipped to the Assembly Center.

5. The United States Government through its agencies will provide for the storage, at the sole risk of the owner, of the more substantial household items, such as iceboxes, washing machines, pianos and other heavy furniture. Cooking utensils and other small items will be accepted for storage if crated, packed and plainly marked with the name and address of the owner. Only one name and address will be used by a given family.

6. Each family, and individual living alone, will be furnished transportation to the Assembly Center or will be authorized to travel by private automobile in a supervised group. All instructions pertaining to the movement will be obtained at the Civil Control Station.

Go to the Civil Control Station between the hours of 8:00 A. M. and 5:00 P. M., Monday, May 4, 1942, or between the hours of 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P. M., Tuesday, May 5, 1942, to receive further instructions.

J. L. DeWITT

Lieutenant General, U.S. Army

Commanding

Glossary

Presidio: a garrisoned fort; military post

pursuant: proceeding after; following

Document Analysis

Executive Order 9066 gave military leaders such as General DeWitt broad authority to remove whomever they perceived to be liable to commit acts of espionage or sabotage from any region they deemed essential to the war effort. The order did not require any concrete justification for the removal, and it gave military leaders equally broad discretion to determine how to deal with such detainees. That latitude can be seen in the evacuation order that DeWitt issued on May 3, 1942, “to all persons of Japanese ancestry” in the region around the San Francisco Bay area.

The initial part of the evacuation order details the geographic limits of the order and gives information about what Japanese Americans are supposed to do in the interim between the date of the order, May 3, 1942, and when they report for evacuation, at noon on May 9, 1942. Evacuees had until then to put their affairs in order. However, Japanese Americans were not to change residences without special permission, which would “only be granted for the purpose of uniting members of a family, or in cases of grave emergency.” The Civil Control Station, which oversaw the evacuation, was to provide assistance to Japanese Americans in dealing with their property during the evacuation and otherwise help unite families so as to ensure that they were evacuated together.

The order specified that one representative from each family was to report to the Civil Control Station for instructions. The order then lists the types of personal property Japanese Americans could bring with them to the camps: bedding, but not mattresses; toiletries; extra clothes, eating utensils and plates, and any other personal effects deemed essential. The next sentence was telling: “The size and number of packages is limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group.” The evacuees were not permitted to bring more than they could personally carry. Nothing could be shipped to the evacuees, and all personal property too large to be carried on their person to the camps would be stored by the federal government for the duration of the war.

Though a utilitarian document, the details of the order demonstrate the radical nature of the government's action—the wholesale detention and stripping of the constitutional rights of a group of people based entirely on their ethnicity rather than on any actions they had taken or specific cause to believe that they might assist the enemy.

Essential Themes

Following the order to evacuate, about 117,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave everything behind. Although the federal government had promised to help them secure their possessions, when many of them were released at the end of the war, they returned to find that others now owned their homes, farms, and property. For most of those relocated to the camps, returning home meant starting over, just as if they had owned nothing to begin with.

Many Japanese Americans, despite being deprived of their constitutional rights, nevertheless volunteered to fight. The all–Japanese American unit, the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team, was formed to fight in Europe. Over 4,000 volunteers from both Hawaii and the mainland reported for basic training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, in the spring of 1943. The regiment went on to become one of the most decorated units of the war.

Though still loyal to their country, many Japanese Americans felt a profound sense of betrayal because of their forced relocation. In response, a number of Japanese Americans challenged the legality of the internment in the courts, specifically in the cases of Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944). In the former case, a college student challenged a curfew placed on Japanese Americans before internment, and the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the Seattle area. The Supreme Court, however, only decided on the curfew, upholding it in a unanimous decision. In the latter case, better known as the Korematsu case, a Japanese American man defied the evacuation and exclusion order, and chose to stay in his home in San Leandro, California. The Supreme Court also upheld this decision, arguing that the power to suspend the constitutional rights of part of the population was included in the president's war power authority.

Japanese American loyalty to the United States did not waver, even in the face of immense and unfair hardship. They fought bravely in the armed forces, and those who remained in the camps contributed to the war effort in many of the same ways as other American citizens. It was not until the Civil Liberties Act was passed in 1988 that the United States formally apologized for interning the Japanese American community and paid $20,000 in compensation to all remaining internees.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Muller, Eric L. American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Rev. ed. Boston: Back Bay, 1998. Print.
  • Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1996. Print.
  • Yoo, David K. Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1929–49. Champagne: U of Illinois P, 2000. Print.
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