United States Interns Japanese Americans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The forced removal and internment during World War II of approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific coast was one of the gravest violations of civil liberties in United States history.

Summary of Event

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Pearl Harbor, Japanese attack on on December 7, 1941, there were approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans living on the Pacific coast of the United States. Roughly one-third of those were the 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 the Nisei—the U.S.-born children of the Issei 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. Executive Order 9066[Executive Order 09066] Internment camps, U.S. Racial and ethnic discrimination;Japanese Americans Japanese Americans, internment of [kw]United States Interns Japanese Americans (Feb. 19, 1942-1945) [kw]Japanese Americans, United States Interns (Feb. 19, 1942-1945) Executive Order 9066[Executive Order 09066] Internment camps, U.S. Racial and ethnic discrimination;Japanese Americans Japanese Americans, internment of [g]North America;Feb. 19, 1942-1945: United States Interns Japanese Americans[00460] [g]United States;Feb. 19, 1942-1945: United States Interns Japanese Americans[00460] [c]World War II;Feb. 19, 1942-1945: United States Interns Japanese Americans[00460] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Feb. 19, 1942-1945: United States Interns Japanese Americans[00460] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 19, 1942-1945: United States Interns Japanese Americans[00460] Gullion, Allen Bendetsen, Karl R. DeWitt, John L. Warren, Earl McCloy, John Jay Stimson, Henry L. Biddle, Francis [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Japanese American internment Myer, Dillon S.

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 Gullion, the Army’s provost marshal general, or chief law enforcement officer. Gullion’s key lieutenant in pushing this program was his ambitious aide, Major (later Colonel) Karl R. Bendetsen Bendetsen, Karl R. , 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 had added his voice to the calls for such action. “In the war in which we are now engaged,” DeWitt rationalized, “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 DeWitt’s civilian superiors. The decisive figure was Assistant Secretary of War John Jay 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.

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 100,000 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 War Relocation Authority, U.S. (WRA). 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, the Japanese national religion) 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-to-day life of the camps, but those governments lacked meaningful power and rapidly lost the respect of camp populations.

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 military justification for the continued exclusion of the 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 necessary.

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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 U.S. military. The Japanese American 100th 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, Hirabayashi v. United States (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 6-3 majority in Korematsu v. United States Korematsu v. United States (1944) upheld the exclusion of the Japanese from the Pacific coast as a similarly reasonable military precaution. However, the Court—in the companion case of Ex parte Endo Ex parte Endo (1944) , handed down the same day—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 has never formally overruled its decisions in Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States. Later rulings, however, transmuted Korematsu into a precedent for applying so-called strict scrutiny to classifications based upon race or national origin: It was determined that such classifications could be upheld only if required by a compelling governmental interest. Pressure from the Japanese American community led Congress in 1981 to establish the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment, U.S. to review the internment program.

The commission’s report concluded that the internment was not justified by military necessity, but had resulted from racial 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.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Donald E. Native American Aliens: Disloyalty and the Renunciation of Citizenship by Japanese Americans During World War II. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. An in-depth examination of conditions in the relocation camp at Tule Lake, California. Attempts to explain the forces responsible for the renunciation of United States citizenship by more than five thousand Nisei.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conn, Stetson, Rose C. Engelman, and Byron Fairchild. The United States Army in World War II: Guarding the United States and Its Outposts. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1964. In their chapter “Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast,” Conn and his coauthors were the first to exploit the rich body of records in the National Archives documenting the decision-making process culminating in Japanese American removal. They found that the evidence failed to support the argument that military necessity required mass evacuation; they were the first to reveal the key roles played by Gullion and Bendetsen. All later accounts have built upon this pioneering work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps U.S.A.: Japanese Americans and World War II. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972. A handy survey that succinctly covers the history of anti-Japanese feeling on the Pacific coast, the decision for evacuation, the constitutional issues before the Supreme Court, and camp life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Decision to Relocate the Japanese Americans. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975. The first fifty-five pages detail step-by-step the decision-making process culminating in the decision for mass evacuation of the Japanese Americans. The author concludes that political pressures were at least as important as considerations of military security. Appended are selections from the documentary record, drawn largely from the National Archives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fremon, David K. Japanese-American Internment in American History. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1996. Geared toward junior high and high school students, this book includes personal accounts of Japanese Americans. Chronology, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Inada, Lawson Fusao, ed. Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2000. This anthology collects from a variety of sources, including poetry, letters, photographs, and government documents, to illuminate the Japanese American experience. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kitano, Harry H. L. Japanese Americans: The Evolution of a Subculture. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1976. The author, a Japanese American who was interned as an adolescent, blames what he terms the “enryo syndrome” (enryo being the Japanese word meaning restraint, shyness, or submissiveness) for the passivity shown by most of the evacuees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. Scholarly examination of Roosevelt’s troubling role in the internment of Japanese Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Dorothy S., and Richard S. Nishimoto. The Spoilage: Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement During World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946. This work, along with its companion volume by Thomas, The Salvage: Japanese-American Evacuation and Resettlement (1952) was a product of the University of California’s Japanese America and Resettlement Study set up in early 1942. Project leaders have been criticized for agreeing, in return for government cooperation, not to say anything about the camps during the war. The first book is a study of the Nisei who renounced their United States citizenship; the second volume consists of life histories of evacuees who were resettled in the Midwest and East.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996. This revised and expanded edition provides a comprehensive account of America’s internment camps. Bibliography.

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