Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was a great deal of anger and fear towards Japanese Americans.
Less than eight weeks later, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942) authorizing the Secretary of War and U.S. armed forces commanders to declare areas of the United States as military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded,” although it did not name any nationality or ethnic group. It was eventually applied to one-third of the land area of the U.S. (mostly in the West) and was used against those with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” — Japanese, Italians, and Germans. In March of 1942, the War Relocation Authority was created to: “Take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”
Even before the Japanese-Americans were relocated, their livelihoods were seriously threatened when all accounts in American branches of Japanese banks were frozen.
On May 19, 1942, western Japanese Americans were forced to move into relocation camps by Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1, 8 Fed. Reg. 982.
More than 120,000 American Japanese were taken from their homes and put in ten “relocation centers” and several prisons in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming. Three categories of internees were created: Nisei (native U.S. citizens of Japanese immigrant parents), Issei (Japanese immigrants), and Kibei (native U.S. citizens educated largely in Japan).
These Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools. None of them were ever charged of any crime against the United States.
In desert camps, the evacuees met severe extremes of temperature. In winter it reached 35 degrees below zero, and summer brought temperatures as high as 115 degrees. Rattlesnakes and desert wildlife added danger to discomfort. At Gila, there were 7,700 people crowded into space designed for 5,000. They were housed in messhalls, recreation halls, and even latrines. As many as 25 persons lived in a space intended for four.” (Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.)
The Supreme Court delayed challenges to the mass incarceration until after the 1944 presidential election. Reeves quotes Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy in a memo declaring, “We can cover the legal situation . . . in spite of the Constitution. Why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”
It was not as if there were a great deal of sympathy for the Japanese in any event. Governor Chase Clark of Idaho declared: “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats.” Nels Smith, Governor of Wyoming, told the Director of the War Relocation Authority, “If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree.”
Reeves tells the story of the incarceration not only in terms of the officials who perpetrated the injustice or the heroes who fought against it, but also by relating the stories of the families themselves and what they endured. As he notes:
This is an American story of enduring themes: racism and greed, injustice and denial – and then soul-searching, an apology, and the most American of coping mechanisms, moving on.”
But in fact, few of the American Japanese affected by this process were able to return to their prewar lives. They had lost their money and property – losses were estimated by the government as more than $200 million in 1942 – as well as their jobs and their reputations.
Nevertheless, and importantly, Reeves emphasizes:
Through it all, the desert heat and windstorms and bitter cold, the breakdowns and suicides, the overwhelming majority of the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States.”
In Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), the United States Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, ruled that the exclusion order was constitutional. The opinion, written by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu’s individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.
Justice Frank Murphy dissented, saying that the exclusion of Japanese “falls into the ugly abyss of racism,” and compared the rationale for the Japanese exclusion to that supporting “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.” He also compared the treatment of Japanese Americans, on the one hand, with persons of German and Italian ancestry, on the other, as evidence that race, rather than the emergency alone, led to the exclusion order which Korematsu was convicted of violating.
His stirring closing paragraph reads:
I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”
On December 17, 1944, Public Proclamation No. 21, effective January 2, 1945, allowed evacuees to return home, just ahead of two new Supreme Court decisions finding that citizens should be allowed to go home after proving their loyalty.
In order to rejoin society, each individual received a $25 payment and transportation tickets at the time of release.
In 1982, law professor Peter Irons found that the Justice Department had withheld or destroyed evidence before the Korematsu case reached the Supreme Court. He assembled a team of Japanese american lawyers who successfully petitioned for the dismissal of charges against Korematsu forty years before by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 1990, reparations were made to surviving internees and their heirs in the form of a formal apology by the U.S. government and a check for $20,000.
Evaluation: This is an important story about which too many Americans are unaware. In addition, as Reeves quotes one veteran and local historian,
This is a great nation, and we’ve done many wonderful things. … This isn’t one of them, and we always need to be mindful of how we treat and how we interact with each other.”
Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2015