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The day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, a blanket presidential warrant authorized by U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle allowed the FBI arrest a predetermined number of "dangerous enemy aliens," including German, Italian, and Japanese nationals. An astonishing 737 Japanese Americans were arrested by the end of the day. By December 11, the FBI detained an additional 1,370 Japanese Americans classified as "dangerous enemy aliens."


The ethnic hatred was fanned by scurrilous journalism, pressure groups, politicians, and even the United States Army. Louisiana Congressman Leland Ford exclaimed, "I do not believe that we could be any too strict in our consideration of the Japanese in the face of the treacherous way in which they do things." On January 28, the California State Personnel Board voted to bar all "descendants of natives with whom the United States [is] at war" from all civil service positions -- but the act was enforced only against Japanese Americans. By February 16, 2,192 Japanese Americans were under arrest by the FBI.


Image:JapaneseRelocationNewspapers1942.gifThis ground-swell of carefully orchestrated distaste for Japanese Americans culminated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This called for the exclusion and internment of all Japanese Americans on the West Coast -- where the majority lived, outside of Hawaii. The only significant opposition would come from the Quakers (The Society of Friends) and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).


The exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans began in March 1942 with Roosevelt's creation of The War Relocation Authority, or WRA. During the first phase, internees were transported on trains and busses under military guard to the 12 hastily prepared temporary detention centers in California and one in Oregon. At these facilities detainees were housed in livestock stalls or crowded, windowless shacks that lacked electricity or even basic sanitation facilities. Food was in short supply.


The second phase began midsummer and involved moving approximately 500 deportees daily from the temporary detention centers to permanent camps surrounded with barbed wire and guard towers. Guards were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to leave. These camps were located in remote, uninhabitable areas.


Japanese Americans filed lawsuits to stop the mass incarceration, but the wartime courts supported the hysteria. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hirabayashi v U.S., Yasui v U.S. , and Korematsu v U.S. that the denial of civil liberties based on race and national origin were legal. In a later, contradictory ruling in Endo v U.S. the Supreme Court decided that a loyal citizen could not be detained, but this did not stop the internment.


Conditions in the camps, even by the standards of the day, were inexcusable. The structures consisted of tar paper buildings with no insulation. There was no privacy with several families living together in each structure. Meals were taken communally. Those forced into the camps lost their homes and businesses -- not to mention their possessions. They suffered the loss of faith in the government and the humiliation of being confined as traitors in their own country. And finally, many were used for free labor. In June of 1942, 1600 detainees were sent from assembly and relocation centers to fill sugar beet labor shortages in Oregon, Utah, Idaho, and Montana -- and by October over 8000 detainees were at work saving the crop harvest in various western states. Amazingly, two-thirds of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens.


It is ironic that while their parents were forced into concentration camps, many young Japanese Americans found the courage to fight for -- not against -- America. For example, there is the highly decorated, all-Japanese American 100th Battalion /442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Italy.


Throughout the course of World War II, not a single incident of espionage or treason was found to be committed by Japanese Americans. Japanese Americans in Hawaii were spared the humiliation of "relocation" simply because of the logistical problems associated with transporting a third of the state's population to the mainland. Even in Hawaii, with such a large and unrestrained Japanese-American population, there is not a single incident of espionage or treason!


On December 17, 1944 Roosevelt announced the end of the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Relocation after incarceration was impossible for many, however, especially since prejudice still ran high in the West Coast. Many Issei (first generation Japanese Americans) never regained their losses, living out their lives in poverty and poor health.


The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was formed in 1980 to investigate the incarceration of Japanese Americans and legal resident aliens during World War II. The Commission concluded: "the promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it-detention, ending detention, and ending exclusion-were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."


The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was finally passed by Congress. It provided an apology and some redress to the internees still living (although nearly half of those who had been imprisoned died before the bill was signed). The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 also established The Civil Liberties Public Education Fund whose purpose is "to sponsor research and public educational activities and to publish and distribute the hearings, findings, and recommendations of the CWRIC so that the events surrounding the exclusion, forced removal and internment of civilians and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry will be remembered, and so that the causes and circumstances of this and similar events may be illuminated and understood."


Questions to Ask


Could it happen again? Can you envision circumstances where something similar might reoccur in the United States? Debate the possibilities. Decide what measures are needed to insure that something like it would not happen.


Why is the Bill of Rights so important? And why does it seem so often abridged or tampered with? How does this affect democracy? Are the rights guaranteed in the first 10 amendments available to citizens only under the best circumstances?


The U.S. legal system is thought to guarantee certain rights, such as

  • that a person is innocent until proven guilty
  • that a person must be accused of having broken a law before being charged with a crime (this is called due process), and
  • that a person's background (i.e. ethnic, racial, gender, age, income, etc.) is suppose to be irrelevant in the legal system (this is called "equal protection").

Why is it that these Constitutional guarantees were ignored by the President, Congress, and even the Courts?

What was meant by Benjamin Franklin when he wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety"? How does this apply not only historically, but also today?


Additional Sources


Citizenship Denied: An Integrated Unit on the Japanese American Internment -- provides a great lesson plan for teachers willing to tackle this tough issue.

Original Sources on the Internment of San Francisco Japanese -- here you will find original documents to help students understand what was happening while civil liberties were being trampled.

Japanese American Internment Memorial -- understand the issue from the perspective of Japanese Americans.

Understanding Life in the Camps -- Where are we? I want to go home! -- help students understand the issue through the eyes of young Japanese Americans who had no idea what was happening to them.

Revisionist History -- Making the interment of American Citizens more acceptable -- is there any way the loss of our civil liberties or the actions taken against Japanese Americans can be viewed as acceptable?

A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S. Constitution -- explore some of the legal issues

Images of Japanese-American Detention Camps -- see original photographs of the bleak and inhospitable camps that American citizens were forced to live in by their own government.

ACLU – National Security Issues -- see today's issues in the light of history.

People for the American Way – Constitutional Liberties -- are those Constitutional liberties really secure?



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