Today marks the anniversary of the signing of executive order 9066, which authorized the “indefinite detention” of nearly 150,000 people on American soil.
On February 19, 1942, just three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, Number 9066. The order gave the military broad powers to exclude any citizen from military areas along a fifty- to sixty-mile-wide coastal area stretching from Washington state to California and extending inland into southern Arizona. While no specific group or location was mentioned in the order, it was quickly applied to virtually the entire Japanese American population on the West Coast. The order also authorized transporting these citizens to assembly centers hastily set up and governed by the military in California, Arizona, Washington state, and Oregon. Although it is not well known, the same executive order (and other war-time orders and restrictions) were also applied to smaller numbers of residents of the United States who were of Italian or German descent. For example, 3,200 resident aliens of Italian background were arrested and more than 300 of them were interned. About 11,000 German residents—including some naturalized citizens—were arrested and more than 5000 were interned. Yet while these individuals (and others from those groups) suffered grievous violations of their civil liberties, the war-time measures applied to Japanese Americans were worse and more sweeping, uprooting entire communities and targeting citizens as well as resident aliens.
Initially Japanese Americans were encouraged to voluntarily evacuate from a limited number of areas; about 7 percent of the total Japanese American population in these areas complied. On March 2, 1942, under the authority of the executive order, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command issued Public Proclamation No. 1, which established Military Area No. 1 (the western halves of California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as southern Arizona) and Military Area No. 2 (the remaining areas of those four states). DeWitt issued a series of subsequent proclamations that clarified that all persons of Japanese descent would be removed from the entire state of California and the remainder of Military Area No. 1, which began the controlled, involuntary evacuation and detention of West Coast residents of Japanese American ancestry on a 48-hour notice. From the end of March to August, approximately 112,000 persons left their homes for civil control stations, proceeded to assembly centers, then were transported to relocation centers across the interior of the country. Nearly 70,000 of the evacuees were American citizens. There were no charges of disloyalty against any of these citizens, nor was there any vehicle by which they could appeal their loss of property and personal liberty.
Almost everyone interred as a result of the Executive Order 9066 lost property, a business, money or a combination of the three. They were given little time to get their affairs in order and many left home with only the items they could carry. Some who were landowners tried to sell their property, but ended up receiving only pennies on the dollar because all sales had to be concluded in such a short period of time.
Twelve temporary detention centers were in California and one was in Oregon. They were set up on race tracks, fairgrounds, or livestock pavilions. Detainees were housed in livestock stalls or windowless shacks that were crowded and lacked sufficient ventilation, electricity, and sanitation facilities. Food was often spoiled. There was a shortage of food and medicine. These facilities were home for several months before they were transported to a permanent relocation center.
While the majority of those interned spent the remainder of World War II in camps, in December 1943, male U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were officially reclassified as draft eligible. The highly decorated, all-Japanese American 100th Battalion /442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in Italy is one example of this irony. Other Japanese Americans served as translators as well as ordinary soldiers in the Pacific theater. During the war, 25,000 Japanese Americans served, though many had families who were still interned, and many had themselves been living behind barbed wire.
Executive Order, Number 9066 withstood legal challenge before the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the order in the case of Korematsu v. United States. In Korematsu’s case, the Court accepted the U.S. military’s argument that the loyalties of some Japanese Americans resided not with the United States but with their ancestral country, and that because separating “the disloyal from the loyal” was a logistical impossibility, the internment order had to apply to all Japanese Americans within the restricted area. However in the coram nobis cases some forty years later, it was disclosed that government lawyers withheld crucial evidence that disputed the claim of “military necessity.” The government files disclosed that the Justice Department lawyers who handled these Supreme Court cases had complained that their superiors were suppressing evidence and lying to the justices, but their complaints had been ignored.
In December 1944, when it appeared that the Japanese would be defeated, a six-month process began of releasing internees (often to “resettlement” facilities and temporary housing) and shutting down the camps. In August 1945, the war was over. By 1946, the camps were closed and all of the internees had been released to rebuild their lives. These US citizens and long-time residents who had been incarcerated had lost their personal liberties, and many also lost their homes, businesses, property, and savings.
Executive Order 9066 lapsed at the end of the war and was eventually terminated by Proclamation 4417, signed by President Gerald Ford on February 19, 1976. In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed legislation to create the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The CWRIC was appointed to conduct an official governmental study of Executive Order 9066, related wartime orders, and their impact on Japanese Americans in the West and Alaska Natives in the Pribilof Islands.
In December 1982, the CWRIC issued its findings in Personal Justice Denied, concluding that the incarceration of Japanese Americans had not been justified by military necessity. The report determined that the decision to incarcerate was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The Commission recommended legislative remedies consisting of an official Government apology and redress payments of $20,000 to each of the survivors; a public education fund was set up to help ensure that this would not happen again (Public Law 100-383).
On August 10, 1988, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, based on the CWRIC recommendations, was signed into law by Ronald Reagan. On November 21, 1989, George H.W. Bush signed an appropriation bill authorizing payments to be paid out between 1990 and 1998. In 1990, surviving internees began to receive individual redress payments and a letter of apology.