Washington, D.C. • February 19, 1942
Seventy-five years ago on this date in 1942, celebrated today as the Day of Remembrance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It authorized the War Department to designate “military areas” in the U.S. and exclude from them anyone whom the department felt to be a danger to the security of the nation. Although the unprecedented order appeared carefully neutral, it ultimately led to the internment of almost 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, citizens and noncitizens alike, living along the U.S. West Coast. Two-thirds of those interned were American-born U.S. citizens, reclassified by the government as “non-aliens” in a ham-fisted suspension of their constitutional birthright. Almost half the internees were children. (In Canada, 20,000 Japanese Canadians and Japanese suffered similar treatment. South of the border almost 5,000 Japanese were removed from Mexico’s Pacific Coast.) Suddenly uprooted from their homes and workplaces and deprived of or forced to sell off practically everything they had acquired over a lifetime (many had their bank accounts frozen), Japanese American and Japanese-born internees were taken first to assembly centers, or temporary detention camps (the Santa Anita, California racetrack stables was one), then to one of ten permanent inland relocation centers where they were imprisoned without charge and “for the duration” inside barbed wire enclosures, watched over by armed guards (see map below).
People of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii and German Americans and German U.S. residents were not interned en masse and therefore escaped disenfranchisement, measureless separation, precious lost years, miserable deprivation, monotonous camp routine, enforced idleness, and dependence on the federal government for their food and shelter. Under the U.S. Justice Department’s Enemy Alien Control Program, the government detained and interned just over 11,000 German enemy aliens, as well as a small number of German American citizens, either naturalized or native born. The population of German citizens in the United States—not to mention American citizens of German birth—was far too large for a general policy of disenfranchisement and internment comparable to that used against the Japanese. Instead, German citizens were detained and removed from coastal areas on an individual basis. The evictions amounted to only several hundred. In addition, over 4,500 ethnic Germans were brought to the U.S. from Latin America and similarly detained based on a list drawn up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI suspected these Germans of subversive activities abroad and, following Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S., demanded their eviction to this country for detention or their return to Germany. Many had been residents of Latin America for years, some for decades. Nine Latin American countries and Canada set up their own Axis internment camps.
Executive Order 9066 Cleared the Way for the Forced Relocation of West Coast Japanese Americans to Internment Camps Far From Their Homes
Above: Map of World War II internment camps for Japanese Americans as well as for over 31,000 suspected enemy aliens and their families interned under the Enemy Alien Control Program. The 10 hastily built internment camps, euphemistically called “relocation centers,” are identified by black triangles. Justice Department camps (8) and U.S. Army camps (18) are represented by stars; for example, Fort Missoula Internment Camp in Montana and Fort Lincoln Internment Camp five miles south of Bismarck, North Dakota. It was to these often former Civilian Conservation Corps camps that people arrested in December 1941 and early 1942—that is, before Executive Order 9066 was in place—were brought. In the map legend, WCCA = Wartime Civil Control Administration, WRA = War Relocation Authority. Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans and resident Japanese aliens would eventually be torn from their homes, neighborhoods, farms, fishing boats, and places of employment and worship in California (where the majority lived), Western Oregon and Washington, and Southern Arizona as part of the single-largest forced relocation in U.S. history. The Poston War Relocation Center on the Colorado Indian Reservation was the largest such camp in America (peak population 17,814). It became the third-largest “city” in Arizona at the time. Together with the Gila River War Relocation Center on the Gila River Indian Reservation southeast of Phoenix, the two camps grew to hold 30,000 people of Japanese descent, most of them American citizens. In Hawaii, where 150,000-plus Japanese Americans comprised over one-third of the population, only 1,200 to 1,800 were removed to the mainland and interned.
Left: “OUSTER OF ALL JAPS IN CALIFORNIA NEAR!” San Francisco Examiner headlines of Japanese relocation, February 27, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange. Lange was one of three photographers in the WRA Photography Section, or WRAPS, in 1942–1943. The other two were Clem Albers and Francis Stewart.
Right: Official notice of exclusion and removal, April 1, 1942. Photograph by Dorothea Lange. The posted exclusion order directed Japanese Americans living in the first San Francisco section to evacuate. Years before the December 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the U.S. government had drafted plans to intern some Japanese Americans and had already placed some West Coast communities under surveillance. This in spite of years worth of FBI and naval intelligence data that attested to residents of Japanese descent posing no national security threat.
Left: Wearing identification tags to aid in keeping family units intact during all phases of their move, members of the Mochida family await an evacuation bus, Alameda County, California, May 8, 1942. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
Right: A young evacuee of Japanese ancestry waits with the family baggage before leaving by bus for an assembly center in the spring of 1942. Photograph by Clem Albers.
Left: This Oakland, California store closed in March 1942 following orders to persons of Japanese descent to evacuate from certain West Coast areas. The owner, a University of California graduate, had placed the “I AM AN AMERICAN” sign on his store front on December 8, the day after Pearl Harbor. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.
Right: In 1944 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion orders, described by many Americans as the worst official civil rights violation of modern U.S. history. On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations for the wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Cost to the U.S. Treasury: $1.6 billion. A late 20th-century study concluded that the internal government decisions that led to Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066 were based on racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and failed political leadership.
Injustice Camouflaged as Military Necessity: Japanese American Internment During World War II