Washington, D.C. November 7, 1941

Relations between the U.S. and Japan grew chilly in mid-1941 after Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt froze Japa­nese assets in the U.S. and embar­goed oil and gasoline exports to Japan in retal­i­a­tion for that coun­try’s occu­pa­tion of Indo­chinese air­fields in what is today Viet­nam. The year before Roose­velt had banned exports of avi­a­tion fuel, machine tools, and scrap iron and steel in response to Japan’s mili­tary incur­sions in China. Would piling sanc­tions on top of sanc­tions fire up U.S.-born and immi­grant Japa­nese living in the U.S. to a point where they could pose a danger to the inter­nal peace and secu­rity of the country? The president set to find out.

A wealthy businessman and State Depart­ment Special Repre­sen­ta­tive, Curtis B. Munson, was tapped to con­sult with “Naval and Army intel­li­gences and the F.B.I.” (Fed­eral Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion) as to whether U.S. resi­dents of Japa­nese descent—about 127,000 in the con­ti­nen­tal U.S. and Hawaii—posed a secu­rity risk. Munson spent a week in each of the three West Coast naval dis­tricts. He inter­viewed Japa­nese nationals, Japa­nese Amer­i­cans, as well as those who knew them well. He researched Japa­nese Amer­i­can racial, cul­tural, asso­ci­a­tional, reli­gious, and polit­ical factions and social divi­sions. The results filled several reports on what collec­tively was called the “Japa­nese Ques­tion on the West Coast,” which Munson sent to pres­i­den­tial envoy John Frank­lin Carter in Octo­ber 1941 and which Roose­velt also read. Carter sub­mitted Munson’s com­pi­la­tion of his West Coast notes to Roose­velt on this date, Novem­ber 7, 1941. Copies were for­warded to U.S. Navy brass and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson.

In examining national security risks on the U.S. west coast, Munson divi­ded resi­dents of Japa­nese ances­try into threes: Issei (pro­nounced “ee-say”), first-gener­a­tion, immi­grant citi­zens of Japan who com­prised roughly 33 per­cent of the target com­mu­nity; Nisei (pro­nounced “nee-say”), U.S.-born, second-gener­a­tion Japa­nese who com­prised close to 66 per­cent of the target com­mu­nity and were rapidly growing in size and signif­i­cance; and Kibei (pro­nounced “kee-bay”), U.S.-born, second-gener­a­tion Japa­nese who spent all or part of their life in Japan. Issei, age 55 to 65+, had weakened loyal­ty to the land of their birth by virtue of making their home in the U.S. and bearing chil­dren here. They were strongly attached to the land as farmers, to the sea as fisher­men, and to their U.S. busi­nesses and jobs, Munson wrote. Nisei, age 1 to 30, “in spite of discrim­i­na­tion against them and a cer­tain amount of insults accu­mu­lated through the years from irres­pon­si­ble ele­ments, showed a pathe­tic [!] eager­ness to be Amer­i­cans.” Munson con­sidered the Kibei “the most dan­ger­ous” of the three groups, aligned closer to the Issei than to the Nisei owing to their schooling in Japan. He partly walked back his warning about the Kibei, remarking “all a Nisei needs is a trip to Japan to make a loyal Amer­i­can out of him” because “[t]he Amer­i­can-edu­cated Japa­nese is . . . treated as a for­eigner and with a certain amount of contempt there.”

Recapping his findings, Munson ended his report by stating: “There is no Japa­nese ‘pro­blem’ on the [U.S. West] Coast. There will be no armed up­rising of Japa­nese . . . in case of a war between the United States and Japan. . . . There will be undoubt­edly some sabo­tage financed by Japan and exe­cuted largely by imported agents. . . . For the most part the local Japa­nese are loyal to the United States or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concen­tra­tion camps or irresponsible mobs.”

Alas, in the wake of Japan’s Decem­ber 7, 1941, air and naval strikes on U.S. mili­tary assets at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, con­cen­tra­tion camps sprang up almost over­night to impri­son all but a few loyal Japa­nese nationals and Japa­nese Amer­i­cans living in Cali­for­nia and parts of Arizona, Oregon, and Washing­ton states. Under Roose­velt’s Febru­ary 19, 1942, Exe­cu­tive Order 9066, the U.S. com­mitted the worst offi­cial civil rights vio­la­tion in modern Amer­i­can history. (See photo essay below.)

Executive Order 9066 Cleared the Way for the Forced Exile and Relocation of West Coast Enemy Aliens and Japanese Americans to a New Existence in Internment Camps Far from Their Homes

Executive Order 9066: U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans and enemy aliens

Above: Map showing (a) the massive West Coast World War II exclusion area (Mili­tary Areas 1 and 2) and (b) intern­ment camps in the conti­nental U.S. 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. The camps were built in seven states all west of the Mis­sis­sippi River. The camps were remote. Many were situ­ated in deso­late deserts or swamps. U.S. Depart­ment of Justice-admin­is­tered camps (there were 27) and U.S. Army camps (18) are repre­sented by stars. It was to these often former Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps camps that people arrested between Decem­ber 8, 1941, and early 1942 were exiled—that is, before Exec­u­tive Order 9066 was in place. In the map legend, WCCA = Wartime Civil Con­trol Admin­is­tra­tion, WRA = War Relo­cation Autho­rity. Pur­portedly for their own safety [!] roughly 75,000 Japa­nese Amer­i­can citi­zens and 45,000 Japa­nese nationals living in the U.S., a num­ber equiv­a­lent to the popu­la­tion of Wil­ming­ton, N.C., 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 south of Parker, Arizona was the largest such camp in America (peak popu­la­tion 17,814), housing Japa­nese Amer­i­cans mostly from South­ern and Cen­tral Cali­for­nia. In Hawaii, where 150,000-plus Japa­nese Amer­i­cans com­prised over one-third of the islands’ popu­la­tion, only 1,200 to 1,800 were removed to the main­land and in­terned. On Decem­ber 17, 1944, the Roose­velt admin­is­tra­tion rescinded Exec­u­tive Order 9066, ending mass forced reloca­tion and allowing in­ter­nees to return to the West Coast exclu­sion area (Mili­tary Areas 1 and 2). Except for Tule Lake in North­ern Cali­for­nia, the WRA camps would be emptied by the end of 1945.

Executive Order 9066: San Francisco newspaper headline, February 27, 1942Executive Order 9066: Posted exclusion order

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 immi­grant aliens 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.

Executive Order 9066: Mochida family awaits evacuation bus, May 8, 1942Executive Order 9066: Young Japanese American evacuee and baggage, Spring 1942

Left: With luggage tags affixed to their clothing—an aid in keeping family units intact during all phases of their forced removal—members of the Mochida family await an evac­u­a­tion bus, Ala­meda County (San Francisco Bay area), Cali­for­nia, May 8, 1942. On the luggage tags was written the family’s desig­nated iden­ti­fi­ca­tion number. The Mochidas had oper­ated a two-acre nursery and green­house in Eden, Ala­meda County, before the family’s incar­cer­ation. Photograph by Dorothea Lange.

Right: Staring into uncertainty 2-year-old Yuki Okinaga Haya­kawa, clutching a tiny purse and an apple with a few bites gone, waits with the family’s allot­ment of bag­gage before leaving Union Sta­tion in Los Angeles, even­tu­ally arriving with her mother at Man­za­nar War Relo­ca­tion Cen­ter, more than 200 miles away in Cali­for­nia’s Owens Valley, which would be her home for the next 3 years. Each family mem­ber was permitted to take bedding and linens (no mat­tress), toilet arti­cles, extra clothing, and “essen­tial per­sonal effects,” nothing more; in other words, only what could be carried. Photograph by Clem Albers.

Executive Order 9066: Poster protests summary evacuation order, Spring 1942President Reagan signs 1988 Civil Liberties Act

Left: This Oakland, California green grocer closed his store in March 1942 following orders to persons of Japa­nese descent to evac­u­ate from certain West Coast areas (Military Area 1; see map above). 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. Dec­la­ra­tions like this San Fran­cisco area store owner’s were insuf­fi­cient to over­come the sus­pi­cion and con­tempt directed at people who looked like the enemy and who, it was com­monly assumed at the time, remained loyal to Japan and its em­peror Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa). 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 in modern U.S. history. After years of law­suits and nego­ti­a­tions, on August 10, 1988, Presi­dent Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liber­ties Act of 1988, which formally acknow­ledged that the war­time exclu­sion, evac­u­a­tion, and intern­ment of Japa­nese Amer­i­cans had been unrea­son­able. The act granted $20,000 in repa­ra­tions to each sur­viving Japa­nese Amer­i­can (about 82,000 people), costing the U.S. Treas­ury $1.6 billion. It took a decade to locate all eligi­ble U.S. recip­i­ents and deliver them their checks and formal apol­ogy. 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