Washington, D.C. December 8, 1941

Although the devastating Japanese surprise attack on U.S. mili­tary instal­la­tions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Decem­ber 7, 1941, came as a shock to most Amer­i­cans, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt’s admin­is­tra­tion had already begun weighing pos­sible responses to an out­break of war with Japan, Germany, and Italy, countries treaty-bound in a mutual defense pact, the Tripar­tite (or Axis) Pact. One response focused on what to do with the over 110,000 Japa­nese-born (Issei) and first Amer­i­can-born gene­ra­tion Japa­nese (Nisei) living along the Pacific coast of Cali­for­nia, Oregon, and Wash­ing­ton. Naval and air­craft manu­fac­turing facil­i­ties, hydro­elec­tric dams, power stations, bridges—all of them unguarded—appeared vul­ner­able to attack by Japa­nese fifth colum­nists, U.S.-based clan­des­tine enemy agents bent on inter­nal sub­ver­sion and havoc-making. Pre­sci­ent West Coast Japa­nese Amer­i­cans specu­lated as early as 1937 over whether they and Japa­nese Issei (mostly long-term U.S. resi­dents who were denied U.S. citizen­ship by discrim­i­na­tory laws) might one day be “herded into prison camps” in the event of war with Japan.

Japanese Americans were not the only poten­tial fifth colum­nists men­tioned in the popu­lar press and weighing on the minds of the average Amer­i­can. Playing no favor­ites, Wash­ing­ton law­makers passed the anti-alien Smith Act, also known as the Alien Regis­tra­tion Act of 1940. Signed into law by Roosevelt on June 28, the law pro­hib­ited certain sub­ver­sive activ­i­ties, amended provi­sions for entry and depor­ta­tion of aliens, and required finger­printing and regis­tra­tion of non-citizen resi­dents over four­teen years of age. The Federal Bureau of Inves­ti­g­ation com­piled a list of poten­tially dan­ger­ous or sub­ver­sive Japa­nese, German, and Italian aliens who were to be arrested and interned at the out­break of war with their country. Some West Coast communities were placed under surveillance.

So it was on this date, December 8, 1941, the day the U.S. Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan, that the U.S. Justice Depart­ment and FBI swung into action, arresting 3,000 peo­ple from all over the coun­try whom they con­sidered dan­ger­ous enemy aliens. Only half were Japa­nese. (It was three days later before Con­gress declared war on Japan’s mili­tary part­ners, Germany and Italy.) Late the next month many of those arrested by the FBI (now 4,000 and growing) were deported to dis­tant intern­ment camps in Mon­tana, New Mexico, and North Dakota run by Justice’s Immi­gra­tion and Natu­ral­ization Ser­vice. Even­tually over 7,000 people of Japanese origin were held in these and similar camps.

Most Issei, now classified as “enemy aliens,” and Amer­i­can-born Nisei, now classi­fied curiously as “non-aliens,” who were snapped up by govern­ment agents in December 1941 and through the following March were trans­ferred over the course of 1942 to one of ten camps run by the War Relo­ca­tion Author­ity, a civil­ian organ­i­za­tion created on March 19, 1942, following Roose­velt’s Exec­u­tive Order 9066 of Febru­ary 19, 1942. That order authorized the Secre­tary of War and his mili­tary com­man­ders to remove all indi­vi­duals of Japa­nese ances­try from des­ig­nated “mili­tary areas” and place them in intern­ment camps for the dura­tion of the war. FDR’s order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kore­matsu v. United States on Decem­ber 18, 1944. In a 6–3 decision the court held that the exclu­sion order and the intern­ment of Japa­nese nationals and Japanese-born Amer­i­can citi­zens was justi­fied during cir­cum­stances of “emer­gency and peril.” In 1976 President Gerald Ford signed a pro­cla­ma­tion for­mally ter­mi­nating Executive Order 9066 and apologizing for the internment.

Roundup of West Coast Japanese, December 1941 to March 1942: Prologue to Wholesale Japanese American Internment

Japanese American internment: U.S. internment camps for Japanese Americans and enemy aliens

Above: Map of massive World War II exclusion zone and intern­ment camps in the conti­nental U.S. for Japanese Amer­i­cans as well as for over 31,000 “enemy aliens” and their fami­lies. The latter grouping con­sisted of col­lec­tions of Germans, Italians, but also U.S.-resident Japa­nese Issei and Japa­nese and German nationals deported from Latin America and the Carib­bean. For the most part these 31,000 enemy aliens were interned under the Justice Depart­ment’s Enemy Alien Con­trol Pro­gram. The 10 intern­ment camps, euphe­mis­tically called “relo­ca­tion centers,” are iden­ti­fied by black triangles and were located in seven states. 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 between Decem­ber 7, 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. Close to 120,000 Japa­nese Amer­i­cans and Japa­nese Issei would even­tu­ally be removed from their homes in Califor­nia (where the majority lived), the west­ern halves of Oregon and Wash­ing­ton, and South­ern Arizona, which states com­prised the “exclu­sion zone,” as part of the single-largest forced relo­ca­tion/­impri­son­ment in U.S. history. The Poston War Relo­cation Cen­ter on the Colo­rado Indian Reser­va­tion south of Parker was the largest such camp in America (peak popu­la­tion 17,814). Housing Japa­nese Amer­i­cans mostly from Southern and Central California, Posten became the third-largest “city” in Arizona at the time. Together with the Rivers War Relo­ca­tion Center on the Gila River Indian Reser­va­tion south­east of Phoenix, the two sites grew to hold 30,000 peo­ple of Japa­nese descent, most of them American citizens. (Some Japa­nese who took a loyalty oath to the U.S. were released from intern­ment in 1944 and 1945. Other Japa­nese were not released until 1946, when over 4,400 were repa­tri­ated to Japan.) In Hawaii, where 150,000-plus Japa­nese Issei and U.S.-born Japa­nese com­prised over one-third of the popu­la­tion, only 1,200 to 1,800 were removed to the mainland and interned. On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the location of Pearl Harbor, there were 17 intern­ment sites, the largest and longest-operating being Honou­liuli Intern­ment Camp, which held 320 internees and 4,000 prisoners of war. For their own “protection,” nearly 900 indig­e­nous Aleuts were rounded up and interned in aban­doned salmon can­neries near Alaska’s capital Juneau, 2,000 miles from their island villages, which were burned to the ground as part of a “scorched earth” policy.

Japanese American internment: Japanese prisoners, San Pedro, December 7, 1941Japanese American internment: Terminal Island aliens roundup, February 2, 1942

Left: “Here is a view of some of the Japa­nese taken into cus­tody by FBI officers when a ferry from Termi­nal Island docked at San Pedro [Cali­for­nia]. They were herded into a wire enclo­sure for ques­tioning and were guarded by sol­diers from Fort McArthur [sic]. . . . Termi­nal Island, with a Japa­nese colony of 6000, has become [a] huge con­cen­tration camp with aliens refused [the] right to leave con­fines and citi­zens ordered to stay home.” Newspaper caption. Photo­graph taken December 7, 1941? Published December 8, 1941. Source for this and the next five photo­graphs and captions: Uni­ver­sity of Cali­for­nia Cali­sphere. Two of the most promi­nent tem­po­rary detention sta­tions holding imm­igrants awaiting cursory hearings before intern­ment were Angel Island in San Fran­cisco Bay, Cali­for­nia, and New York’s Ellis Island. In December 1941 Ellis Island held 279 Japanese, 248 Germans, and 81 Italians.

Right: “Terminal Island Aliens Rounded Up–Male Japa­nese aliens, num­bering some 400, residing on Termi­nal Island, vital naval and ship­building center in Los Angeles Harbor, were taken into custody early on the morning of Febru­ary 2 in a sur­prise round-up by 180 federal, city and county officers. A group of Japa­nese is being loaded into an auto­mobile after being roused from their homes.” Caption under Associated Press photograph, February 2, 1942.

Japanese American internment: Japanese prisoners, Santa Barbara, February 18, 1942Japanese American internment: Japanese prisoners, Vallejo, February 18, 1942

Left: “This contingent of Santa Barbara County Japa­nese, who were rounded up in alien enemy raids under direction of FBI, [are] shown leaving county jail yester­day en route to Mid­west intern­ment camps.” Caption under Associated Press (?) photo­graph, February 18, 1942. Most likely the peo­ple pictured here were taken first to a detention station and then to a Depart­ment of Justice intern­ment camp, of which there were eight. These camps were guarded by Border Patrol agents rather than mili­tary police, which provided security for the 10 WRA internment camps.

Right: “Alien Japanese Taken Into Custody—Among a group of alien Japa­nese taken into cus­tody by Federal agents in Vallejo [Cali­for­nia] yester­day were Ise­kichi Mate­su­yama, 55, (left), and Michiko Ebisu, 49, (center), both laun­dry workers, shown being booked at the police station by Inspec­tor Ralph Hensen. The pair are being held for immigration authorities.” Caption under photograph, February 18, 1942.

Japanese American internment: Japanese prisoners, Santa Maria, February 18, 1942Japanese American internment: Japanese prisoners, Southern California, March 14, 1942

Left: “Japanese Seized in Roundup—Japanese aliens taken into cus­tody by FBI agents in a sur­prise raid in the Santa Maria-Guada­lupe area Febru­ary 18 are un­loaded from an Army truck at the court­house at Santa Barbara, Cali­for­nia, where they were brought for exami­na­tion. More than 200 were taken in the round­up, and a score of Army trucks were used to trans­port the prisoners.” Caption under photograph, February 19, 1942.

Right: “Arrested yesterday during the sweeping South­land raids, these three smiling Japa­nese are shown in cus­tody. They are, left to right, Frisco Tokichi Hase­gawa, retired dry goods man; Mrs. Iku Ono­desa and Tadasu Iida, teachers.” Caption under photo­graph, March 14, 1942. The photograph appeared in the Los Angeles Examiner.

Disingenuous 1942 Government-Produced Film Defends Internment of Japanese Americans During World War II