February 19 will be forever known as a “day of infamy” for Japanese Americans. On this date in 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the innocuously titled “Executive Order Authorizing The Secretary of War To Prescribe Military Areas.” Yet, there was nothing harmless about this initiative. Although it did not specifically mention “Japanese” or “Japanese Americans,” the order’s intent was clear. Executive Order 9066 authorized the federal government to incarcerate nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans--without due process--in internment camps throughout World War II.
Immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were universally viewed as enemies of the State. Many of the 5,000 Japanese Americans serving in the United States armed forces at the time were immediately discharged. Those who were of draft age, despite being American citizens, were classified as “4-C” or “enemy aliens.” Internment hysteria was particularly intense in coastal California cities, where the only thing that separated citizens from a direct Japanese attack was 5,000 miles of ocean.
Executive Order 9066, a knee-jerk response to the Japanese attack, was implemented to allegedly protect the country “against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities.” However, the order indiscriminately applied to “all persons” of Japanese ancestry, regardless of age, sex, or citizenship. Little regard was given to whether or not the interred Japanese actually posed a “threat” to national security.
With the addition of FDR’s Executive Order 9102 – the order that created the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to administer the “relocation” while providing $5.5 million to begin the task--Japanese internment was underway.
The mass roundup of Japanese Americans on the west coast began in March 1942 and lasted for eight months. It included women, young children, infants, and the infirm. Of the Japanese Americans who called the camps home for the next three to four years, two-thirds were citizens of the United States. Nearly 2,000 of those shipped off to the concentration camps were under five years of age. Another 2,000 were over 65 years old. More than 1,000 seriously handicapped persons were among the interned. Half of all internees were children.
Families were told to bring only what they could carry, such as household items needed for everyday living. Pets were left behind. Many were given less than 48 hours notice to sell their property and possessions. Losses were estimated in the billions of dollars.
Dubbed “War Relocation Camps” by the federal government, America’s ten concentration camps were located throughout theUnited States, mostly in the western states. Many internees were housed in camps in California, the home to a majority of Japanese Americans. Other camps were located in Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas.
Prison-like in appearance and design, the camps were surrounded by fences with barbed wire, watchtowers and armed guards. Most were located in remote areas that suffered extreme climate changes from summer to winter. For example, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwestern Wyoming suffered through winters where temperatures would dip below minus 30°F while enduring dust storms and rattlesnakes during the summer.
The camps were typically overcrowded and living conditions were harsh. According to a 1943 report published by the War Relocation Authority, Japanese Americans were housed in "tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind."
“At Gila, there were 7,700 people crowded into space designed for 5,000. They were housed in mess halls, recreation halls, and even latrines. As many as 25 persons lived in a space intended for four." -- Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.
Internees shared communal bathroom facilities that were devoid of privacy. In fact, nearly every activity in the camp was communal, from eating to sleeping. Normal family life was practically non-existent.
In February 1943, the War Department and the WRA required internees over age 17 to fill out loyalty questionnaires to determine who among them was loyal to the United States. Two questions, in particular, were the focus of the questionnaire.
Question #27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?
Question #28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?
Question 28 is often refereed to as the “loyalty oath.” A “yes” answer indicated loyalty to the United States , while a “no” answer indicated disloyalty. Those who answered “no” to both questions were mostly sent to Tule Lake Relocation Center in California, a segregated facility where increased security isolated the “disloyals” from those who were deemed “loyal” citizens. Some families that were labeled “disloyal” were even deported to Japan.
More than 90% of the Japanese internees answered “yes” to question 28. Despite being rounded up like cattle and taken thousands of miles away from their homes to live in ramshackle conditions, captive residents of American prison camps to be watched over by armed guards, they swore allegiance to the United States.
At the conclusion of the war, internees were allowed to return to their former lives, “free” Americans once again. Many of them had nowhere to go, their lives shattered and broken, their possessions gone. Those who returned to their pre-war homes usually found them damaged by vandals. Farmers returning to their farms found them in disarray from neglect. Housing and employment discrimination was recurrent. Post-war America was radically different from the tight-knit communities that Japanese Americans knew prior to December 7, 1941 .
The federal government has made several attempts over the years to compensate those who suffered the injustice of the internment camps. Most recently, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, awarding formal payments of $20,000 to each of the surviving internees – 60,000 in all. But what price does one place on freedom?
The goal of Executive Order 9066 was to protect the United States from espionage and sabotage by Japanese Americans who were loyal to the Axis cause – a sort of “pre-emptive” attack against its own citizens. Yet, there was not one instance of sabotage or espionage by Japanese American citizens or residents of the United States before or during the war. In fact, the dozen or so Americans who were charged with spying for the Japanese during the war were Caucasian!
America’s concentration camps were not the death camps of Nazi Germany. It was not official policy of the internment camps to slaughter their prisoners. Although a handful of internees were killed by their brutish captors, most of the deaths in these camps were due to natural causes. Yet, nearly 120,000 Japanese American internees were victims of a segregationist government decree that robbed them of their life, liberty, and property for nearly four years. This tragic saga in American history should serve as a warning of the absolute tyranny that an omnipotent government is capable of inflicting upon its own citizens.