Posted: March 18th, 2023
Executive Order 9066
Current debates in the United States include sensitive topics like the death penalty, reproductive rights controversies about abortion, and racial disputes about discrimination and profiling. These debates become highly heated, sparking lawsuits, criminal charges, and even violent. Even in the most polemical debates, however, none from any side would suggest that the best way to deal with the other side would be to completely eliminate the opposing side. Death penalty advocates do not suggest that all people who favor the death penalty should be put to death, or removed from the country. When an election is close and spirited, as the past few presidential elections have been, the winning side does not suggest that all citizens who voted for their opponent be punished or held captive until their political party is back in power.
Such scenarios seem ridiculous, even laughable. However, it was not so very long ago that fear of a foreign enemy led the United States to restrict the activities and movements of its own citizens. Imagine if, in today’s war on terror, the government attempted to sort out terrorists by jailing every American of Arab descent, since most anti-American terrorism has been perpetrated by individuals of Arab heritage. Such a “solution” is not only antithetical to American ideals, but it seems a poor method of detecting terrorists based simply on their racial grouping. It seems even more unlikely that such an event would be instigated by one individual — the chief executive-as opposed to being implemented through the regular channels necessary to create such an all-encompassing law, namely, a reasoned and fair debate in the United States Congress, followed by informed examination of the issue by the public, and finally, an approval or veto by the president.
That very scenario did happen in the United States, however, and not hundreds of years ago. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing “a series of events…[that] gave broad authority to the military to secure the borders of the United States and to create military zones from which individuals, citizens, and aliens alike, could be removed,” (Tateishi and Yoshino 2000, p. 10). Although these words might be interpreted innocuously-secure borders and military zones sound like fairly reasonable goals for a sovereign nation; in fact, they sound like a good national security strategy-at the time of their writ, they were utilized to separate Japanese-American citizens from the nation as a whole, as a method of defense in World War II.
This essay will examine the events leading up to, surrounding, and following the issuance of Executive Order 9066. The fear of Japanese in the United States prior to and during World War II will be explained, followed by the rationale for discrimination against these individuals by the government. Conditions in the internment camps into which Japanese-Americans were forced will be examined, relying heavily on first-person accounts from survivors of the internment camps.
To begin, what made the United States so fearful of Japanese-Americans in the first place? The first answer to many who examine this question is the attack on Pear Harbor, but that is not the entire story-fear and discrimination against Japanese-Americans had existed in the United States for decades at the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Scholars wrote articles about the inability of Japanese-Americans to assimilate, asserting that although these individuals became citizens by renouncing their homeland, or even if they were born in the United States, about how the Japanese culture of “Emperor worship” would prevent them from becoming loyal citizens (McClatchey 1991, p. 83).
This particular author feared Japanese non-assimilation because of the religious, cultural, and even racial tendencies which made them more sympathetic to the Japanese government (ibid., p. 82). This author cited this inability to assimilate as a potential future threat to the United States posed by this group of non-Americans in its midst; he obviously feared the consequences of hosting a group of individuals whom he perceived as unwilling to become a functioning part of America. Other sources demonstrate similar fears of the Japanese-American: the San Francisco Chronicle frightened and biased readers with headlines such as “Japanese a Menace to American Women;”The Yellow Peril-How Japanese Crowd Out the White Race;”Brown Men an evil in the Public Schools;”Brown Artisans Steal Brains of Whites;”Crime and Poverty go Hand in Hand with Asiatic Labor,” (quoted in Daniels 1988, p. 166).
This seemingly innate fear of the Japanese as the “other” in western America, specifically the Pacific coastal region, was a powder keg of racial tension and fear during the early twentieth century. The spark which touched it off was the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese troops on December 7, 1941. The well-voiced fears of the “Yellow Peril” had been proven correct, it appeared-not only were Japanese difficult to assimilate, but they posed a direct and serious threat to the safety of the nation!
This fear, combined with the direct threat posed by Japan (the nation), led President Franklin Roosevelt to issue, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066. An executive order is a direct mandate from the president that has all of the powers of a law without requiring congressional approval; currently, there have been over 12,000 executive orders in the history of the nation. For the sake of comparison, a few of George W. Bush’s executive orders include eligibility to access national security information, amendments to an agreement on border environmental issues, and the establishment of a commission on United States space exploration (White House 2005). In short, an executive order may cover a wide range of topics, some as innocuous as the establishment of an informational committee, and others with more harmful applications, such as Executive Order 9066.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fear of an attack on the West Coast or of an infiltration of the United States by individuals of Japanese descent became almost overpowering.
American sentiment was not bent in favor of Asian-Americans to begin with; this bias toward the Japanese-Americans was overtly abused in the application of Executive Order 9066. Before examining the abuses in its application, first, we will examine the order itself.
Brief in length, Executive Order 9066 nonetheless granted a huge amount of power to the military to monitor and secure the western states and Pacific region. It authorized “military commanders to take such other steps as he or the appropriate Military Commander may deem advisable to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable,” (Roosevelt 1942). These “restrictions” included the power “to apprehend, restrain, secure and remove” persons presumed dangerous to the United States; the order never specifically stated that Japanese-Americans were to be considered these dangerous individuals. Despite the fact that “the executive order in itself was constitutionally sound…the intent of the order was to exclude Japanese-Americans” (Tateishi and Yoshino 2000, p. 10).
This executive order bestowed significant powers on the specified military commanders-but who were they to be? The West Coast Army chief, John DeWitt, for one. General DeWitt “urged the President to intern the Japanese” despite “no evidence of sabotage” (Persico 2001, p. 168). The powers given to DeWitt almost guaranteed the internment of Japanese-Americans-this man had repeatedly called for their removal or at least, their captivity to ensure the protection of the United States. DeWitt was quoted as saying,
Jap’s a Jap. They are a dangerous element, whether loyal or not. There is not way to determine their loyalty…It makes no difference whether he is an American; theoretically the is still a Japanese, and you can’t change him…you can’t change him by giving him a piece of paper. (Spickard 1996, p. 98)
Sentiments such as these were the prevailing mood among the higher-ups in Washington; many scholars have noted the significant weight that FDR gave to his military leaders (Spickard 1996). The President held a “sincere and ingrained fear of internal subversion,” and after a such a shocking attack on his own soil as Pearl Harbor, his desire for national security outweighed the potential conflicts with civil liberties that might be presented with Executive Order 9066 (Persico 2001).
Many have surmised and speculated about Roosevelt’s intentions for the order; likely the whole truth will never be known. The order itself did not specify that the Japanese people were to be contained; however, it would have been almost impossible for Roosevelt to not know about the racist proclivities of General DeWitt, who described the entire Japanese race as “subversive,” “an enemy race” (Raskin 1991). De Witt often made the argument that “sabotage was imminent simply because it had not yet happened” (Rancourt 1993). The preposterousness of this argument-that just because no internal sabotage had occurred, it must be very close to happening-was never argued against with any severity. In fact, all of the anti-Japanese sentiments that lead up to and resulted in the internment camps were accepted with relative ease by the general public-their prior discomfort with the Japanese immigrants, combined with the military threat from Japan, resulted in a stunning lack of public outcry over what amounted to the imprisonment of over one hundred thousand individuals for no crime, many of them American citizens.
And what of the details of this imprisonment? Were the camps liveable? Did they provide basic community services, like public education, privacy for families, civic news communications? The original “evacuation” to the camps was traumatic in itself for many of the Japanese-Americans, who were given a week or less to gather belongings, settle any long-term obligations they might have in their communities, say goodbye to friends and loved ones, and report a camp. The starkness of the evacuation is evident in the signs pasted every time a neighborhood was targeted for evacuation:
all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, weill be evacuated from the above area by 10 o’clock noon on…evacuees must carry with the on dparture for the Assembly Center the following property: a. bedding and linens for each member of the family; b. toilet articles for each member of the family; c. extra clothing for each member of the family; d. sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, and cups for each member of the family; e. essential personal effects for each member of the family…tied and plainly marked with the name of the owner…limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group (Spickard 1996, pp. 105-106).
This dismal picture was repeated over and over throughout the cities and towns of the West Coast, with children forced to leave behind toys, parents forced to leave behind family heirlooms, and everyone leaving behind their businesses, jobs, homes, and lives.
These abrupt removals had a profound effect on the Japanese-Americans and their impressions of their nation; “Imagine that you don’t know where you are going or how long you are going to be away. Your own government has said to you that you are untrustworthy. All the ideals you have been brought up with have just gone down the tubes. If you had a pet, you couldn’t take it with you. If you had a business, people knew your were leaving; who would buy it, and could you get a fair price?” These words were spoken years later by Marge Taniwaki, who was incarcerated at the age of four (Rancourt 1993).
If the removals were inhospitable, the trip to the camps was even more discomfiting. The camps themselves were desolate, through remote portions of the western United States-Arizona, California, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho; what one scholar has called “some of the most uninhabitable parts of the interior of our continent” (Thornton 2002, p. 100). These sparsely populated areas became military installments whose sole purpose was to house Japanese-Americans for no reason other than a threat perceived by their entire race; “by midsummer 1942, everyone was behind barbed wire” (Spickard 108). In all, well over 100,000 Japanese-Americans-as many as three fourths of whom were United States citizens-were forced to leave their homes for incarceration in these camps for no other reason than their ethnicity (Persico 2001, p. 168, Thornton 2002, p. 100).
Upon arrival to the camps, their “makeshift” nature was evident; the Seattle camp was about thirty miles out of the city and was actually a converted fairground; many internees were sent from this area to one in Idaho over one thousand miles away but no less “primitive and unsanitary” (Shaffer 1999, p. 600). These personal accounts are by far our best points of reference for the conditions in the camps; there are not extensive news articles about them from their era, for obvious reasons-anti-Japanese sentiment was so heavy, even after the execution of Executive Order 9066, that sympathy for the people banished to these military camps was small. One examination of media coverage of the issue while it was current found that “all editorials and most letters to the editor published in seven West Coast newspapers and The New York Times in 1942 supported the internment” (Thornton, 2002, p. 99).
This bias makes it difficult to obtain accurate information about the conditions in the camps, even today. Some personal accounts, however, do exist:
the place was in semidarkness; light barely came through the dirty window on either side of the entrance. A swinging half-door divided the 20 by 9 ft. stall into two rooms…the rear room had housed the horse and the front room the fodder. Both rooms showed signs of a hurried whitewashing. Spider webs, horse hair, and hay had been whitewashed with the walls. Huge spikes and nails stuck out all over the walls. A two-inch layer of dust covered the floor…(Spickard 1996, p. 108).
These makeshift accommodations were, sadly, the norm and not the exception. Paul Spickard, while not a survivor of the internment camps, has done extensive research on their conditions, and perhaps the best way to explain the conditions is to look directly to Spickard’s exact words:
The assembly centers were cramped and filthy. There was little privacy: more than one family often shared a single living space, separated only by sheets hung as partitions. Food was starchy and unappetizing but edible if one wanted to wait long enough in line at the mess hall. Medical care was rudimentary. Sanitary facilities were poor. (Spickard 1996, p. 107).
Spickard’s stark prose gives an idea of the barrenness, the hopeless feelings inspired by the camps. Later, however, he notes that despite these conditions, “the inmates did what they could to make life in camp livable” (Spickard 110). They used old sheets for curtains and private areas, some had cards or radios for entertainment; they forged makeshift mattresses out of straw, planted any seeds they could find for a semblance of a garden, and tried valiantly to establish a routine of “life” in the camps (ibid.).
Despite these efforts to make life in the camps more bearable, many aspects of life were impossible to replicate: Spickard names one of the first “casualties” of the camps as family life: “the father…lost his economic position as primary provider” (Spickard 110). Mothers who had traditionally been housewives were forced to take on significantly larger responsibilities of community duties; education, civic training, and socialization of the entire family-duties that had traditionally taken place in the schools. In addition, the cafeteria-style mealtimes contributed to the loss of the familial identity; children were difficult to control in the open atmosphere and “behaved so badly that I stopped eating there” said one survivor (Spickard 111). As Spickard notes, this atmosphere of chaos and the loss of the structure which was such an important part of traditional Japanese-American heritage made family unity and discipline impossible to maintain (Spickard 112).
Despite these drawbacks, a few bright points stood out in the internment camps-there were schools, social events like dances and ballgames, and church services (although Shinto, the official Japanese religion, was not allowed). Some camps had inmate fire departments, elections for civic posts, and newspapers published by inmates (Spickard 114). The efforts on the part of the Japanese-Americans to replicate the semblance of a normal life were admirable; however, they could not be considered to replace an independent life in one’s own community-i.e., without armed guards at your door.
Two years after Executive Order 9066 authorized these internments, Public Proclamation No. 21 permitted many Japanese-Americans to return home; despite this freeing of Japanese-Americans, a Supreme Court ruling in a case brought by Toyosaburo Korematsu, an American of Japanese descent who was arrested for disobeying the internment order upheld the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. Korematsu’s case established that although “all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional” (324 U.S. 314 at 317). In his dissent, Justice Frank Murphy disagreed:
dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. (324 U.S. 314 at 343).
Despite Justice Murphy’s passionate plea for a true equality among races, Korematsu’s conviction was upheld and, along with it, the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066.
This chapter of American history cannot be interpreted as part of national security during the second World War; nor can it be seen as a necessary precaution in light of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Murphy’s assertion that the main purpose of Executive Order 9066 was the “legalization of racism” is the only reasonable interpretation of the actions taken by the United States government during the war, and one can only hope that in our current war on terror, the government can learn from its past mistakes and shy away from actions which may be construed to become so overtly racist.
Daniels, R., 1988. Asian America. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Kurashige, L., 2002. Japanese-American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival, 1934-1990., Berkeley: University of Californial Press.
McClatchey, V.S., 1921. “Japanese Residents Can Never Be Assimilated,”in Asian-Americans: Opposing Viewpoints, Dudley, W., ed., 1997. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, pp. 81-88.
Persico, J., 2001. Roosevelt’s Secret War. New York: Random House.
Rancourt, L., 1993. “Remembering Manzanar,” National Parks, Vol. 67, Issue 5/6.
Raskin, J., 1991. “A Precedent for Arab-Americans,” The Nation, 02/04/1991, Vol. 252, Issue 4
Roosevelt, Franklin, 1942. Executive Order 9066, accessed online on 9/28/05 at http://bss.sfsu.edu/internment/executiorder9066.html.
Spickcard, P., 1996. Japanese-Americans: The Formation and Transformations of an Ethnic Group. Hawaii: Brigham Young University Press.
Shaffer, R., 1999. “Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese-American Rights During World War II” The Historian, pp. 597-619.
Tateishi, J. And Yoshino, W., 2000. “The Japanese-American Incarceration: The Journey to Redress,” Human Rights, spring 2000 edition, pp. 10-11.
The White House, list of executive orders issued by George W. Bush, accessed online on 9/25/05 at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/orders/.
Thornton, B., 2002. “Heroic Editors in Short Supply During Japanese Internment,” Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2,3., pp. 99-113.
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