Japanese Americans, World War II

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Less than three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the mass removal and incarceration of all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. The government's decision, made in the context of long and often intense anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast, ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of 119,803 Japanese Americans. American citizens constituted almost two-thirds of these prisoners held without trial. Although many inmates eventually obtained wartime releases from the camps, forced exile from their homes and incarceration produced lasting consequences.

The government's decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans was in part attributable to Americans' racist attitudes. General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command, for example, explained the need to imprison all Japanese Americans by asserting that "a Jap is a Jap… . It makes no difference whether he is an Amer ican citizen, he is still Japanese" (Grodzins, p. 362). DeWitt expressed the widespread racial belief that Japanese Americans were disloyal and devious. Wartime hysteria also contributed to the government's policies. Allegations of subversive Japanese-American activities at Pearl Harbor, which remain unsubstantiated today, reinforced fears held by many Americans of sabotage, espionage, and fifth column activities. DeWitt and West Coast politicians such as California Attorney General Earl Warren supported these rumors by warning that the absence of sabotage immediately after December 7 suggested a well-concealed plan to attack later.

As the military, newspapers, and the public demanded a response to the supposed threat of Japanese Americans, the government moved toward removal and incarceration. Within seventy-two hours of Pearl Harbor, in fact, DeWitt forwarded the first proposal for the mass exile of Japanese Americans, which was supported by Major General Allen W. Gullion, the Provost Marshal General, and Karl R. Bendetsen, chief of the Aliens Division in Gullion's office. Although Attorney General Francis Biddle expressed misgivings, the Justice Department deferred to the War Department's claims of "military necessity."

Executive Order 9066, issued on February 19, 1942, allowed the military to exclude "any or all persons" from "military areas." Despite the nonspecific language, the

decree affected only Japanese Americans. The military's initial control over the inmates was eventually transferred to the civilian War Relocation Authority (WRA). By mid-1942 the WRA began a program to release many of its prisoners. Fearing that camp life bred frustration, fear, bitterness, and the possibility of the permanent institutionalization of Japanese Americans, the WRA initially allowed temporary releases for seasonal agricultural labor and later permitted indefinite releases for higher education and employment.

Military service provided another avenue of escape from the camps. Although the War Department had decided to reject Japanese Americans for military service after Pearl Harbor, the military soon reversed its position and allowed WRA inmates to volunteer and serve. The army officially announced its new policy in January 1943; the special combat team formed as a result, the 442nd, subsequently earned fame with its slogan "Go for Broke" and its reputation as the most decorated unit of its size. In early 1944 the War Department reinstituted the draft for all eligible Japanese Americans, both inside and outside the camps. Although the War Department also changed its regulations so Japanese Americans could be assigned as individual replacements in both theaters, most draftees continued to serve with the segregated 442nd. The Military Intelligence Service Language School received top priority, and any Japanese American who met its linguistic qualifications was sent there. By the end of the war, about 23,000 Japanese Americans—about one-half from the continental United States—had served in the military.

The mass exile and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II had important consequences for American society and culture. The government's actions suggest that substantial prejudice existed at home during a war fought against fascism. Both the Supreme Court, in its Hirabayashi, Korematsu and Endo decisions, and Congress strongly supported the wartime camps. This support led to Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950. Title II established what Congressmen defined as "fairer" camps for Communists in the event of an internal security emergency declared by the president. Title II was not repealed until 1971. In 1983 the Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) released Personal Justice Denied, which noted that exile and incarceration had resulted from "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." As a result of the CWRIC's report, which led to passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, redress payments of $20,000 to surviving prisoners of the camps began in the late 1980s.


Japanese-Americans were not the only group to feel the sting of discrimination because of war with their country of origin. In World War I, when the United States declared war on Germany, German-American citizens were also discriminated against and made objects of suspicion. Many citizens questioned the loyalty and patriotism of recent German immigrants because they spoke a different language and practiced different customs. In some communities Americans insisted that the German language not be taught in school or spoken in public. Some people changed the name sauerkraut to victory cabbage to remove any reference to Germany and to show their loyalty to the United States. Some Germans changed their names so they sounded more English. During World War II, German-Americans and Italian-Americans experienced less suspicion and hostility, which was likely the result of over a generation of integration in American society. American resentment focused on Japanese-Americans because of Japan's attack on the United States and also because that attack released strong racial hostility that had been partly kept in check by peace.

John P. Resch


Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps, North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada During World War II. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1981.

Daniels, Roger. Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

Grodzins, Morton. Americans Betrayed: Politics and the Japanese Evacuation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Harth, Erica, ed. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Allan W. Austin

See also:Civil Liberties, World War II; War, Impact on Ethnic Groups.

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