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Japanese American Evacuation Cases


After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, persons of Japanese descent living in the western United States became a target for widespread suspicion, fear, and hostility. Several forces contributed to this sense of anger and paranoia. First, the devastating success of the Pearl Harbor attack led many to question how the U.S. military could have been caught so unprepared. A report commissioned by President Roosevelt directly blamed the U.S. Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii for their lack of preparedness, but it also claimed that a Japanese ESPIONAGE network in Hawaii had sent "information to the Japanese Empire respecting the military and naval establishments" on the island. This espionage ring, the report asserted, included both Japanese consular officials and "persons having no open relations with the Japanese foreign service" (88 Cong. Rec. pt. 8, at A261). This accusation against Japanese Hawaiians, though never proved, inflamed the mainland press and contributed to what quickly became an intense campaign to evacuate Japanese Americans from the West Coast.

A second cause for the hostility directed at Japanese Americans was the widespread belief after Pearl Harbor that Japan would soon try to invade the West Coast of the United States. Much of the Pacific fleet had been destroyed by the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Japanese had gone on to achieve a series of military victories in the Pacific. A West Coast invasion seemed imminent to many, and statements by government officials and newspaper editors stoked fears about the loyalty of Japanese Americans and their possible involvement in espionage activities. On January 28, 1942, for example, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times argued that "the rigors of war demand proper detention of Japanese and their immediate removal from the most acute danger spots" on the West Coast. Syndicated columnist Henry McLemore was less restrained in his assessment, which appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on January 29: "I am for immediate removal of every Japanese … to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either … Let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it…. Person ally I hate the Japanese."

On February 14, 1942, Lieutenant General John L. De Witt, commanding general of the Western Defense Command, issued a final recommendation to the secretary of war arguing that it was a military necessity to evacuate "Japanese and other subversive persons from the Pacific Coast." The recommendation contained a brief analysis of the situation, which read, in part:

In the war which we are now engaged, racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become "Americanized," the racial strains are undiluted…. It, therefore, follows that along the vital Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies of Japanese extraction are at large today. There are indications that the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken (War Department 1942, 34).

Many other leading politicians and government officials shared De Witt's views. The California congressional delegation, for example, wrote to President Roosevelt urging the removal of the entire Japanese population from the coastal states. California state attorney general EARL WARREN, who would later become governor of California and chief justice of the Supreme Court, strongly advocated the evacuation of the Japanese, arguing before a congressional committee that to believe that the lack of sabotage activity among Japanese Americans proved their loyalty was foolish.

De Witt's report, combined with pressure from other military leaders and political groups, led President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, to sign EXECUTIVE ORDER No. 9066, which gave the War Department the authority to designate military zones "from which any or all persons may be excluded." Despite warnings from the U.S. attorney general, FRANCIS BIDDLE, that the forced removal of U.S. citizens was unconstitutional, Roosevelt signed 9066 with the clear intent of removing both citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent. The order theoretically also affected German and Italian nationals, who greatly outnumbered Japanese people living in the designated areas. However, Germans and Italians who were considered suspect were given individual hearings and were interned. The Japanese, on the other hand, were treated not as individuals but as the "enemy race" that De Witt had labeled them in his evacuation recommendation. Congress hurriedly sanctioned the president's order when, with little debate and a unanimous voice vote, it passed Public Law No. 503, which incorporated the procedures of 9066, criminalizing the violations of military orders, such as the curfews and evacuation directives outlined in the order.

The signing of 9066 and its passage into law immediately set in motion the steps leading to the removal of Japanese Americans on the West Coast from their homes and communities. On February 25 General De Witt ordered the eviction of the two thousand Japanese living on Terminal Island, in Los Angeles, giving them 24 hours to sell their homes and businesses. On March 2 De Witt issued Military Proclamation No. 1, which declared the western half of California, Oregon, and Washington to be military zones with specific zones of exclusion. This order allowed Japanese living there to "voluntarily evacuate" the area. Because the Japanese knew they were not welcome in other parts of the country and because those who had tried to resettle had frequently been the targets of violence, the majority remained where they were.

On March 24 De Witt issued Military Order No. 3, which established a nighttime curfew and a five-mile travel restriction to be imposed only on persons of Japanese ancestry. On the same day, the first civilian exclusion order was issued on Bainbridge Island, in Washington, ordering the Japanese Americans there to leave the island within 24 hours. The Japanese began to sense that they would all soon be evicted from the entire West Coast, but because they were subject to the five-mile travel restriction, they were unable to leave the military zones and attempt to resettle elsewhere.

By early April 1942, orders began to be posted in Japanese communities directing all persons of Japanese ancestry, both citizens and resident ALIENS, to report to assembly points. With only a matter of days to prepare for removal, the Japanese were forced to sell their homes, cars, and other possessions, at tremendous losses, to neighbors and others who were eager to take advantage of the situation.

By the beginning of June 1942, all Japanese Americans living in California, Oregon, and Washington had been evacuated and transported by train or bus to detention camps, which were officially labeled assembly centers. Over 112,000 Japanese Americans were evacuated and detained, approximately 70,000 of them U.S. citizens. Because the detention camps had been hastily arranged, they were largely made up of crude shacks and converted livestock stables located in hot and dry desert areas. Privacy was nonexistent; families were separated by only thin partitions, and toilets had no partitions at all. These bleak, crowded, and unsanitary conditions, combined with inadequate food, led to widespread sickness and a disintegration of family order and unity.

Internees were forced to remain in the detention camps until December 1944, when the War Department finally announced the revocation of the exclusion policy and declared that the camps would be closed. This was two-and-a-half years after the June 2, 1942, Battle of Midway, which had left the Japanese naval fleet virtually destroyed, leading U.S. Naval Intelligence to send reports to Washington dismissing any further threat of a West Coast invasion.

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