Japanese American Evacuation Cases

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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In the midst of WORLD WAR II (WWII), from 1942 to 1944, the U.S. Army evacuated Japanese Americans living on the West Coast from their homes and transferred them to makeshift detention camps. The army insisted that it was a "military necessity" to evacuate both citizens and noncitizens of Japanese ancestry, and its actions were supported by President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT and the U.S. Congress. Those who were evacuated suffered tremendous losses, being forced to sell their homes and belongings on very short notice and to live in crowded and unsanitary conditions. A few Japanese Americans challenged the constitutionality of the evacuation orders, but the Supreme Court at first ruled against them. In the years since the end of WWII, the U.S. government has acknowledged the injustice suffered by the Japanese American evacuees, and it has made several efforts to redress their losses.


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

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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...

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