On this day in 1942, 10 weeks after a Japanese carrier force bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the forced removal of some 112,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them U.S. citizens, from their homes, to be relocated in internment camps in remote locations away far from the West Coast.
Of 127,000 Japanese-Americans living in the continental United States at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, 112,000 resided on the West Coast. About 80,000 were second-generation, U.S.-born Japanese who held U.S. citizenship or third-generation children. The rest were first-generation immigrants born in Japan who were ineligible for U.S. citizenship at the time under U.S. law.
For the next 2 1/2 years, many of these Japanese-Americans endured difficult living conditions and poor treatment by their military guards.
The presidential directive had authorized the removal of any or all people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The Pentagon, in turn, defined the entire West Coast as a military area. The U.S. Census Bureau assisted the military-sponsored internment efforts by providing confidential neighborhood data about Japanese-American residents. (The Census denied its role for decades, but it became public in 2007.)
In 1944, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the removals. Justice Frank Murphy, one of the dissenters, wrote that the exclusion of Japanese-Americans “falls into the ugly abyss of racism,” and resembles “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.” Murphy also compared the treatment of Japanese-Americans with the treatment of Americans of German and Italian ancestry, who were largely unaffected by wartime controls, as evidence that race, and not the wartime emergency alone, led to the exclusion order.
For its part, the court limited its decision to the validity of the exclusion order, avoiding the sensitive issue of the incarceration of U.S. citizens without legal due process. The court’s 1944 decision has never been reversed.
On Dec. 17, 1944, Maj. Gen. Henry C. Pratt issued a public proclamation which declared that, effective Jan. 2, 1945, Japanese-American “evacuees” from the West Coast could return to their homes.
During World War II, 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan. None of them were of Japanese ancestry.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to recompense each surviving internee with a tax-free check for $20,000 and an apology from the U.S. government.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, urged President Donald Trump to implement immigration registry controls like those called for in the now dormant National Security Entry-Exit Registration System for persons arriving in the United States from selected Middle East countries.
Japanese citizens wait in line for their assigned homes at an internment camp center in Manzanar, California, on March 24, 1942. | AP Photo