The Japanese Empire’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 pulled the United States into the then-ongoing Second World War. Beyond the political and military mobilization that followed in response to the day’s destruction, racial tensions in the American public near-completely turned against citizens of Japanese descent, some of whom had lived in the country for decades. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, granting the Secretary of War the authority to identify parts of the United States’ land as military zones. Applying EO 9066 to the west coast of the United States, U.S. Army Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt identified specific parts of the states bordering the Pacific Ocean as “zones of exclusion.” These selections were followed by the forced eviction, relocation, and internment of around 112,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children. Although there were certain instances of German-Americans and Italian-Americans being imprisoned under the same Executive Order, Japanese-Americans composed the majority of those imprisoned. Attorney General Francis Biddle – who would later serve as the primary judge in the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals in 1945 – wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in 1943, specifically reminding him that the order was predominantly meant for use against those of Japanese ancestry, rather than those of the other Axis powers. From 1942 to 1946, the hundreds of thousands of imprisoned Japanese-Americans lived in internment camps in different parts of the country, ranging from Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. In spite of the lingering American public paranoia and prejudice against the Japanese throughout the war, the majority of imprisoned Japanese-Americans self-identified themselves as loyal to the United States, and an analysis from the University of California confirmed decades later that there never was a single person from the internment camps who was found guilty of sabotage, espionage, or any other such subversive act against the government. The Supreme Court decision of Korematsu v. United States determined in 1944 that the civil rights of one specific ethnic group could not be affected by the government when there was a “pressing public necessity” to do so. By the time the last of the American internment camps were closed in 1946, the hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans returned to their homes, many of whom had lost their homes, their funds, their property, and their communities.
Over the decades following the Second World War, historical retrospectives on the time period gradually determined that not only was the mass internment of Japanese-American citizens strategically unnecessary, but was also largely motivated by racial prejudice. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) – a civil liberties organization specifically founded in 1929 to protect the civil rights of Asian-Americans – enacted an extensive series of legislative actions against the state and federal government policies that were used against those of Japanese ancestry in World War II. Three of the JACL’s major post-World War II successes were their campaign to repeal the discriminatory Alien Land Law in California, the passage of the Evacuation Claims Act to allow people who were sent to internment camps to file lawsuits, and the allowance of Japanese-Americans to fully become citizens through the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. After twenty years of gradually escalating calls for social and political redress, the JACL announced at their 1970 conference that they had officially begun efforts to coordinate with other civil rights groups and political leaders to pursue full redress for all individuals who were held in the internment camps. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) was formed in 1980, and was tasked with interviewing hundreds of former imprisoned citizens, as they spoke of their experiences before, during, and after the war. Three years later, the CWRIC published its findings in Personal Justice Denied, a report in which the Commission concluded that the forced relocation and internment of persons of Japanese ancestry by EC 9066 had not been justified by military necessity. CWRIC determined that Executive Order 9066 was executed based on “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” and suggested remedial measures be imparted on survivors in the form of an official government apology and reparation. In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which was later signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The Act acknowledged and apologized on behalf of the United States government for the injustice done to Japanese-Americans through internment; it additionally created a public education fund to inform on Japanese internment to American school children and offered restitution of $20,000 to those who were interned. Reparation payments began in 1990 under the direction of President George H.W. Bush – since then the United States has furthered its commitment to discouraging similar instances of bias and injustice towards minority communities and done more to advance the dedication to protecting human rights.
Co-written by Katherine Costanzo and Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.