February 19, 1942 (a Thursday)

Order posting.

On this date, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the War Department to define military areas in the western states and to exclude from them anyone who might threaten the war effort.  Key U.S. leaders claimed that all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the U.S. posed a risk to national security. This led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in what Roosevelt called “concentration camps,” often located in Native American reservations.

When war had seemed imminent with Japan in the Fall of 1941, Roosevelt had assigned a Chicago businessman, Curtis B. Munson, to be a special representative of the State Department and to go to the West Coast and Hawaii to determine the degree of loyalty to be found among the residents of Japanese descent.  Munson toured Hawaii and the Pacific Coast and interviewed Army and Navy intelligence officers, military commanders, city officials, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The overall result of his twenty-five page report was that:

…there is no Japanese “problem” on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There will undoubtedly be some sabotage financed by Japan and executed largely by imported agents.

…for the most part, the local Japanese are loyal to the U.S. or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war.

Munson’s report was submitted to the White House on November 7, 1941. It was then circulated to several Cabinet officials, including Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. On February 5, 1942, Stimson sent a copy of the so-called Munson Report to President Roosevelt, along with a memo stating that War Department officials had carefully studied the document.

The Munson Report should have conclusively put to rest the existence of Japanese sabotage in the United States. The report also should have resolved any fears about the security of the West Coast as well. The lack of any evidence showing the Japanese-Americans being involved in espionage rings should have prevented the need for internment camps, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States government chose to impound innocent people behind barbed wire. The results of Munson’s fact-finding mission were inexplicably suppressed until 1946.

Race prejudice and wartime hysteria.

Race prejudice and wartime hysteria.

Although two-thirds of the Japanese-American internees were U.S. citizens, they were targeted because of their ancestry and the way they looked. One internee, when told that the Japanese were put in those camps for their own protection, countered “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”

The living conditions in the concentration camps were often unsanitary, with families living in hastily constructed barracks near open sewers. Toilets were shared by everyone in the camp and had little or no privacy. Meals provided to the Japanese were meager and caused a great deal of malnourishment. Despite these poor conditions, programs were eventually put into place that improved the condition of the camps and allowed the prisoners to work for small wages.

On some occasions, riots broke out in the internment camps, resulting in death and injury. In January 1944, a military draft was produced by the government, forcing Japanese Americans in the camps to join the military and fight in World War II. Many of the draftees refused to join the military until they were given civil rights and the government, refusing, placed the resisters in federal prison.

Many prominent Japanese Americans formed lawsuits against the United States government during the internment. Among these were Hirabayashi vs. United States, Yasui vs. United States, and Korematsu vs. United States. These lawsuits placed a lot of pressure on the United States government and made many people question the constitutionality of the internment. On December 17, 1944, the United States declared an end to the internment and the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional on December 18, 1944.

After these events, Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the camps and return to their homes and live normally. By March 20, 1946, all of the internment camps had been closed, although most of the Japanese had become greatly disillusioned with the United States and continued to endure discrimination.

In 1983, a U.S. congressional commission “uncovered” the evidence from the 1940s proving that there had been no military necessity for the unequal, unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during WW II. The commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in ” … race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

During the Reagan-Bush years Congress moved toward the passage of Public Law 100-383 in 1988 which acknowledged the injustice of the internment, apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was interned.

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