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Monday, February 19, 2007

Executive Order 9066 Issued, February 19, 1942

Today in 1942, US President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which gave military authorities the right to declare large sections of the United States to be military areas. Once so declared, these areas could be cleared of any and all persons who were perceived to be a threat to the national security of the United States. While the order did not mention Americans of Japanese ancestry specifically, it was aimed squarely at them. What followed was the largest forced internment of American citizens in history.

While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ultimately prompted the issue of the executive order, anti-Asian sentiment in some parts of the United States had existed for generations. Some California farmers publicly supported the internment not for national security reasons, but simply because they saw Japanese-American farmers as a threat to their profitability. As one farmer told the Saturday Evening Post in 1942: "And we don't want them back when the war ends, either."

The executive order would result in the removal of 120,000 Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent from their homes in military areas. Most of this land was along the Pacific coast, which also happened to be where most first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans lived. Several thousand Italian and German nationals were also forced to move or were interned as a result of the order, but those of Japanese descent were by far the group most impacted.

Of the 120,000 people forced to move from their homes, 62 percent were Nisei; that is, second-generation Japanese-Americans. The remainder were Issei; either first-generation Japanese-Americans or resident aliens. Thus, the vast majority of those forced to relocate were American citizens with the same rights as those whose ancestors came from elsewhere. They were singled out because of their race.

10,000 of those forced to relocate were able to move to other parts of the country. The remainder, 110,000 men, women and children, were sent to "War Relocation Centers", internment camps hastily built in remote areas of the country. The War Relocation Authority, the government agency created to oversee the camps, ran 10 such camps in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. The Department of Justice also ran camps, but these were for people actually accused of criminal activity or deemed too dangerous to remain in the other facilities.

The buildings in the camps were built from designs meant for army barracks, meaning that families had no private bathrooms, kitchens or living rooms---everything was communal. Some of the camps, such as those in Utah and Wyoming, were not built to protect their inhabitants against the bitterly cold winters. Furthermore, most of the internees did not have winter clothing as they had lived in much gentler climates.

The internment program was overseen by Lieutenant General John Dewitt, who repeatedly told West Coast newspapers that "a Jap's a Jap." He, along with some in his chain of command, feared that a significant Japanese fifth column existed in the United States and would one day attack military and industrial targets within the country. They sited the fact that many people of Japanese descent living in the US had received at least part of their education in Japan, where loyalty to the Emperor was a central part of schools' curricula.

Almost everyone interred as a result of the Executive Order 9066 lost property,a business, money or a combination of the three. They were given little time to get their affairs in order and many left home with only the items they could carry. Some who were landowners tried to sell their property, but ended up receiving only pennies on the dollar because all sales had to be concluded in such a short period of time. More than one land speculator became wealthy overnight because of the order.

By early 1944, when it was becoming clear that Japan would lose the war, the government began letting people at the internment camps return home on a case-by-case basis. In January, 1945, the order restricting Americans of Japanese descent from living in military areas was lifted entirely. The camps stayed open for the rest of the year as the people there tried to put their lives back together and move back home. Many never regained their economic status and many never looked at their neighbors the same way again. Almost all who went to the camps did so without a fight, believing that as loyal citizens they should abide by the orders of their government.

One of the opponents of the internment was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who stated that there was no basis for the belief that Japanese-Americans were more likely to pose a security risk than any other citizen. In fact, not one act or suspected act of sabotage in the United States during the Second World War was traced to anyone of Japanese ancestry.

The US Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought in Europe and was the most highly decorated unit of its size in that theater of the war. It was comprised almost entirely of men who had volunteered to join the Army while living in the internment camps. Many others had volunteered to fight on the condition that they or their families be granted their rights as Americans, but these demands were denied.

In August, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations to Japanese-Americans interned during the war. Each surviving internee was granted $20,000 with payments beginning in 1990. The act stated that the government actions of 1942-1945 in relation to the internment were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

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