“Yes, I remember the barbed wire and the guard towers and the machine guns, but they became part of my normal landscape. What would be abnormal in normal times became my normality in camp.”
– George Takei, Japanese-American actor and activist
Donald Trump has already signed more than a dozen executive orders since taking office less than a month ago. But executive orders have been issued by almost every U.S. president since 1789. The president who took the most advantage of this executive authority was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The only president to have served 4 terms in office, FDR signed 4,016 executive orders. Many of Roosevelt’s orders were related to the New Deal to help people recover from the devastation of the Great Depression. FDR was also responsible for one of the most notorious executive orders, E.O. 9066, paving the way to the internment of tens of thousands Japanese Americans, in camps along the west coast.
After the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, launching the U.S. officially into war with Japan, fear took a hold on the nation, with many people worried that citizens of Japanese descent would act as spies for the enemy government. Two months after the bombing, on February 19, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing regional military commanders to designate "military areas" from which "any or all persons may be excluded."
While there was no particular ethnic group mentioned in this order, the implications were obvious. This power was used to declare that all people of Japanese ancestry were excluded from the entire west coast, except for those in government camps. Americans who were as little as one 1/16 Japanese, and orphaned children with “one drop of Japanese blood” were eligible to be placed in these camps.
“Internment of Japanese is Demanded,” declared the January 29, 1942 issue of the Christian Science Monitor (available in ProQuest Historical Newspapers). “Pacific Coast residents who for years have associated with Japanese, citizens and aliens alike, and who have many friends among them, are joining in the increasing chorus calling for the removal of Japanese aliens from the coastal area where so much vital war production is centered,” the article observed.
“American citizens in such numbers never have been interned before for the safety of the nation in time of foreign war,” it continued. “The hope of all concerned has been that the American-born Japanese, many of whom are in our Army, could have a chance in this struggle to prove themselves for all future time as dependable member of the American citizenry, entitled to full responsibility and complete trust.”
After the Pearl Harbor attack, 5,500 Japanese American community leaders on the west coast were arrested and placed in custody. Under E.O. 9066, about 5,000 Japanese Americans voluntarily relocated outside the militarized zone. However, a majority of mainland Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes during the spring of 1942 and put into camps.
The internment lasted until spring 1946, and involved between 110,000-120,000 Japanese-American prisoners.
Baltimore’s Sunday Sun Times magazine section featured an article on February 7, 1942 that criticized the huge expense of these camps, and expressed concern in “bottling so great a number of workers” (Japanese farmers were responsible for growing 40% of produce from the state). This story released an avalanche of responses from Baltimore Sun readers, which were highlighted on March 21, 1943 in a piece entitled “Letters On the Jap Question.”
“There are some fine and loyal Japanese, but they are exceptions,” wrote L.L. Durgin from Alhambra, CA. “…I do not believe that the loyal Japs can be screened out with the secure confidence that they are loyal.”
“While the Japs probably cannot invade, they could easily coordinate and time an organized effort of sabotage from Seattle to San Diego against the small plants and the story would be written within thirty minutes. They would pay with their lives, but that seems to be a point of honor with them,” Durgin added.
Louise Cowlen of Rochester, NY penned a letter with a different point of view: “Your article makes me remember that yellow people were brought into this country as cheap labor. Now rich farm owners don’t want them, and the unions don’t want them, either.
“I don’t justify the Japanese attack on us, but I agree, as to the Japanese in this country who are loyal to America, that we should let them work and give them the rights that we enjoy,” she concluded.
“Many mistakes have been made dealing with the Japanese in this country,” argued Frank McGlynn of Hollywood, CA. “…I feel sure the that the FBI know of the activities of California Japanese, foreign-born and native-born, that will fully justify the segregation of all of them, to make certain no trickery will endanger this nation.”
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, authorizing “Federal redress to an estimated 65,000 surviving Americans of Japanese ancestry. They represent half of the number whom the Federal Government during World War II forcibly evacuated, relocated, and detained in internment camps,” according to the Congressional Research Services Report for Congress (available in full-text from ProQuest Congressional database), summarizing the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians findings.
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was established in 1980 to investigate the internment of Japanese Americans, resulting in a 467-page report based on the review of thousands of documents kept secret during the war. Many documents related to this Commission are available from ProQuest History Vault: Papers of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians collection.
“The law acknowledges the fundamental injustice of the treatment of the Japanese Americans, and apologizes to them on behalf of the people of the United States. According to the Act, the Federal Government during the War committed the injustice “without adequate security reasons and without any acts of espionage or sabotage” as documented by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. “[T]he Act concludes that the Federal actions against Japanese Americans were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” the Commission’s report acknowledged.
The first reparations checks promised to Japan American prisoners who’d been held in internment camps were issued by President George H.W. Bush at a ceremony in 1990. Nine elderly first-generation Japanese immigrants received $20,000 each and a formal apology from President Bush.
*For more information, visit ProQuest Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations, 1789-2017, the most unique and comprehensive collection spanning the history of executive actions and authority, curated on a document by document basis in consultation with archivists and librarians at the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as dozens of government, academic and public libraries, enhanced with indexing for simplified discoverability.
Additional resources from ProQuest History Vault:
Evacuation of the Japanese from the West Coast: Final Report and Papers of the Adjutant General’s Office chronicles the 1942 removal of Japanese Americans who lived in California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington State, and their resettlement in internment camps for the duration of the war. The collection includes assembly center newspapers; religious organization publications; Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) orders, proclamations, press releases, and reports; presidential executive orders and proclamations; Justice Department regulations; and reports of the Federal Security Agency and the American National Red Cross. The materials are compiled in bound volumes or folders, all of which were produced in 1942 by the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Office of Assistant Chief of Staff, Wartime Civil Control Administration, in San Francisco.