In the days and weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, pressure mounted from politicians on the West Coast. They demanded that “something be done” about the Issei and Nisei living there. Rumors spread about Japanese Americans preparing to aid a Japanese invasion of the United States. But when the Army and FBI investigated these rumors, they found them to be false.
General John L. DeWitt was responsible for the defense of the West Coast. Without any real evidence, he believed that people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and non-citizens alike, could not be trusted. He said that the lack of any sabotage on the West Coast only proved that they were waiting for the Japanese invasion to begin.
Working with others in the War Department, General DeWitt developed a plan to remove all the Issei and Nisei from their homes in the Western states and lock them in prison camps. The Justice Department, FBI, and Army intelligence all concluded that such a drastic action was not necessary. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, accepted General DeWitt’s recommendation.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This gave General DeWitt authority to order the mass evacuation of Issei and Nisei from the West Coast and other military areas. This order affected about 120,000 citizens and non-citizens of Japanese origin. The stated purpose of removing this entire ethnic group was for “protection against espionage and against sabotage.” Congress made it a crime to refuse to leave a military area when ordered to do so.
Starting on March 2, 1942, General DeWitt issued orders requiring all persons of Japanese ancestry in eight Western states to report to temporary assembly centers. When they reported, the government transported them to permanent “relocation centers,” the guarded prison camps where they would remain for up to four years.
When ordered to evacuate, Issei and Nisei families usually had only a few days to sell their homes, businesses, vehicles, and other property. Even so, almost all cooperated with General DeWitt’s orders, believing that by doing so they proved their loyalty.
Although more than 60 percent of those ordered to evacuate were U.S. citizens, none had a hearing or trial before the government locked them up in relocation camps. Once in the camps, however, the government asked them to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. Most did, but about 4 percent refused, protesting how they had been treated. The government classified these individuals as “disloyal.”
Ten camps were finally completed in remote areas of seven western states. Housing was spartan, consisting mainly of tarpaper barracks. Families dined together at communal mess halls, and children were expected to attend school. Adults had the option of working for a salary of $5 per day. The United States government hoped that the interns could make the camps self-sufficient by farming to produce food. But cultivation on arid soil was quite a challenge.
Most of the ten relocation camps were built in arid and semi-arid areas where life would have been harsh under even ideal conditions. Evacuees elected representatives to meet with government officials to air grievances, often to little avail. Recreational activities were organized to pass the time. Some of the interns actually volunteered to fight in one of two all-Nisei army regiments and went on to distinguish themselves in battle.
On the whole, however, life in the relocation centers was not easy. The camps were often too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The food was mass produced army-style grub. And the interns knew that if they tried to flee, armed sentries who stood watch around the clock, would shoot them.
FRED KOREMATSU decided to test the government relocation action in the courts. He found little sympathy there. In KOREMATSU VS. THE UNITED STATES, the Supreme Court justified the executive order as a wartime necessity. When the order was repealed, many found they could not return to their hometowns. Hostility against Japanese Americans remained high across the West Coast into the postwar years as many villages displayed signs demanding that the evacuees never return. As a result, the interns scattered across the country.
In 1988, Congress attempted to apologize for the action by awarding each surviving intern $20,000. This use of concentration camps during WWII remain a dark mark on the nation’s record of respecting civil liberties and cultural differences.