The Japanese-American internment camps serve as a stark reminder of what angry, frightened Americans are capable of.
In 1941, more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry – two-thirds of whom were natural-born citizens of the United States – lived and worked in the West Coast states. In July of that year, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on the Empire of Japan aimed at breaking its war machine.
It was strongly suspected that this would eventually trigger a war with Japan, so when, on September 24, a Japanese cable was intercepted that suggested a sneak attack was being planned, the Roosevelt Administration took it very seriously. One of Roosevelt’s first acts was to commission Detroit-based businessman Curtis Munson to investigate the loyalty of America’s Japanese population.
The Munson Report, as it came to be known, was assembled in record time. Munson delivered his draft copy on October 7, and the final version was on Roosevelt’s desk a month later, on November 7. The report’s findings were unequivocal: No threat of armed insurrection or other sabotage among the overwhelmingly loyal Japanese-American population existed.
Many of them had never even been to Japan, and quite a few of the younger ones didn’t speak Japanese. Even among the older, Japan-born Isei, opinions and sentiment were strongly pro-American and were not likely to waver in the event of war with their mother country.
Taken in isolation, the Munson Report strikes a hopeful note about Americans’ ability to set aside differences of race and national origin and build healthy communities. Unfortunately, the Munson Report was not taken in isolation. By the end of November, thousands of law-abiding Japanese-Americans had secretly been designated “high-risk” and were quietly arrested. These unlucky people would have to hear about America’s Day of Infamy from inside their jail cells. Worse was yet to come.
Executing Order 9066
Immediately after the December 7 attack, Americans were angry and looking for a way to deal with the blow. Ambitious politicians were happy oblige and played to the worst instincts of a frightened public. Then-Attorney General and later California Governor Earl Warren, the man who would later drive the Supreme Court to adopt groundbreaking anti-segregation rulings, wholeheartedly supported the removal of ethnic Japanese in California.
Though removal was a federal policy, Warren’s support paved the way for its smooth execution in his state. Even in 1943, when fear of Japanese Fifth Column activities had become completely untenable, Warren still supported internment enough to tell a group of fellow lawyers:
“If the Japs are released, no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap. . . We don’t want to have a second Pearl Harbor in California. We don’t propose to have the Japs back in California during this war if there is any lawful means of preventing it.”
Warren wasn’t alone in his sentiments. Assistant War Secretary John McCloy and others in the Army command prevailed on President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order, which the Supreme Court later found to be constitutional, established an “Exclusion Zone” that started on the coast and covered the western halves of Washington and Oregon, all of California to the Nevada border, and the southern half of Arizona.
The 120,000 designated “Enemy Aliens” in this zone were unceremoniously rounded up and shipped out. They were given virtually no time to sell their possessions, homes, or businesses, and most lost everything they had ever owned. Civilians who hindered the evacuations – say, by hiding Japanese friends or lying about their whereabouts – were subject to fines and imprisonment themselves. By the Spring of 1942, the evacuations were underway across the Exclusion Zone.