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In 1942, shortly after American entry into World War II, the Office of War Information released a short propaganda film detailing the government’s “Japanese Relocation” policy – what historians now refer to as Japanese Internment. The policy involved what the film called a “mass migration” of some 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the West Coast to internment camps in the American interior. While approximately one-third of internees were persons born in Japan (“aliens”), the rest were American citizens of Japanese ancestry.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor united the American public and propelled the United States to join World War II by an overwhelming 82-0 vote in the Senate and 388-1 in the House of Representatives. Two months after the U.S. declaration of war, in February 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the Secretary of War to designate “military areas” and exclude “any or all persons” within those areas while subjecting them “to whatever restrictions” he deemed necessary. Executive Order 9066 did not mention Japanese or Japanese Americans by name, yet U.S. government officials only required Americans and aliens of Japanese ancestry to “evacuate” their homes and relocate into government-controlled camps. Although U.S. officials arrested and interned a small number of persons of Italian and German descent, these cases were dealt with on an individual, rather than group, basis.
These different approaches reflected, among other things, the long legal and cultural history of anti-Asian racism in the United States. The Naturalization Law of 1870, for example, mandated that one be a “free white person” or “of African descent” to acquire American citizenship, thus rendering Asians ineligible for naturalization. One-third of those the United States government interned therefore had no legal path to American citizenship. The nation’s immigration laws bolstered the racism inherent in U.S. naturalization policies. The Immigration Act of 1924 excluded “all of those ineligible for citizenship” from entering the United States under a new quota system. The euphemism “ineligible for citizenship” prohibited the vast majority of Asians from immigrating to the U.S. This long standing, codified racism, combined with post-Pearl Harbor hysteria, created a potent anti-Japanese sentiment within the United States during the opening days of the war.
Milton Eisenhower, War Relocation Authority Director (and brother of future President Dwight D. Eisenhower) narrates the “Japanese Relocation” film. As Eisenhower explains, U.S. officials insisted that after the attack on Pearl Harbor the “West Coast had become a potential combat zone.” Early in the film, Eisenhower concedes that two-thirds of the Japanese forced to relocate were American citizens, and therefore offers a variety of justifications to explain the government’s forced relocation policy. First, Eisenhower appeals to Americans’ emotions by cautioning, “some among them [Japanese on the West Coast] were potentially dangerous” and suggesting, “no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population” should the Japanese invade. With Americans having just suffered the first attack on their soil since the War of 1812, such warnings were sure to fall on receptive ears. The film bolsters Eisenhower’s emotional appeals with powerful visual images. Actual footage of U.S. military installations, for example, shrewdly attempted to convince to Americans of an urgent need to protect military assets. That, from afar, these locales seemed unguarded and even serene also added weight to the government’s claim that any disloyal individuals on the West Coast might be able to use their strategic location to pass American military secrets to the Japanese.
the only voice that appears throughout the film is Eisenhower’s; those of Japanese ancestry were not permitted to speak for themselves
The film’s editing and script also add a veneer of legitimacy, patriotism and even luxury to a policy that was of dubious constitutionality and produced conditions that were grim at best. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the only voice that appears throughout the film is Eisenhower’s; those of Japanese ancestry were not permitted to speak for themselves. Moreover, the film is careful to cast the camps in the best possible light by showing only orderly scenes where dutiful and sometimes smiling internees seem to enjoy many of the benefits of American democracy: the right to self-government (within the camps), educational opportunities and “healthful nourishing food.” The reality was far less picturesque. U.S. officials required Americans and aliens of Japanese ancestry to quickly dispose of their homes, farms and shops, a policy which often involved the loss of Japanese American families’ most valuable assets accumulated over generations. Government officials also severely limited what internees could bring with them, permitting the forced migrants to only bring a few personal items they could carry. Despite the film’s insistence that provisions in the camps were adequate, nearly all non-government sources on the camps describe the conditions as ranging from poor to appalling.
Some argued at the time that the U.S. government failed to strike an appropriate balance between protecting the constitutional rights enshrined in the Constitution and meeting the needs of waging total war. One such individual was Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent who was arrested for refusing to present himself for internment. In 1944, the Supreme Court heard the case of Korematsu v. United States. Korematsu argued that U.S. internment policy infringed upon his constitutional rights, while the government’s case rested on an argument that military necessity reigned supreme in times of war. The Court ruled 6-3 against Korematsu, upholding the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. In his dissent, Justice Robert H. Jackson warned that the decision “lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim” of national security concerns. By the late 1980s, U.S. policymakers widely regarded Japanese Internment as a mistake. In 1988 Congress issued a formal apology and a few years later appropriated over $500 million to be distributed annually until all of the Internment survivors received compensation. While we tend to differentiate between “domestic policy” and “foreign policy,” the case of Japanese Internment demonstrates that the line between the two is nebulous. Moreover, as more recent clashes make clear, Americans are still far from reaching definitive answers to questions about how to balance constitutional rights and national security needs.
Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015.
Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Updated edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.