From the Archive

[link to this page]

Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.

February 2008 - Executive Order 9066: Choosing War over Justice

Roosevelt signing declaration of war against Japan (from denshopd-i37-00486)
"It is a fact that communication takes place between the enemy at sea and enemy agents on land...It is also a fact that since the outbreak of the Japanese war there has been no important sabotage on the Pacific Coast....This is not, as some have liked to think, a sign that there is nothing to be feared. It is a sign that the blow is well-organized and that it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect."
   -- Walter Lippmann, The Washington Post, February 12, 1942

February marks a painful and fateful anniversary in Japanese American history. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ended a heated debate between the War Department and Justice Department when he signed Executive Order 9066, the implement that opened the way for the Army to force every person of Japanese descent on the West Coast away from their homes and businesses and into indefinite detention. The Army claimed military necessity. The true motivations were more complex.

E.O. 9066 is a bland document that authorizes military commanders to designate national security zones "from which any or all persons may be excluded." The document does not specify people of Japanese descent; it says nothing about citizenship status. It could have been applied en masse to Germans, Italians, or any other group of the army's choice, but only Japanese American communities were uprooted and held in prison camps by the tens of thousands. In one moment Roosevelt suspended the legal rights of some 50,000 resident immigrants and 70,000 U.S. citizens. Because they shared the race of the enemy, they were presumed disloyal.

It is indisputable that in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the West Coast lived in legitimate fear of being attacked. It is also indisputable that a century of anti-Asian prejudice led many to illegitimately equate every Japanese face with the enemy. Narrators in Densho's archive of video interviews speak of FBI agents raiding their homes and treating them as potential saboteurs. Many Nisei also recall how Caucasians quickly saw an opportunity to profit if their Japanese Americans competitors disappeared.

A day or two after Pearl Harbor, then we got the visit from two men, dressed in suits and the hats in those days, and I was... my older brother, my oldest brother was in the service, so my next older brother took over in terms of interpreting and all that. And it turned out the FBI had received a report that my father might be a spy because we had a shortwave radio. That radio happened to be an eight-dollar -- I remember the figure, eight dollars -- because we saved for it for Christmas, the Christmas before. It was just a little old radio that couldn't get the station very far. But apparently -- and we found out later it was a neighbor who had said that. And so, the FBI men questioned, oh, it must have been an hour or so, and found that there was nothing. He was nothing but a humble, little dry cleaning operator and so they left. Then following them, we felt that since, sort of, that we needed to be very unnoticeable. In other words, all socials stopped. I remember there was going to be a dance at the Spanish Castle and everybody... it was called off. Everything stopped. But December, January... the weeks after Pearl Harbor, there wasn't a lot of difference. There was this subdued feeling, but it was only later, several weeks or even a month later that the newspapers started to come out with these stories of potentially sabotage so that then the columnists, Walter Winchell and all that... and that began to build. Then the labor unions -- Dave Beck was quite strong in this area -- and so then that sentiment among the public began to build. Because I think the records will show right after Pearl Harbor there wasn't a lot of outcry. It was only later on and it was stirred up by these elements. Economic forces. I don't think enough emphasis had been (placed) on the economic factor. People looked at the farmlands and looked at the holdings of Japanese and wanted them out. I mean, this was a good chance to get them out of the area and so the cry then began, to move all of us.

Newspapers fed the hysteria on the West Coast by publishing unsubstantiated reports of espionage and sabotage committed by Japanese immigrants. Editorials calling for mass exclusion written by the influential columnist Walter Lippmann had a profound impact. California governor Earl Warren and other politicians responded to the public's calls and pressured President Roosevelt to rid the coast of what they claimed were tens of thousands of potential spies. The general public did not know 70 percent of those "spies" were U.S. citizens, 18 years old on average, and that virtually all of the remaining 30 percent were permanent residents whose average age was 50 and who had immigrated to America decades earlier.

A debate ensued in Washington, D.C. Attorney General Francis Biddle opposed a mass "evacuation." He recognized the legal authority to intern the alien Issei generation (barred from becoming naturalized citizens by discriminatory legislation), but he had grave misgivings about depriving the Nisei of their rights as citizens. Justice Department lawyers argued that rounding up the Nisei would be unconstitutional, but public opinion and the military won the argument. Roosevelt accepted General John DeWitt's insistence that there was no way to distinguish the loyal from disloyal in this "tightly-knit racial group." DeWitt maintained that all "Japs" were suspect and were already helping the Imperial Japanese navy attack American ships. They all had to go.

In accepting DeWitt's argument of military necessity, Roosevelt dismissed multiple intelligence reports from the Navy, the FBI, and his own special investigators.1 The reports agreed that Japanese immigrants and their American children did not pose a serious threat, and were no more dangerous than their Italian or German counterparts. The head of the FBI himself, J. Edgar Hoover, told the president there was no need for mass exclusion. Hoover also clearly stated in writing that DeWitt's final report justifying the forced removal of Japanese Americans contained false claims of espionage. Other documents preserved in the Densho Archive show that the FCC and Justice Department further refuted DeWitt's claims. Justice Department attorney Edward Ennis went on record to say the general's report contained "numerous false statements" and should "not be cited by the Government as any justification whatsoever for evacuation." Yet DeWitt's report formed the basis of the government's arguments before the Supreme Court, which upheld the legality of the mass detention.

Why did Roosevelt ignore all this high-level advice and sign E.O. 9066? In By Order of the President, author Greg Robinson proposes that the answer lay in FDR's pragmatic politics and racial views of the time. He had a war to conduct and was not concerned about the civil rights of people he considered "unassimilable aliens." Robinson asserts, "The President's decision to approve evacuation was not one of malice but of indifference."2 That indifference cost 120,000 innocent individuals their freedom, fortunes, and dignity, and irrevocably changed the course of their lives.

When in the 1970s Japanese American redress activists learned that Executive Order 9066 had never been revoked, they launched a successful effort to have it nullified. On February 19, 1976, the nation's bicentennial anniversary, President Gerald Ford issued a proclamation formally terminating the infamous document. In signing the proclamation, Ford remarked, "I call upon the American people to affirm with me this American Promise - that we have learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American, and resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated." 3

1. Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, D.C., 1982-83; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), pp. 52-54. [ link ]

2. Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 121, 124.[ link ]

3. Proclamation 4417, "Confirming the Termination of the Executive Order Authorizing Japanese-American Internment during World War II, February 19, 1976. [ link ]

To create a free archive user account, go to:

Copyright ©1997-2015 Densho. All Rights Reserved.