After Pearl Harbor was bombed in December 1941, the American military
became concerned about an attack from the Japanese on the mainland of
the United States. There were many people of Japanese descent living on
the West Coast at the time and the American government was worried that
they might help the enemy, Japan.
At the time there was no proven case of espionage or sabotage on the
part of Japanese or Japanese Americans in the United States. Still, in
February 1942, General DeWitt, the commanding officer of the Western
Defense Command, recommended that “Japanese and other subversive
persons” be removed from the West Coast. President Franklin D.
Roosevelt soon signed Executive order 9066, which allowed military
authorities to enact curfews, forbid people from certain areas, and to
move them to new areas. Congress then passed a law imposing penalties
for people who ignored these orders. Many Japanese and Japanese
Americans on the West Coast were moved to camps farther inland. This
was called internment. Japanese Americans were forced to sell their
homes and personal belongings and to move to the camps. They were
required to live in very basic camps or barracks, many of which did not
having running water or cooking facilities.
Fred Korematsu was a U.S. citizen. He was born in America of
Japanese parents. He tried to serve in the United States military, but
was rejected for health reasons. Later, he worked in a shipyard. When
the Japanese internment began in California, Korematsu moved to another
town. He also had some facial surgery and claimed to be
Mexican-American. He was later arrested and convicted of violating an
order that banned people of Japanese descent from the area of San
Leandro, California, which had a large military facility.
Korematsu challenged his conviction in the courts. He said that
Congress, the President, and the military authorities did not have the
power to issue the relocation orders. He also said that because the
order only applied to people of Japanese descent, the government was
discriminating against him on the basis of race.
The government argued that the evacuation of all Japanese Americans
was necessary to protect the country because there was evidence that
some were working for the Japanese government. The government said that
because there was no way to tell who was loyal and who was not, it had
to treat all people with Japanese ancestors as though they were
The federal appeals court agreed with the government. Korematsu
appealed this decision and the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Questions to Consider
Look at a copy of the Constitution. Which part (Article and
Section) describes the war power of the President? Which Article and
Section describes the war powers of the Congress?
The United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. People of German and Italian descent were also interned, but in fewer
numbers relative to the Japanese. What do you think explains the
differences in the ways they were treated?
In times of war, governments often must balance the needs of
national security with the civil rights of its citizens. In your
opinion, did the Japanese internment order find the right balance
between these competing values? Explain your reasons.