When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, destroying
much of the American Pacific Fleet, the American military became
concerned about the security of the mainland United States, particularly
along the West Coast. The Japanese military had achieved significant
and swift success throughout the Pacific. Many Americans turned their
fear and outrage over the actions of the Japanese government on people
of Japanese descent, both citizens and non-citizens, living lawfully in
the United States.
At the time, approximately 112,000 people of Japanese descent lived
on the West Coast; about 70,000 of these were American citizens. Many
Japanese Americans had close cultural ties with their homeland, sending
children home for schooling and even collecting tinfoil and money to
send to Japan during its war with China. At the time, however, there
was no proven case of espionage or sabotage on the part of Japanese or
Japanese Americans in the United States.
Nonetheless, in February 1942, General DeWitt, the commanding officer
of the Western Defense Command, recommended that “Japanese and other
subversive persons” be evacuated from the Pacific Coast. He claimed,
The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second
and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of
United States citizenship, have become ‘Americanized,’ the racial
strains are undiluted. To conclude otherwise is to expect that children
born of white parents on Japanese soil sever all racial affinity and
become loyal Japanese subjects ready to fight and, if necessary, to die
for Japan in a war against the nation of their parents.
He also said that there was “no ground for assuming that any
Japanese, barred from assimilation by convention as he is, though born
and raised in the United States, will not turn against this nation when
the final test of loyalty comes.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt acted on this recommendation by
signing Executive Order 9066. This authorized the Secretary of War or
any designated commander, at their sole discretion, to limit and even
prohibit some people from being in certain areas. Soon after the order
was enacted, Congress sanctioned the executive order by passing a law
that imposed penalties for those who violated the restrictions that
evolved from the order. The ensuing restrictions on people of Japanese
origin included curfews and forced removal to assembly and relocation
centers much farther inland. Relocation to these centers was called
internment. Most were required to live in barracks, many of which did
not having running water or cooking facilities. They were only allowed
to bring basic personal items. Thus, many suffered heavy financial
losses when they were forced to quickly sell their homes, vehicles, and
Fred Korematsu was an American-born citizen of Japanese descent who
grew up in Oakland, California. He tried to serve in the United States
military, but was rejected for poor health. He was able, however, to
get a job in a shipyard. When Japanese internment began in California,
Korematsu evaded the order and moved to a nearby town. He also had some
facial surgery, changed his name and claimed to be Mexican-American. He was later arrested and convicted of violating Exclusion Order No. 34
issued by General DeWitt, which barred all persons of Japanese descent
from the “military area” of San Leandro, California. There was no
question at the time of conviction that Korematsu had been loyal to the
United States and was not a threat to the war effort.
Korematsu challenged his conviction on the grounds that the
relocation orders were beyond the powers of Congress, the military
authorities and the President. He also asserted that to apply these
orders only to those of Japanese ancestry amounted to constitutionally
prohibited discrimination based on race. The government argued that the
exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans was justified because it
was necessary to the war effort. They said there was evidence that
some Japanese Americans were involved in espionage, and argued that
because there was no way to tell the loyal from the disloyal, all people
of Japanese descent had to be treated as though they were disloyal.
The federal appeals court ruled in favor of the United States, and
Korematsu’s appeal brought the issue 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?
In your opinion, how convincing is General DeWitt’s argument about the loyalty of the Japanese and Japanese Americans?
The United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. People of German and Italian descent were also interned, but in
relatively fewer numbers than 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.