World War II Internment of Japanese-Americans: Wartime Necessity or Constitutional Crisis?

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In the wake of the Japanese Imperial Naval and Air Powers’ attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, there was considerable fear in America that the Japanese would not stop at Hawaii and that their eventual strategy was an invasion of the United States’ West Coast. As a result of this issue, many steps have been taken to protect West Coast residents, such as ordering blackouts during the night hours and shielding the top portion of car headlights to minimize light emission.However, these measures were insignificant compared to the Presidential Proclamation which President Franklin D. Roosevelt would issue on January 14, 1942. On this date, President Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation No. 2537, requiring aliens from World War II-enemy countries–Italy, Germany and Japan–to register with the United States Department of Justice (“Roosevelt Ushers”). This order had some small effect on German- and Italian-Americans but none so much as the Japanese-Americans. This was not so much because of Presidential Proclamation No. 2537 itself, but more because of what would follow, Executive Order 9066 issued on February 19, 1942, which authorized the physical removal of all Japanese Americans into internment camps (Roosevelt Ushers”).

The Executive Order which Roosevelt signed authorized the forcible removal of over 127,000 Americans of Japanese descent (Niiya) from their homes on the West Coast of the United States with their eventual relocation to one of 10 relocation camps spread across the western United States. The first step in the process was the posting of notification and evacuation orders in all Japanese-American communities telling them how to comply with the Executive Order (“Japanese-American Internment”). To comply with the orders, some families sold their homes, their stores, and most of their assets because “They could not be certain their homes and livelihoods would still be there upon their return” (“Japanese-American Internment”). The next step in this process was to take Japanese-Americans to one of 16 “Assembly Centers” located in Washington state, Oregon, California, and Arizona (Japanese-American National Museum) where they were screened, processed, and put on busses to their final destinations at one of the 10 relocation centers.

One of the facts that were hidden from most Americans was that “Almost two-thirds of the interns were Nisei, or Japanese Americans born in the United States. It made no difference that many had never even been to Japan” (“Japanese-American Internment”). Even Japanese-American veterans of World War I were forced to leave their homes. Another despicable and little known fact about the relocation was that prior to the internment camps being completed some Japanese-Americans were temporarily housed in places like stables at horse racing tracks.

Although, some Japanese-Americans like Fred Korematsu challenged the legality of the Executive Order, the Supreme Court ruled that the order was constitutional due to “wartime necessity” (“Japanese-American Internment”). Finally, the case of Ex Parte Endo in December 1944 finally ended the period of the internment camps, as the ruling stated “citizens who are concededly loyal” could not be held in War Relocation Authority concentration camps (“Ex Parte Endo”). In the years since the war, the United States government has done little to compensate Japanese-Americans for their internment apart from a formal apology and an offer of $20,000 to each surviving member of the internment camps. The legality of the U.S. government’s action regarding the Japanese-Americans has never been brought back before any federal courts so it is left to history to judge if their actions were legal or illegal.

Works Cited

“Japanese-American Internment.” U.S. History Online Textbook. Accessed on March 30, 2017.

Japanese-American National Museum. “Japanese-American Incarceration Facts.” Japanese-American National Museum website. Accessed March 30, 2017.

Niiya, Brian. “Executive Order 9066.” Densho Encyclopedia. 25 Aug 2015, 18:25 PDT. Accessed on March 30, 2017.

—. “Ex parte Endo.” Densho Encyclopedia. 29 Jul 2015, 05:53 PDT. Accessed on March 30, 2017.

“Roosevelt Ushers in Japanese-American Internment.” Accessed on March 30, 2017.

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