On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law Executive Order 9066, enabling what would be described by future historians and the public as one of the darkest episodes in American history. This executive order allowed for thousands of Japanese-American citizens, then deemed a threat to national security by the administration, to be herded like cattle into internment camps. In light of the current escalating attack on American civil liberties, the recent marking of the seventy-second anniversary of order 9066 demands a re-examination of the circumstances and failures which allowed for such a gross violation of inalienable rights.
Even prior to the passage of 9066, Japanese-Americans were subjected to racism. The Immigration Act of 1924 denied Japanese immigrants who settled in the United States after 1907 the right to become naturalized citizens, and blocked further immigration from Japan. Preceding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, racist conspiracy theories had already begun circulating about the efforts of Japanese-Americans to sabotage the United States. One journalist, fanning these flames, offered: “When the Pacific zero hour strikes, Japanese Americans will get busy at once. Their fishing boats will sow mines across the entrance of our ports. Mysterious blasts will destroy naval shipyards and flying fields and part of our fleet…Japanese farmers, having a virtual monopoly of vegetable production in California, will send their peas and potatoes and squash full of arsenic to the markets.”
In response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts issued a report alleging that Japanese espionage had contributed to the attack, serving to further reinforce opinions of Japanese-American collusion with Japan. Almost immediately, public pressure began mounting for Roosevelt’s administration to consider the process of relocating Japanese-Americans. Despite both FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Francis Biddle’s informing Roosevelt that all security risks had been contained and that “there were no reasons for mass evacuations,” Roosevelt continued forward and signed executive order 9066 into law. Although the order did not explicitly mention race or ethnicity, its undeniable intention was the targeting of Japanese-Americans.
Conditions of the government- imposed internment camps were deplorable, as most of the camps lacked running water, bathrooms, schools, insulated cabins, or even roofs. Within the camps, Japanese-Americans were paid a meager $12 a month for unskilled labor, and well-educated Japanese physicians earned a paltry $228 a year, while their Caucasian counterparts averaged $4,600. Notably, the very same Japanese who presented enough of a threat to require internment were given the option of leaving the camps if they enlisted in the American Army. Given this choice, only 1,200 of approximately 100,000 internees chose to leave.
Milton Eisenhower, director of the War Relocation Authority, promptly resigned upon witnessing camp inadequacies and the poor treatment of the internees. Eisenhower was not alone in his disapproval. In the Yale Law Journal in 1945, labor leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs spoke to the hypocrisy of order 9066 during America’s fight against Hitler’s Nazi forces which were likewise employing camps to contain those races, religions, or political ideologies they deemed dangerous: “We believe that the German people bear a common political responsibility for outrages secretly committed by the Gestapo and the SS. What are we to think of our own part in a program which violates every democratic social value, yet has been approved by the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court?” Despite these and many other protests regarding 9066, the U.S. government waited more than 40 years to issue a national apology and reparations to survivors of the internment camps.
In post-9/11 America, egregious assaults on civil liberties and the usurpation of executive authority make conditions ripe for interning any one person or group perceived as a threat by the reigning administration. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, referring to the detention of thousands of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and the possibility of repeating such a policy, recently observed: “That’s what was going on — the panic about the war and the invasion of the Pacific and whatnot. That’s what happens. It was wrong, but I would not be surprised to see it happen again, in time of war. It’s no justification but it is the reality.”
Executive order 9066 is a dark and shameful chapter in American history; ironically, it is also one of the most important. An honest exploration of 9066 offers lessons of the dangers posed by a “perfect storm” of public hysteria, sensationalized media, and absolutely-empowered government; it likewise offers warning that, in the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “…Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster…”
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