On February 19, 1942, two months after the U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that permitted military authorities to declare areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded." General John L. DeWitt used this authority to force almost all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. Two thirds of the approximately110,000 persons sent to the camps were born in the United States and therefore were citizens; 30,000 were children; the rest were legal residents.
The military internment unleashed unabashed nativism and racism. Japanese ethnicity was rapidly made into a race in the classic white pattern. One of those military authorities, Major Karl Bendetsen, explained his plans:
This racializing of an ethnic group had broad consequences in the internment orders:
And it is inadequate to think of the internment only as the mass imprisonment of families in hastily converted stables and remote tent camps; this was also about envious white neighbors seizing the property of the more prosperous Japanese-Americans. Many white residents of California and parts north had always resented their Japanese-American competitors. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, spelled out his views to the Saturday Evening Post:
Internees lost their businesses, their savings, and their even their personal property.
In Hawaii, which had suffered an actual attack and sat in the midst of the Pacific battlefield, only 2000 of 157,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were placed in camps. The military there needed Japanese American labor in the fields and ship repair yards!
On the mainland, although by end of the war many Japanese Americans had been released and even recruited into the military,
Most Japanese Americans never got their property back, but they campaigned long and hard for legal vindication and even reparations. In the late 1980s, Congress ordered payments of $20,000 to surviving detainees.
Hardship and mistreatment aren't good for anyone, but many Japanese Americans of the generation consigned to the camps became tenacious fighters for human freedom including Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Yuri Kochiyama. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) advocates for the civil and human rights of all people. They can be bold: JACL came out for legalizing same sex marriage in 1994 when most LGBT people had barely thought about this remote possibility. Today JACL is in the forefront of activities in support of the civil rights of Muslims and of calls for resettling Syrian escapees in the United States.
We should all be so generous.
The photo is a detail from a commemorative monument Japantown, San Francisco. I have used Wikipedia liberally here to check numbers and dates. The article on the internment is exceptionally good.