The Crimes of Executive Order 9066

World War 2 Roundups of Japanese Americans

Revolutionary Worker #1138, February 10, 2002, posted at  

“At a time of national crisis, I think it is particularly apparent that we need to encourage the study of our past. Our children and grandchildren—indeed all of us—need to know the ideas and ideals on which our nation has been built. We need to understand how fortunate we are to live in freedom. We need to understand that living in liberty is such a precious thing that generations of men and women have been willing to sacrifice everything for it. We need to know, in a war, exactly what is at stake.”

Lynne Cheney, October 5, 2001

Lynne Cheney, wife of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, is a major right-wing figure who is playing a leading role in attacks on progressive academics and thought on campuses. The above quote is from the pamphlet "Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It"--which is "a project of the Defense Civilization Fund" of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

The history of the United States is indeed filled with examples of what this country is founded on--from genocide of Indians and slavery of millions of Africans to the killing of thousands in Afghanistan today. The following is the story of one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history--the imprisoning of more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps during World War 2.


Sixty years ago, on February 19, 1942, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which authorized the mass round-up of Japanese Americans by the military.

Two months earlier, on December 7, 1941, Japan had carried out a military attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai'i. This was the opening for the U.S. to enter World War 2.

The official U.S. myth is that the bombing of Pearl Harbor forced the U.S. into a war of self-defense against the treachery of expansionist Japan. In reality, the roots of the war in the Pacific lay in decades of U.S. imperialist expansion and rivalry with the Japanese imperialists.

With ambitions of colonial expansion in Asia, U.S. seized Hawai'i from the Hawaiian people in 1893. In 1899, the U.S. sent half its military forces to conquer the Philippines, killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in three years of bloody warfare to crush their resistance.

The U.S. was not the only power with greedy eyes on Asia and the Pacific. The British, French and Dutch imperialists had already carved out colonies for themselves. And Japan, an emerging imperialist power, wanted to secure its own colonies and sources of rubber, oil, and labor. Leading up to Pearl Harbor, the rivalry between Japan and the U.S. and other powers had come to a boiling point. (Imperialist war had already broken out in Europe, and the U.S. also entered that war immediately after Pearl Harbor.)

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. government deliberately inflamed fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast in order to stir war hysteria. This is where the story of the mass round-up of Japanese Americans begins.

Creating War Hysteria

Racism and discrimination were nothing new for Japanese living in the U.S. in 1942. The 1913 Immigrant Land Law in California, aimed specifically at the Japanese, declared that land ownership by "aliens ineligible for citizenship" was unlawful. And naturalized U.S. citizenship was restricted to whites--a racist rule that didn't end until 1952. Arguing for the Land Law, the California Attorney General said that it was fine to single out the Japanese because of "race undesirability." The Sacramento Bee wrote that the Japanese "increase like rats." Seeking re-election, Senator James Phelan campaigned on the slogan "Keep California White."

The U.S. government had no evidence that Japanese Americans posed any threat as a "fifth column" to aid the Japanese war effort. On November 7, 1941, one month before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt received a confidential report saying that Japanese in the U.S. did not pose a danger. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover concluded that mass evacuations could not be justified for security reasons.

But all this did not stop the portrayal of Japanese Americans as "enemies" and the whipping up of racist attacks. The L.A. Times editorialized: "A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched--so a Japanese American, born of Japanese parents...grows up to be a Japanese and not an American....Thus while it might cause injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies...we are at war with their race."

Lt. General John DeWitt--head of the Western Defense Command--wrote: "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.... It therefore follows that along the Pacific Coast over 112,000 potential enemies of Japanese extraction are at large today."

The ugly attacks on Japanese Americans tapped into the white supremacy built into the foundations of U.S. society. And these racist attacks were a deliberate part of rallying support for the U.S. war effort.

Initial Round- Ups

The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the government froze all assets owned by Japanese in the U.S. Creditors, landlords, and banks swooped down like vultures, refusing credit or any delay in payment. Families were forced out of their homes, farmers were driven off their land, small businesses quickly went under.

The FBI started making raids and dragging off issei (first-generation immigrant) men. Between December 7 and December 10, the FBI swept through the Japanese communities of Hawai'i and the West Coast and arrested nearly 1,300 issei men. The FBI didn't just arrest those who had expressed pro-Japan sympathies--they targeted virtually every issei who had been active in any part of the Japanese community: Among those caught in the dragnet was an 85-year-old who was deaf, half-blind and suffered from stomach cancer. FBI agents swooped down on a baseball field to apprehend members of the team L.A. Nippons. Even Japanese members of the American Legion were rounded up.

The round-ups put the established leadership of the Japanese community behind bars. The raids also caused severe economic hardship. "When men were picked up by the FBI," one Japanese American explained, "the women and children couldn't run the farms or hire help to do it for them, and so $10,000 of celery would rot in the ground and there would be a lifetime of savings invested in it. On top of this, the press and the public would accuse the people of trying to sabotage the war effort by not caring for their crops."

The FBI was able to strike quickly because they had already compiled lists identifying key community leaders. As early as 1936, Roosevelt had written in a secret memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations: "Every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships or has any connection to their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be put in a concentration camp in the event of trouble." By 1939 lists of "dangerous" non-citizens and citizens were being compiled by the FBI, special intelligence agencies of the Justice Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the army's Military Intelligence Division.

On Nov. 12, 1941, fifteen Japanese American businessmen and community leaders in L.A.'s Little Tokyo were picked up in an FBI raid. Records and membership lists for various business and community organizations were seized. Less than two weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, Roosevelt ordered his staff to produce, in the shortest time possible, the full names and addresses of each U.S.-born and foreign-born Japanese, using information from the 1930 and 1940 census.

Leaders of one Japanese American group, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), aided the FBI. The JACL was made up primarily of nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans, with U.S. citizenship) professionals. Before the war they had been mainly a social club for upwardly mobile nisei. They also engaged in lobbying and legal battles. At a time of intense legal and extralegal discrimination against Japanese Americans, the main struggle waged by the JACL was to get citizenship for issei who had served in the U.S. armed forces. Immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, the JACL wired Roosevelt with a message pledging their "fullest cooperation" and their "loyalty to America."

As the FBI rounded up Japanese community leaders, the U.S. government also claimed to be defending democracy and the rights of all. Attorney General Francis Biddle said, "If we care about democracy, we must care about it as a reality for others, for Germans, for Italians, for Japanese[3 dots]. For the Bill of Rights protects not only American citizens but all human beings who live on our American soil, under our American flag."

As they saw the leadership of their parents' generation rounded up, many nisei believed the government's lies that the attacks would stop there. Frank Emi, who would later emerge as one of the leaders of the resistance movement at the Heart Mountain concentration camp, said that the nisei "didn't have an inkling that we ourselves were going to be bothered because we nisei were born here in this country and we were American citizens." These illusions would be quickly shattered.

Curfew and Evacuation

Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 directed the Secretary of War to set up military areas where "the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to such restrictions as the Secretary of War or the appropriate military commander may impose in his discretion." This order was a blank check to General DeWitt to carry out mass round-ups of Japanese Americans in the West Coast.

General DeWitt had been pushing for this authority since Pearl Harbor. He argued that "the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date" was a "disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken."

On March 24, 1942, DeWitt ordered that all German, Italian and Japanese non-citizens and all U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry (but not German or Italian) be confined to their homes between 8 o'clock in the evening and 6 in the morning. They were also required to get military leave to travel more than five miles from their home. Japanese who lived in rural areas needed military permission to go shopping, to get their hair done, or deliver vegetables to market. One family in Portland, Oregon, hearing that a family member was gravely ill, requested permission to visit her in a hospital in Salem. When approval finally came, it was too late--the relative had died. The woman's sister recalled later, "All I knew was that she was dead and that 'they' had done it."

Shortly after the curfews began, General DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 4 which forbade any person of Japanese ancestry in the Western halves of California, Oregon and Washington and the Southern half of Arizona to leave those areas without military permission--in order "to ensure an orderly, supervised, and thoroughly controlled evacuation" from those areas. A few weeks later DeWitt added the eastern halves of California, Oregon, and Washington. Before this proclamation, Japanese Americans had been told that "relocation" would be voluntary.

Japanese Americans were ordered to register with the Wartime Civilian Control Administration and prepare to be removed to "temporary residence elsewhere." They were not told where they would be taken to or for how long.

Each family was given a number. "Henry went to the control station to register the family," remembered one Japanese American. "He came home with 20 tags all numbered 10710. The tags were to be attached to each piece of luggage and one to hang from our coat lapels. From that time on we were known as Family #10710."

Posters appeared in Japanese communities: "Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 27, this headquarters, dated April 30, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the area by 12 o'clock noon, Thursday May 7, 1942."

Told that they would only be able to take what they could carry, people were forced to sell almost all of their possessions in less than a week at rock-bottom prices. "I remember how agonizing was my despair," one evacuee recounted, "to be given only about six days to dispose of our property." Another person said, "It is difficult to describe the feeling of despair and humiliation experienced by all of us as we watched the Caucasians coming to look over our possessions and offering such nominal amounts, knowing that we had no recourse but to accept whatever they were offering because we didn't know what the future held for us."

Before the war Japanese Americans farmed 40% of the total acreage in California. Their land--as well as $40 million of crops in the ground and over $100 million in investments--was virtually stolen from them when they were forced to sell very cheaply. People lost over $4 million in businesses--mostly small businesses. "My dad he worked for 50 years with a lot of sweat. Built a home for us and bought a ranch, and in 24 hours, bingo--everything lost," one Japanese American remembered.

Where Was the Resistance?

Three men--Minoru Yasui in Oregon, Fred Korematsu in California, and Gordon Hirabayshi in Washington- -refused to report for evacuation and insisted the orders were unconstitutional. "It was not acceptable to me to be less than a full citizen in a white man's country," explained Hirabayshi. The three were arrested, convicted and sent to prison. They took their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the convictions on the basis that the government's policies were based on military necessity.

Why wasn't there more resistance as over 110,000 Japanese Americans were herded into concentration camps? Part 2 of this series will tell of the heroic and determined resistance that developed inside the camps. However, at a crucial moment the needed resistance to the outrage of mass round-ups did not develop.

Several factors contributed to this. As already mentioned, the preemptive arrest of the issei left the community without its traditional leadership. Many nisei were disarmed by U.S. government lies and promises and believed that their citizenship would protect them from being herded into concentration camps. Meanwhile, organizations that were in a position to oppose the round-ups and to encourage resistance among Japanese Americans and others ended up supporting the U.S. government. The JACL president summed up the organization's position in a speech in March of 1942: "We are going into exile as our duty to our country because the President and the military commanders of this area have deemed it necessary. We have pledged our full support to President Roosevelt and to the nation. This is a sacred promise that we will keep as good patriotic citizens[3 dots] What greater love, what greater testimony of one's loyalty could anyone ask for than this, leave your homes, your businesses, and your friends in order that your country may fight a better war."

The phony communists of the revisionist CPUSA had basically the same position as the JACL. One book describes the line taken by CPUSA's West Coast newspaper: "Restrictions on the liberty of Japanese were 'unfortunate but vital' and by late February, General DeWitt's plans were termed 'a sensible program.' " The CP's press even featured their own version of the racist anti-Japanese cartoons appearing in the mainstream bourgeois press.

Packed into "Assembly Centers"

Japanese families were told to report to train stations, where they found themselves surrounded by soldiers with rifles and bayonets. From there they were taken to "assembly centers." People were shocked to discover that they were to be housed at stockyards, fairgrounds, and racetracks, in stables where animals had been kept.

According to one account, "The assembly center was filthy, smelly, and dirty. There were roughly 2,000 people packed in one large building. No beds were provided so they gave us gunnysacks to fill with straw. That was our bed. Where a horse or a cow had been kept, a Japanese American family was moved in. Suddenly you realize that human beings were being held behind fences just like on the farm where we had horses and pigs in corrals."

There was no plumbing in the assembly centers. At Santa Anita, a racetrack where evacuees from Los Angeles were housed, 19,000 people had to share six latrines.

The Camps

The prisoners remained at the assembly centers throughout the summer of 1942. Then they were placed into 171 special trains, 500 people in each train. They had no idea where they were going.

The trains took the prisoners to ten internment camps: Topaz in Utah, Poston and Gila River in Arizona, Amache in Colorado, Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas, Minidoka in Idaho, Manzanar and Tule Lake in California, and Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

Most of the camps were located in remote desert areas. "We did not know where we were," said one prisoner. "No houses were in sight, no trees or anything green--only scrubby sagebrush and an occasional low cactus and mostly dry, baked earth."

One person who had been held at the Minidoka camp said, "We felt as if we were standing in a gigantic sand- mixing machine as the 60-mile gale lifted the loose earth up into the sky, obliterating everything. Sand filled our mouths and nostrils and stung our faces and hands like a thousand darting needles."

The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers and patrolled by soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. Guards were under orders to shoot anyone trying to leave without a pass or refusing to halt when ordered to do so.

Hirota Isomura and Toshio Kobata, two critically ill prisoners, were killed by a sentry on July 27, 1942, their first day in camp. The two issei men, who had been too weak to walk the one mile to the camp, were shot while they were supposedly trying to escape. Their graves were dug by two other inmates who were told by a guard, "These graves are for the Japanese who died; if you don't do your work quickly, I will make you dig two more graves."

To come: Part 2--Resistance in the Camps


"U.S. Concentration Camps in World War 2," Revolutionary Worker #113, July 10, 1981

"Concentration Camp Hearings: A Risky Thing for U.S. Imperialism," Revolutionary Worker #118, August 21, 1981

"Treachery of the CPUSA," Revolutionary Worker #118, August 21, 1981

Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War 2, Eric Muller, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, Ronald Takaki, Penguin, 1989

Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience, ed. by Lawson Fusao Inada, Heyday Books, 2000

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4479
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email)