The Internment of Japanese-Americans During WWII



Months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans. Join Active Minds as we seek to understand this dark chapter in American history and what we learned as a nation from this experience.

Key Lecture Points

  • There were 127,000 people of Japanese descent living in the United States in 1941, primarily on the West Coast. Reacting to racial prejudice and a public frightened by reports of Japanese victories after Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, prescribing military areas from which “any and all persons can be excluded.” Although many spoke out against the evacuation, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Attorney General Frances Biddle and Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, 120,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, were incarcerated in 10 relocation camps in remote locations.
  • People of Japanese descent living in the territory of Hawaii were not subject to relocation. The difference in treatment is due to the leadership of the Military Governor of Hawaii at the time and because the Japanese in Hawaii were more integrated into the political and business community of the islands than were their counterparts on the mainland.
  • Given only days to settle their affairs before reporting for relocation, the evacuated Japanese Americans lost their homes, farms, businesses, and other property. Losses are estimated at $400 million. After the camps were closed, the internees were left to rebuild their lives from scratch. Many never recovered financially as well as being left with medical and psychological challenges.
  • Living conditions in the camps were cramped and lacked privacy, but the internees built communities by creating gardens, schools, hospitals, libraries and even Scout troops and newspapers. Despite these efforts at normalcy, there were tensions between those who acquiesced to internment and those who were protesters, between those who agreed to serve in the military and draft resisters and between the first generation Issei who felt shamed by their imprisonment and loss of traditional authority and their children, the Nisei.
  • Legal challenges were brought by internees, the most notable being Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States. The Supreme Court in both cases upheld evacuation and internment. In the 1980s both cases were again brought to court and were finally reversed.
  • In 1943, Japanese Americans were again allowed to serve in the military. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese unit, won widespread recognition for its valor in Italy and Germany.
  • As a result of pressure from the Sansei, grandchildren of the Issei, Congress established the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. The commission’s report concluded there was no military justification for relocation and that the incarceration of the Japanese Americans was unjust. The commission also said that internment was the result of racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. As a result in 1988, the US government formally apologized to those interned and provided restitution of $20,000 to each survivor.
  • The incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII was one of the most flagrant violations of civil liberties in US history. It is important to remember this injustice so that it is not repeated against another vulnerable group in a time of national crisis.

Exploration Questions

  • What are lessons to be learned from the internment of the West Coast Japanese Americans during WWII? How did that experience shape reactions toward Muslims after 9/11?
  • Why were Japanese Americans interned when German Americans and Italian Americans were not?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you know any Japanese Americans who were interned? What have they told you about their life in the camps? Do you think internment could happen again?
  • If you were alive during WWII, what do you remember about the mood of the country right after Pearl Harbor and the decision to put Japanese Americans in internment camps?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Schrager, Adam. The Principled Politician: Governor Ralph Carr and the Fight Against Japanese American Internment. Fulcrum Group, 2009. 352 pages. Story of Governor Carr and his fight for Japanese American rights.
    Click here to order
  • Hosokawa, Bill. Colorado’s Japanese Americans: From 1886 to the Present. University of Colorado Press, 2005. 270 pages. History of Japanese Americans in Colorado.
    Click here to order
  • Gruenewald, Mary Matsuda. Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps (paperback). NewSage Press, 2005. The true story of a young teenage girl living in an internment camp.
    Click here to order
  • Dallas, Sandra. Tallgrass. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008. 336 pages. A fictional story about a 13 year old girl who lives near an internment camp.
    Click here to order