Written by: David Taniyo-Ching
Over 100,000 Japanese American citizens of the United States had to experience abduction from their homes and businesses during World War II. Was forcing thousands of citizens from their homes a violation of their civil rights? Americans feared another Pearl Harbor but fueled by anti-Japanese racism, which was already commonplace in America. The Roosevelt administration answered American fears with Executive Order 9066 that set off a chain of events against Japanese American citizens.
The Constitution of the United States guarantees American citizens no imprisonment without due process of law. This paper examines the events that took place during America’s war with Japan, the reasons for the action, the treatment of Japanese American citizens, and how some Americans stood by those interned citizens. It also assesses if Japanese American citizens’ treatment was constitutional and fair in light of the case United States v. Korematsu, and America’s treatment of European citizens as compared to Japanese American citizens.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in response to American fears of Japan’s attack. In paragraph one of the executive order, the president outlines what he is protecting Americans against, “whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and sabotage to the national defense.”
What is said here is important because it outlines how, in times of war, any threat to the nation’s security needs to be protected. Without actually naming whom the government was protecting Americans against, it opened the door to prejudice against any race. The government would use espionage and sabotage as its justification for the exclusion and internment of Japanese Americans.
In Executive Order 9066, President Roosevelt gave the Secretary of War and his military commanders the power to create exclusion zones. These exclusion zones could be built anywhere in the United States that the Secretary of War deemed a threat to national security. Many Japanese Americans, or any persons within that zone that were a threat, had to leave their homes and businesses; this was a major civil rights violation because the Japanese Americans had no choice but to leave behind everything.
In the case of Korematsu v. the United States, the Justices of the Supreme Court upheld that Korematsu violated Civil Exclusion Order 34. Korematsu was a Japanese American citizen accused of staying in the military area in San Leandro, California, deemed an exclusion zone. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the exclusion order as constitutional as on that exclusion was necessary because the government could not ascertain the disloyal Japanese Americans from the loyal.
The Supreme Court justice’s decision cited that the trail was not about racial discrimination, but instead if the accused violated the exclusion order set forth by the Secretary of War. The winning justices’ decision would uphold the exclusion order constitutional because it protected the United States from the threat of espionage and sabotage.
Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter agreed with the decision of the court. Justice Frankfurter argued that the accused Korematsu was found in Military Area No. 1. He also argued that General Dewitt gave Japanese-American comprehensive instructions to the exclusion zone rules. Therefore Justice Frankfurter said, “They put upon Korematsu the obligation to leave Military Area No. 1, but only by the methods prescribed in the instructions.”
The argument that Justice Frankfurter used was that it was on the accused to leave the exclusion area; when he refused, he violated the law; he also agreed that the Constitution gives the government the power to wage war in times of war it sees fit. In the end, Justice Frankfurter believed the exclusion zones were necessary and constitutional.
One of the dissenting Supreme Court in Korematsu v. the United States, Justice Roberts, had a different view of the decision. Citing that this case is not about protecting the United States from espionage and sabotage, instead, he argued this, “On the contrary, it is the case of convicting a citizen as a punishment for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because of his ancestry.”
Justice Roberts believed that the court’s decision to deem exclusion not a violation of the Constitution came from anti-Japanese sentiments common in the government during World War II. Robert’s believed that there was no basis on which Japanese American citizens should be forced out of their homes and businesses simply because they were of Japanese ancestry. In doing so, Justice Roberts believed it was a violation of the constitutional rights of Japanese-Americans.
During World War II, a small minority of Americans opposed internment. In Robert Shafer’s Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese American Rights During World War II, he explored how these people fought and helped those interned Japanese Americans. Those that opposed internment were pacifists, socialists, and missionaries with ties to Japanese American citizens and their culture.
Many of those who opposed internment showed their support by providing necessities, information, and a few luxuries to show that not all American people were against them—the items given to raise the morale in internment camps Japanese-Americans lived in deplorable conditions.
A small minority of Americans decided to take an aggressive approach to internment by speaking out against it at every turn.
Simultaneously, Japanese Americans had to go to internment camps; very few European descent had the same fate. According to Wilcox, General Dewitt wanted all Axis enemies’ internment, but not everyone agreed. One of the issues raised was that interning Italian and German citizens might alienate their American-born children; also, Europeans’ assimilation into American society played a significant factor in why they could avoid internment camps.
The decline in civilian morale would have been devastating for the American government. Confidence was a much different approach than when it came to Japanese Americans. When it came to European citizens, the government used rational reasoning and not fear.
To summarize, Executive Order 9066 was created by President Roosevelt out of fear that the American people believed that Japanese Americans would help with sabotage and espionage on the home front. The justification was that in times of war, the government had the right to wage war by any means possible. Still, the reality was that the Roosevelt administration fanned anti-Japanese racism and used it to justify exclusion and internment.
The removal of Japanese Americans from their homes and business was a violation of their Constitutional rights. The Supreme Court agreed with the government and upheld that exclusion was not a violation of the Constitution. The small groups that opposed internment did so because they believed the government had no proof of wrongdoing and violated Japanese-Americans’ civil liberties.
The government took a different tactic when dealing with Italian and German citizens by rationally explaining that they would not place them into camps simply because the decline in the morale of millions of Europeans in the United States would be devastating. During World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans is an example of how fear leads the country to do bad things and was not motivated by the real security needs of the American people; this will always be a black mark on American history.
Cox, Stephen C. “General John Dewitt and the Proposed Internment of German and Italian Aliens During World War II.” Pacific Historian Review. 1988. Accessed January 14, 2016.
“Executive Order 9066: Japanese Relocation Order.” AMDOCS. February 19, 1942. Accessed. January 5, 2016.
“Korematsu v. the United States.” Legal Information Institute. December 18, 1944. Accessed January 10, 2016.
Shaffer, Robert. “Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese American Rights During World War II.” 1999. Accessed January 13, 2016.