Executive Order 9066 and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II
The California Historical Society joins the nation in observing the annual Day of Remembrance on February 19, when in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order paved the way for the removal of people of Japanese descent, citizens and noncitizens alike, from their homes and communities along the West Coast during World War II.
As the Japanese American Citizens League explains, “Every February, the Japanese American community commemorates Executive Order 9066 as a reminder of the impact the incarceration experience has had on our families, our community, and our country.”
We remember this day with an essay by the noted historian Charles Wollenberg on the precedence of discrimination and racism in our state’s history and its legacy today.
A CALIFORNIA PRECEDENT
By Charles Wollenberg
On November 18, 2015, Roanoke, Virginia mayor David Bowen argued in favor of banning Syrian refugees from his city and observed “that President Franklin Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and it appears that the threat of harm from ISIS is just as real and serious. . . .” Of course, the World War II “sequester” was not limited to foreign nationals: All people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast, U.S citizens and non-citizens alike, were incarcerated without due process. But Bowen was not alone in citing the 1940s internment as precedent. In discussing his proposal to end all Moslem immigration to the United States at least temporarily, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said he might have supported the World War II internment as well. Trump observed that being at war involves making hard choices.
The mayor and Mr. Trump were unwittingly reopening a sad page in California history. Although the wartime internment applied to the entire West Coast, a significant majority of the 120,000 people affected by Roosevelt’s executive action were California residents. The internment was to a significant degree a product of California’s particular version of American nativism, a terrible heritage stretching in California’s case back to the Gold Rush era.
The Gold Rush of 1848 began the heritage of Asian-Pacific Islander migration to the United States. By 1849 gold seekers were arriving from Hawaii and Australia, and Chinese began coming in large numbers in 1851–52. Before the end of the 1850s, they were the largest nonwhite group in the mining districts and already a major target of resentment and discrimination. As a result, Chinese often sought out occupations that served rather than competed against the white majority.
|J. B. Starkweather, Gum Shan Meets El Dorado, c. 1852|
California State Library
California’s anti-Asian sentiment, begun during the Gold Rush with the large numbers of Chinese migrant workers, was nearly a century old by the time of the World War II internment.
The Gold Rush occurred during the era of Manifest Destiny, the idea that it was the right, indeed the obligation, of the United States to spread white, Protestant, American civilization across the continent “from sea to shining sea.” Yet it attracted a massive migration that included people who were neither white, Protestant, or even American. By the time of statehood in 1850, California had the most ethnically and nationally diverse population of any state in the union (as it does today). Many of California’s white majority sought to maintain control over the highly diverse population by discriminatory and repressive means. But of all the racist movements that came out of the Gold Rush era, the most influential and long-lasting was the antipathy against Asians.
In the 1870s Chinese labor also became central to the expansion of California agriculture and important in several urban industries. But the seventies was a depression decade, and the hard times strengthened white fear of Chinese economic competition. The anti-Chinese movement became increasingly violent and politically powerful. In 1882 Congress responded with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning almost all further Chinese immigration to the United States.
|Carl Albert Browne (Illustrator), Regular Ticket Workingmen’s Party California,|
The Chinese Must Go! 11th Senatorial District, 1878
California Historical Society
Chinese exclusion—the first significant immigration restriction in U.S. history—began a forty-year process of increasing immigration restriction, which eventually applied to European migration as well. But it is important that the first target of restriction was the only significant nonwhite immigrant group coming to the United States at that time. And the major political and social pressure for Chinese exclusion came from California.
Chinese exclusion lasted for more than sixty years and produced a shortage of immigrant labor in California. In the 1890s many California employers formerly dependent on Chinese labor turned to Japan as a new source of workers. Not surprisingly, by the early twentieth century, California’s well-established anti-Asian movement increasingly made Japanese immigration its primary target. Unlike nineteenth-century China, early-twentieth-century Japan was an emerging world power, and Japan’s new status produced political and diplomatic conflicts with the United States. Interethnic relations in California both reflected and reinforced these international tensions. Some influential Californians warned of a “Yellow Peril,” in which Japanese immigrants supposedly served as shock troops in a conspiracy threatening “white civilization” throughout the Pacific Basin. On the other hand, nationalist extremists in Japan believed that discrimination against their countrymen in California proved that Japan would never be respected by the West: The Japanese chauvinists argued that only strong authoritarian government and a powerful military could uphold their country’s interests and honor.
|Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, “No Japs in Our Schools,” December 10, 1906 |
Courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
The final chapter in this interactive process of domestic discrimination and international conflict came with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Franklin Roosevelt’s subsequent Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, effectively authorizing the removal and incarceration of all people of Japanese descent in California, Washington, Oregon, and a part of Arizona. Since the internment applied to both Japanese and American citizens, the criterion was not nationality, but ethnicity. Even Japanese American orphans were taken out of California institutions and transported to the camps.
|Lee Russell (Photographer), The evacuation of Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order Japanese waiting for registration at the Santa Anita reception center, Los Angeles, Calif., Apr. 1942|
Library of Congress
The most influential advocate of internment was Earl Warren, Republican attorney general of California at the time of the initial removal and later governor of the state. Warren argued his concern was based on security rather than racial prejudice, but he distinguished between Germans and Italians, who he described as members of “the Caucasian race” and Japanese “where we are in an entirely different field.”
After World War II Warren became Chief Justice of the United States and author of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that knocked the constitutional props out of the Jim Crow system. But during his career as chief justice, Warren continued to defend his wartime support of internment. Only at the end of his life did he express second thoughts. In a memoir, published posthumously in 1977, Warren said he “deeply regretted that removal order and my own testimony advocating it because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.” Eleven years later President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted $20,000 in reparations for each surviving victim of the camps. The act stated that the internment was caused “by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
|Anton Wagner, Shinto Shrine on Terminal Way, Terminal Island, 1932–33|
California Historical Society
What was lost: these Japanese American girls lived on Terminal Island (Taminaru), once a vibrant Japanese fishing village of about 3,500 first- and second-generation Japanese Americans before World War II. The Japanese community there—razed completely during the war—was the first to be evacuated and interned en masse. As Leonard Bloom and Ruth Reimer observed in Removal and Return: The Socio-Economic Effects of the War on Japanese Americans, “Terminal Island Japanese Americans probably suffered more heavily in the evacuation than any other occupational or locality group.”
This, then, is the precedent raised by Mayor Bowen and candidate Trump when they advocated exclusion of Syrian refugees and Moslem immigrants from the United States. On December 21, 2015 members of the Japanese American and Moslem American communities met in San Francisco’s Japantown to condemn what they believed were profound threats to civil rights and liberties. Poet, writer, and activist Hiroshi Kashiwaga, 93 years old, and a Sacramento native who was imprisoned at the Tule Lake wartime camp, probably best expressed the sense of the gathering: “What happened to us makes us fearful for what might happen again.”
|Kit Hinrichs, Paper-crane assemblage created for the exhibition “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946,” 2006–7 |
Courtesy of Kit Hinrichs; www.studio-hinrichs.com
- USA TODAY, November 19, 2015
- TIME.com, December 8, 2015
- Earl Warren, The Memoirs of Earl Warren (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977
- KTVU.com, December 22, 2015
- Japanese American Citizens League, Day of Remembrance; https://jacl.org/events/day-of-remembrance/
Join us for a Remembrance Day commemoration program on Tuesday, February 23, 2016, 6:00pm. The program--in partnership with the Topaz Museum, a forthcoming museum at the site of one of the incarceration camps--features Patrick Hayashi, former Associate President of the University of California, and Dana Ogo Shew, Archaeologist/Oral Historian at Sonoma State University. The Friends of Topaz will introduce the new Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah, opening in 2016. For more information, visit http://www.californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibitions/events_calendar.html.