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War!:  Japanese American Internment

Japanese American Internment

In the uncertain weeks after Pearl Harbor, many Americans - particularly those on the Pacific coast - feared enemy attack and saw danger in every corner.

These fears, combined with racial prejudice, led to a great injustice. Early in 1942, civilian and military leaders on the West Coast charged that members of the region's large Japanese American community might be working with Japan's military to plan acts of sabotage. Though no serious evidence of this existed, they pushed the Roosevelt administration for action.

On February 19, 1942, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the forced relocation of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. More than two-thirds of these people were native born American citizens. They were confined in inland internment camps operated by the military.

Executive Order 9066

FDR's Executive Order 9066 led to the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. Abruptly forced to abandon or sell their homes and businesses, many lost everything they owned. Despite this injustice, thousands of young Japanese American men from the camps volunteered to serve in the nation's military, where they distinguished themselves with extraordinary valor in combat. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT), comprised entirely of Japanese Americans, became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size and length of service.

The Supreme Court upheld the President's Executive order in two wartime cases. But in the 1980s, the United States Congress acknowledged this gross violation of the civil liberties of American citizens and voted to provide some financial compensation to individuals confined in the camps. The Supreme Court also vacated its earlier wartime rulings.

ER and Internment

"These people were not convicted of any crime, but emotions ran too high, too many people wanted to wreak vengeance on Oriental looking people. There was no time to investigate families or adhere strictly to the American rule that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty."

     - Eleanor Roosevelt, draft for an unpublished magazine article

Eleanor Roosevelt opposed internment and tried to stop FDR from issuing Executive Order 9066. Concerned about the potential hysteria against Japanese Americans, she visited Japanese American communities and praised their patriotism. But when she discussed the issue with FDR he was unmoved.

ER did not speak out publicly against her husband's decision, opting instead to work quietly behind the scenes. But many in the Japanese American community knew of her sympathies. In April 1943 she visited the Gila River relocation camp in Arizona. She was impressed by the character and perseverance of the detainees. In a report to FDR she urged him to relax the order and allow detainees to return to their homes. ER's report helped convince FDR to explore releasing some with work permits. By the end of 1943 one-third had been released from the camps. It would not be until January 1945, however, before the Executive order was rescinded and all the internees were released.
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