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Rants & Reason

EO 9066: The 75th anniversary of shame and later regret


You’re in trouble when the crazed mob coming after you is egged on by the whimsical Dr. Seuss and America’s chief pundit, columnist Walter Lippmann.

That’s what Japanese Americans faced in February 1942 when a frightened nation decided to imprison about 90 percent of fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry — from children and orphans to the elderly and infirm. And that’s a concern today as fears of terrorism stalk other minority groups.

herb-mapThis month marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed Feb. 19, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt because of racism and reactions to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and onset of World War II. Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned, “Their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or trust even the citizen Japanese.”

This anniversary likely will draw more attention than previous milestones — like the 25th or 50th — because in recent decades many Japanese-Americans began to tell descendants and others of their painful memories and the humiliation of incarceration.

For the record:

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• The 1940 Census reported 132 million U.S. residents, 127,000 of Japanese ethnicity. Of those, 112,500 or more lived on the West Coast and were incarcerated in 10 camps, so-called Wartime Relocation Centers. The relative handful of Japanese-Americans not in the exclusion zone — basically Washington, Oregon and California — went about their lives pretty much as did German-Americans and Italian-Americans. (German-Americans were about 30 percent of the nation, 40 million, yet only 11,000 were taken into custody and individuals kept in camps may have numbered less than 6,000. In Hawaii, of 158,000 Japanese-Hawaiians, about 35 percent of the population, some 2,000 were interned because mass incarceration was impractical. In Canada, 21,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from a “defence zone” along the British Columbia coast.)

• Japanese-American children in West Coast orphanages or with foster Caucasian parents were rounded up and placed behind barbed wire and under armed guard. More than 100 such children were incarcerated in “Children’s Village” in the Manzanar camp in Central California — in addition to tens of thousands of other incarcerated youngsters.

• People forfeited virtually all possessions even though U.S. intelligence agencies said there was no documented evidence that those incarcerated were guilty of sabotage, espionage or disloyalty. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle saw no need for mass incarceration. Biddle later characterized 9066 as “ill advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel.”

• The order was driven by decades of discrimination against Japanese and Chinese, by local and state politicians, by California agricultural interests opposed to Japanese-American farmers and, of course, by Pearl Harbor. (A Feb. 13 Seuss cartoon depicted West Coast Japanese Americans lining up for packages of TNT; in a Feb. 12 column, Lippmann warned “the Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without.”)

• Army Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt urged incarceration with this logic: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” (While DeWitt often is portrayed as the villain behind 9066, others identify Col. Karl Bendetsen as the primary architect and advocate of mass incarceration.)

A Dr. Seuss comic strip from 1942 depicting Japanese citizens in America as terrorists.

A Dr. Seuss comic strip from 1942 depicting Japanese citizens in America as terrorists.

The nightmare of EO 9066 is addressed in the 1983 report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, established by Congress to review what had happened and recommend remedies. (For Internet access, search “Personal Justice Denied.”) Also informative are CONFINEMENT AND ETHNICITY, An Overview of WWII Japanese-American Relocation Sites and concentration camps: north america by Roger Daniels. A retired Iowa State University English professor, Dr. Neil Nakadate, writes of family and friends in Looking After Minidoka, a moving account of the impact of 9066 on Japanese-American households.

How was 9066 implemented with little outcry or outrage? Certainly the “Remember-Pearl-Harbor!” vow and the long-standing fear of the “Yellow Peril” were in play — making no distinction between Japanese military leaders 5,500 miles away and the Hashimoto family next door. In addition, immigrant decision-making elders were reared within a tradition of obedience to autocratic rule in Japan that shaped their responses to Roosevelt’s directive. And the government contended that Japanese-Americans could demonstrate U.S. loyalty by obeying 9066.

Also families had only six days to comply with orders to leave home and report for incarceration. Those who might not comply risked being separated from family and friends. (In protest, about 5,600 incarcerated Japanese-Americans eventually renounced their U.S. citizenship, actions later voided by a federal judge because of the circumstances.)

A few fortunate families had compassionate non-Japanese friends and neighbors who promised to take care of their possessions and property. More typical are accounts like this from the report of the congressional commission: “A former interviewer with the U. S. Employment Service who had been assigned to the Federal Reserve Bank cited a number of loss cases; one woman had owned a 26-room hotel: ‘She came to me and said she was offered $500 and no more and that she had three days in which to dispose of the property. Three days later, she came to me in tears, frustrated and frightened. She told me that she had to sell it for the $500.’ ”

For many Americans such events were almost unnoticed — a look at Des Moines’ newspapers of February and March 1942 found almost no news coverage of 9066.

Some Americans became aware of the valor of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Nisei — second generation Japanese-Americans — fighting in France, Italy and Germany. The unit, with an authorized strength of 4,000, eventually was awarded almost 10,000 Purple Hearts and 21 Medals of Honor — the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S. history.

Families of those in the 442nd remained incarcerated, however, and some recognition of heroism was delayed, perhaps because of racism.

In December 1944, the camps were ordered closed effective Jan. 2, 1945, although some remained open through much of 1945. Many who returned to former neighborhoods returned to discrimination and menial jobs like those they had when immigrating 30 or 40 years before.

Also that December, in Korematsu v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court upheld EO 9066 as constitutional, 6-3. In 1983, a federal judge vacated the ruling because U.S. officials had withheld documents that said Japanese-Americans posed no military threat. Korematsu and related court action, even if vacated or overturned, remain of concern. Like a courtroom zombie, the precedent of Korematsu comes to mind in fears of the U.S. striking against Muslim citizens to counter threats of Islamic terrorism.

Following the recommendation of the congressional commission, in 1988 Congress approved paying $20,000 each to the remaining 60,000 or so camp survivors.

In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt had written, “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal…we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion…We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only so do if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”

On Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, the first site of forced evacuation, the reminder is Nidoto Nai Yoni — let it not happen again. n

strentz21Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes this monthly column for Cityview.



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