About the US Internment of Japanese Americans During WWII

Memorial at the Manzanar National Historic Site
Memorial at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Aaron Black / Getty Images

During the Japanese American internment, about 117,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were native-born U.S. citizens, were detained, relocated, and incarcerated in internment camps within the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Japanese internment less than three months after the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

Under the order, Japanese Americans who were as little as 1/16 Japanese by ancestry, as well as orphaned infants with “one drop of Japanese blood” could be relocated to an internment camp.

President Roosevelt initiated the Japanese internment on February 19, 1942, through the issuance of an executive order titled, “Executive Order No. 9066: Authorizing the Secretary of War to Prescribe Military Areas.”

The order allowed U.S. military commanders to designate “military areas” from which any and all civilians could be excluded for the duration of the war. The designated military areas included all of California, much of Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. All persons of Japanese ancestry in the designated areas were allowed to live only in government-built internment camps.

The order also directed the Secretary of War (now called the Secretary of Defense) to provide transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations for the Japanese Americans being relocated to the internment camps.

Internment centers were located many miles from the Pacific Coast, often in remote and desolate locales. Some of the sites included Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Manzanar, California; Topaz, Utah; Jerome, Arkansas; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Poston, Arizona; Granada, Colorado; Crystal City, Texas; and Rohwer, Arkansas.

What Drove the Japanese Internment?

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor jolted the American public out of a long period of isolationism that had prevented the nation from becoming involved in World War II since it began in Europe during the late 1930s. Prior to Pearl Harbor, America’s involvement in the war had been limited to supplying England and other anti-Axis nations with materials of war under President Roosevelt’s “Lend-Lease” policy. The day after the attack, American became fully engaged in both the Pacific and European theaters of war.

The attack on Pearl Harbor also heralded a rising fear among the public about national security, particularly on the West Coast, due to its proximity to Japan. That fear greatly contributed to President Roosevelt decision to order the Japanese internment. Indeed, the order had two ironically diverse objectives: to prevent espionage by Japanese Americans sympathetic to the Axis powers and to protect Japanese Americans from harm at the hands of Americans with strong anti-Japanese feelings.

What Was Life Like in the Internment Camps?

The Japanese American internment camps were little more than communities of small, hastily constructed tar-papered barracks each housing four or five families in cramped conditions.

Families were allowed to bring only minimal collections of clothing and other personal possessions. While residents of the camps managed to follow some familiar routines of socializing and school, the requirements of eating in common dining halls and having limited opportunities for work interrupted other social and cultural practices.

While most internment camp residents lived peacefully, rare troublesome residents were sent to a special camp at Tule Lake, California, built to isolate dissidents from the general population.

The End of the Internment Camps

By 1944, the U.S. military had assembled a special combat unit made up of Japanese Americans to fight in the European theater. The Japanese American 442d Regimental Combat Team went on to become one of the most highly decorated units of World War II.

“They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit,” said General George C. Marshall of the 442d. “Not too much can be said of the performance of those battalions in Europe and everybody wanted them.” The heroics and military record of the 442d and many other Japanese Americans who fought in the war proved their patriotism.

As the end of the war drew near, the internment centers were slowly evacuated. While some residents returned to their pre-war homes, others chose different surroundings. For example, while 80% of the Japanese Americans removed from Fresno, California returned to Fresno, fewer than 30% of Japanese Americans removed from Tacoma, Washington returned to their hometown.

Political Fallout of the Internment Camps

The Japanese American internment of World War II spurred great political and constitutional debate in the United States. While some people considered the internment camps to be unconstitutional concentration camps, others saw the internment as an unfortunate, but necessary military tactic.

Finally, during the Ronald Reagan presidency, Congress enacted the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, which acknowledged the injustice of the internment, apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was interned.