From 1936 to 1941, the FBI, Office of Naval Intelligence, and US Army Military Intelligence collected information on Japanese, German, and Italian immigrant communities in the United States and compiled lists of potential “troublemakers” that would be put into concentration camps in the event of war with the Axis powers. In mid-1941, FDR ordered a comprehensive investigation of the Japanese American communities on the West Coast. The “Munson Report” released a month before Pearl Harbor, stated that though some Japanese retained loyalty to Japan and its emperor, “the Japanese (American) problem didn’t exist”, and there was a “remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among some of this generally suspect ethnic group…” FDR ignored the report.
With war tensions high and a general civilian paranoia of a potential Japanese invasion of the West Coast, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which gave the Secretary of War the authority to “prescribe military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded” and to “provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary . . .”
Three weeks later Congress passed legislation which funded Executive Order 9066 after the briefest of discussions. Opposition to the obvious unconstitutionality and potential for abuse in the bill made strange bedfellows. The minority Republican leadership in Congress was muted under their pledge to FDR in December to not let domestic politics interfere with the conduct of the war, so they found their champions in the only two of FDR’s cabinet members that opposed the EO, Attorney General Francis Biddle and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. Biddle and Ickes would eventually get Executive Order 9066, and related later EOs, to the Supreme Court and have them declared unconstitutional. But after a decade of the courts and Congress acquiescing to FDR’s expansion of executive power during the Great Depression, it would take three long years for that to happen. However, just after Pearl Harbor that didn’t matter – on 9 March 1942, FDR signed Public Law 503 into law, and the legal justification for one of the greatest tragedies in American history was established.
Surprisingly, Executive Order 9066 was not used as justification for exclusion of the largest Japanese American community in the US on one of the few pieces of American soil under actual threat of Japanese invasion: Hawaii. US Authorities there had arrested 2500 Japanese illegal aliens under FDR’s Alien Enemies Act in December. The other 100,000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not deemed a threat, too important to Hawaii’s economic well-being, and their internment not a military necessity citing the Munson Report, and a separate Naval Intelligence report which found “no evidence of ‘fifth column’ activity among Japanese Americans”. This was not the case for the American West Coast.
Shortly after EO 9066’s funding by Congress, Arizona and California, and Oregon and Washington were in their entirety designated as two military districts by LTG John DeWitt, the commander of the Fourth US Army and the Western Defense Command. DeWitt applied EO 9066, probably against its spirit, to the entire Japanese American community on the West Coast. DeWitt wanted to relocate anyone of Japanese American ancestry out of the two West Coast military districts. But there were 120,000 Japanese Americans in his area, so DeWitt, through the Sec of War Henry Stimson requested additional funding for quasi permanent internment camps throughout the US and a separate organization to coordinate and administer the relocations. FDR signed Executive Order 9102 on 18 March 1942, and Congress funded it. 9102 created the War Relocation Authority. Moreover, the racialists and Eugenicists in FDR’s administration reared their ugly heads and the EO was applied to anyone with 1/16th Japanese blood, or in practical terms one great-great-grandparent born in Japan. These also included Koreans and Taiwanese whose lands were Japanese colonies since the 1880s. EO 9066 could be argued as not racial in character and just an abuse of eminent domain; EO 9102, DeWitt’s proclamations, and the administration’s and army regulations pertaining to both, cannot.
In April, flyers from the Western military district headquarters began appearing in Japanese American communities advising not only Japanese resident and illegal aliens but also Japanese American citizens to prepare for relocation. Flyers also appeared in German and Italian American communities, but the racial character of DeWitt’s proclamations, and the easily identifiable stereotypical facial features of Japanese Americans meant that few Caucasians were interred, and those that were, were already identified on FDR’s lists. The director of the War Relocation Authority, Milton Eisenhower (Dwight’s younger brother), attempted to mitigate and limit the relocations through various means, including limiting them to just adult males, but was thwarted by DeWitt and administration officials.
Throughout the end of April and through the summer, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans, 2/3rds of whom were US citizens, were ordered to report to assembly areas in parks, stadiums, and even racetracks. They were permitted to bring one suitcase and the clothes on their backs. The rest of their possessions were left behind, and left at the mercy of their communities. Many families lost everything: land, pets, furniture, cars, and savings were all gone when they returned three years later. The internees were packed into buses and trains for long journeys to ten hastily and poorly constructed internment camps, two as far away as Arkansas, each surrounded by barbed wire, and armed guards.
In late April, the frustrated and defeated Eisenhower wrote, “when the war is over and we consider calmly this unprecedented migration of 120,000 people, we as Americans are going to regret the unavoidable injustices that we may have done…”