After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, pressure for control of the Japanese and Japanese Americans in their midst built among West Coast whites. Farmers who competed with Japanese Americans, politicians unwilling to take a stand against anti-Japanese sentiment, and ordinary citizens aroused by the attack on Pearl Harbor—all combined against the Japanese, over two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.
Supporting the local bias was the belief on the part of many high-ranking U.S. military officers that the Japanese might invade the West Coast. The military was still off balance after the surprise attack of December 7, 1941.
U.S. officials also feared that the Japanese Americans might spy for the Japanese. They disregarded the U.S. citizenship of the majority of Japanese Americans and the fact that over half were children. They also disregarded the fact that there had been no previous cases of Japanese-American disloyalty to the United States.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered the evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast. The order authorized the "appropriate Military Commander" to decide who was a military risk and to exclude those so defined from the "war zones on the Pacific Frontier," which included all of California, half of Oregon and Washington, and a third of Arizona. In the climate of the times, those so defined included all persons of Japanese descent.
The United States relocated 120,000 of its people to 10 internment camps, officially labeled internment centers, in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. Although the camps usually took internees based on geographical location, some families were split into different camps.
The camps included Amache (Granada), Colorado; Manzanar, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Poston, Arizona; Rohwer, Arkansas; Topaz, Utah; Tule Lake, California; Gila River, Arizona; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; and Jerome, Arkansas.
In June 1944 the Japanese prisoners from Jerome were relocated to Rohwer, and Jerome housed German prisoners of war. Gila River was divided into two camps, and about 1,100 inmates from both volunteered for the army. Gila River also had accredited schools and an 8,000-acre farm.
The internees fell into two categories. There were about 11,000 resident aliens of Japanese descent who were classified as enemy aliens and interned in Department of Justice camps because they were regarded as threats to national security. Their families could stay with them on a voluntary basis.
They were colocated with Italian and German enemy aliens and their families, American or other. The other 114,000 internees were those, alien and citizen, evacuated from the West Coast defense areas due to doubts about their loyalty. Technically, these people were evacuated and relocated temporarily, not interned, but as a practical matter the distinction lacked any significance.
Canada evacuated 23,000 Nikkei to camps in British Columbia (BC). Males worked on sugar beet projects or in road camps. Women and children moved to six BC towns removed from the coast.
The U.S. camps, administered by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), tended to be overcrowded. Living conditions were poor. The internees had only short notice—48 hours—of their evacuation and could bring only a few possessions. They had to sell their belongings at fire sale prices to the fortune hunters who preyed on them during their 48 hours.
The camps were fenced with barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. Camp leadership was open only to U.S.-born Nisei. The Issei,the Japanese-bornelders, were subject by U.S. policy to the rule of their offspring. The WRA reported in 1943 that housing consisted of tar paper– covered frame barracks without plumbing or cooking facilities.
Coal was scarce, so internees slept under as many blankets as they could find. Food was kept to a cost of 48 cents a day per internee. Meals were taken at mess halls seating 250 to 300 people. Deficient medical care and a high level of emotional stress proved fatal to some internees.
Tule Lake was the camp for troublemakers. It also became home to those who refused to take the loyalty oath in 1943. It became home to 18,000 Japanese, half of whom were U.S. citizens. The loyalty test was given to all internees over age 17.
It included two questions: Are you willing to fight in the U.S. armed forces (women were asked if they would volunteer for the Women's Army Corps or Army Nurse Corps), and will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States, defend it against all attack, and forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor or any other government or entity?
When the United States offered the chance to leave the camps to those who joined the army, 1,200 internees enlisted. From Tule Lake came 13,000 applications for renunciation of U.S. citizenship. When all was done, 5,766 Nisei eventually renounced U.S. citizenship.
All 10 people convicted of spying for Japan during the war were Caucasian. After two and a half years, in December 1944 under Public Proclamation Number 21, Roosevelt rescinded Executive Order 9066, effective in January 1945. The camps were all closed by the end of 1945, and internees returned home, relocated within the United States, or left the country.
Not all internees took their relocation passively. Some regarded the camps as concentration camps and internment as a violation of the right to habeas corpus. The most important challenges were the cases of Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944). Fred Korematsu asked whether the government had the right to uproot citizens and intern them solely based on race.
The first attempt to atone came with the Evacuation Claims Act of 1948, under which over 26,000 claims were paid, usually for small amounts. In the 1960s agitation for atonement renewed, and by 1980 Congress had held hearings that produced the 1983 report "Personal Justice Denied," which condemned the internment and stated that Korematsu, still the law of the land, was overruled in the court of history.
In 1988 Congress enacted legislation awarding $20,000 to each of the 60,000 surviving internees. The government of Canada in 1968 issued a formal apology to Japanese Canadians and paid each survivor $21,000 Canadian dollars.