By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Throughout American history our presidents have struggled to find the right balance between the highest ideals of our founding charters and the cold realities of national security. This is especially true in times of war. President John Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and Woodrow Wilson suppressed free speech and trampled on the First Amendment.
Seventy-five years ago, at the beginning of World War II, one of our greatest champions of human rights approved the incarceration of approximately 80,000 American citizens, and another 40,000 legal aliens , in the name of national security. President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, provided the legal basis for the removal and confinement of people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast.
The President was under tremendous pressure from military commanders, members of congress and political and business leaders in California, Oregon and Washington. Among the prominent voices calling for the forced removal of Japanese Americans was Earl Warren, the Attorney General of California who was soon to be its governor. American citizens were frightened, angry and vengeful. There was sincere concern about espionage and sabotage, and fear that the Japanese Empire could attack or even invade the West Coast at any time. Leading newspaper columnists demanded action.
The “dastardly” surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s brutal military expansion throughout Asia, enflamed the entrenched and widespread racism of that time. It is important to look closely at what happened so we can understand it, and prevent it from happening again. Because behind the bluster and outrage there was no serious evidence that Japanese Americans posed a threat to the United States. In fact FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Francis Biddle both initially opposed relocation.
The FDR Library and Museum’s new exhibit, “Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” features more than 200 photographs documenting the notification, assembly, relocation and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans from 1942 until 1945. These images are an extraordinary record, taken by some of our greatest photographers, of a terrible injustice and the incredible dignity and resilience of its victims.
Shortly after EO 9066 was signed, the new War Relocation Authority (WRA) hired Dorothea Lange to document the relocation process. Ms. Lange was well known for her heart wrenching photographs of Americans struggling through the Great Depression. She immediately began photographing Japanese families as they were forced to sell off their property and prepare for their removal.
From her home base in Berkeley, California she followed families from their homes, to the assembly points, to the hastily constructed holding centers built at racetracks, state fairgrounds, and other public spaces, and finally to the camps themselves. She went to the first permanent camp at Manzanar, located in the Owens Valley in eastern California. She documented the hardships of these honorable hardworking people as they were forced to give up everything and move into wooden barracks in the middle of the desert.
Ansel Adams was one of America’s best known photographers, and a good friend of Ms. Lange’s. He was deeply distressed by the Japanese internment and got permission from the WRA to visit Manzanar and photograph what was happening there.
He went to the camp several times in 1943 and 1944, and was under strict orders not to shoot the armed guards and barbed wire. But the underlying injustice of the camps could not escape his lens.
His images capture both the military precision of the barracks, and the deeply human pain of those trapped within. While few of Lange’s photographs were seen during the war, many of Adam’s images were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1944 and later published in book form in “Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans.”
More than thirty thousand young Japanese American men and women—including thousands of volunteers and draftees from the camps—served in America’s military during World War II. Adam’s photographed some of them, and their faces tell a powerful story. Many served honorably in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most highly decorated units in the Army.
Other photographers are also represented in the exhibit, including Clem Albers, Francis Stewart and Hikaru Iwasaki, the only Japanese American hired as a staff photographer by the WRA. There are also photographs taken by George and Frank Hirahara, a father and son who were incarcerated at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was very concerned about the plight of the Japanese Americans, and had privately opposed the internment. She spoke out in their defense writing that:
“We must learn to think of the people in these groups as individuals, not as groups: we must treat them as individuals. They, on their part have an obligation to refuse to listen to arguments and false statements made by agents of our enemies who will try to trade on an unfairness or bitterness. We must remember that we cannot tell the difference between a loyal and a disloyal citizen… just by looking at him or his name, by seeing the color of his skin, or by hearing him talk.”
Mrs. Roosevelt visited the Gila River Camp in Arizona in April, 1943, and was harshly criticized for it by many. She wrote in her “My Day” column that “The sooner we get the young Japanese out of these camps the better.” She supported efforts to permit students to leave the camps to attend college.
One of the most haunting images in the exhibit is of Risa and Yasubei Hirano and their son George posed in front of an American flag. Risa is holding a photograph of her son Shigera in uniform. The Hiranos were held at the Colorado River camp, and this image captures both the patriotism and the deep sadness these proud Japanese Americans felt. The photographer is unknown.
There were several legal challenges that slowly worked their way through the court system, but the Supreme Court approved the military’s decision to create exclusionary zones allowing them to remove “any or all persons.” The Supreme Court did rule in late 1944 that the government could not detain a citizen who was “concededly loyal” in the case involving Mitsuye Endo. But at that point the end was near.
Military concerns about a possible Japanese invasion faded as the war progressed, and the WRA began allowing increasing numbers of “camp residents” to leave. They enlisted in the military, enrolled in colleges or took jobs away from the West Coast. By the end of 1944 more than 40,000 had been released. On January 2, 1945 the exclusion order was lifted, meaning those still in the camps were free to return home. But many no longer had homes.
In the post-war period, the Japanese Internment story faded into the background. But over time historians and survivors began clamoring for an official government apology.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford revoked Executive Order 9066, and President Jimmy Carter later created a commission to determine how the government should respond. In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. It provided for an official government apology and granted $20,000 in restitution to all surviving people relocated under EO 9066.
In his book “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” Conrad Black wrote that the Japanese internment was “One of the more discreditable episodes in the entire Roosevelt era.” The American Civil Liberties Union would later call it the “worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of American citizens in our history” although they did not challenge the order in court during the war. Roosevelt himself said that “To keep a large number of loyal American citizens in concentration camps was certainly not consistent with the principles for which the Unites States was fighting” according to his speechwriter Sam Rosenman.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is presenting “Images of Internment” because it is critically important to examine both the successes and failures of any great leader to truly understand them. President Roosevelt led America through two of its worst crises, the Great Depression and World War II. His extraordinary leadership helped create the modern world with all of the freedoms we enjoy today. Executive Order 9066 reminds us that even our greatest leaders can make mistakes when the voice of the people drowns out the voice of reason. As Abraham Lincoln once said:
“Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government.”
To learn more about Japanese Internment you can visit these sites:
FDR Library – Japanese American Internment: World War II “Teachable Moment”
Japanese American internment video, from the FDR Library’s Pare Lorentz Center
FDR and Japanese American Internment
Japanese Relocation During World War II
Manzanar National Historic Site