March 18,1942 marks one of the most controversial days in American history. It all started as a response to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, everyone of Japanese descent became suspect in the eyes of the people and government of America. Fears mounted that among the thousands of Japanese Americans living near the Pacific coast were those still loyal to Japan who might relay valuable information back home or turn to sabotage.
The same fears mounted against German and Italian nationals as well due to the war in Europe, setting off a series of events that led to the forced removal of over 100,000 German, Italian and Japanese citizens from their homes. The vast majority of the removals involved Japanese nationals and Japanese-American citizens.
By the middle of January 1942, government officials are discussing the possibility of removing thousands of ethnic Japanese from the entire west coast area. One of the main questions being asked in Washington DC is whether or not such a removal would be legal or if the president had the power to make it happen.
Around the 10th of February, Department of Justice attorneys inform Attorney General Francis Biddle that forcibly relocating thousands of people of Japanese descent would be a legal test of Roosevelt’s powers.
On February 11, 1942, President Roosevelt receives a call from Secretary of War Henry Stimson who advises the president to take action on relocating ethnic Japanese from the west coast for reasons of national security. Roosevelt reportedly told Stimson to do what he believed necessary to insure national security.
On February 12, 1942, American citizens are alarmed when they read columnist Walter Lippmann’s report saying:
“The Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and from without. The Japanese navy has been reconnoitering the coast more or less continuously. The Pacific Coast is officially a combat zone; some part of it may at any moment be a battlefield. Nobody’s constitutional rights include the right to reside and do business on a battlefield. And nobody ought to be on a battlefield who has no good reason for being there.”
On February 13, 1942, Senators and Representatives from California, Oregon and Washington sent Roosevelt a letter calling for the ‘immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage’ from all of the military strategic areas on and near the Pacific Coast.
On February 14, 1942, the letter from the Pacific coast members of Congress was further supported when the US Army’s Western Defense Command notified the Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. In the memorandum, the Command not only pushed for the evacuation of all people of Japanese lineage, but all other subversive groups as well, which included Germans and Italians.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt succumbed to the many requests he was receiving and issued Executive Order 9066. This order gave Secretary of War Stimson the authority to designate military areas. These areas would soon exclude ‘any and all persons’ from them.
On February 23, 1942, the war with Japan was brought to shores of America when a Japanese submarine fired shells at an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, California. Although little physical damage was done the fact that a Japanese vessel actually attacked the American mainland caused more widespread concern about national safety than ever before.
On March 2, 1942, following the authority given to the Secretary of War, the Western Defense Command declared the western halves of California, Oregon and Washington along with the southern third of Arizona to be military areas. All persons of Japanese lineage living in those areas were given to the end of March to voluntarily move out of the military areas. By the end of the month, only 8,000 people of Japanese lineage moved, leaving many more thousands still living in the newly designated military areas.
On March 18, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9102, creating the War Relocation Authority (WRA). Working under the authority of the Department of Emergency Management, the WRA began mandated evacuations of all people of Japanese lineage, as well as those of German and Italian lineage, from the western halves of California, Oregon and Washington along with the southern third of Arizona. Milton S. Eisenhower, younger brother of Dwight D. Eisenhower, was given the task of running the WRA.
The WRA quickly set about building relocation centers in:
Arizona- Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, AZ; Gila River Relocation Center, Rivers, AZ
Arkansas- Jerome Relocation Center, Denson, AR; Rohwer Relocation Center, McGehee, AR
California- Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, CA; Tule Lake Relocation Center, Newell, CA
Colorado- Granada Relocation Center, Amache, CO
Idaho- Minidoka Relocation Center, Hunt, ID
New York- Fort Ontario Refugee Shelter, NY
Utah- Central Utah Relocation Center, Topaz, UT
Wyoming- Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, WY
Once built, about 120,000 Japanese, German and Italian persons were uprooted from their homes and businesses and transported to the various relocation centers. Although the federal government said the relocation centers were not internment camps, many felt that’s what they were as there was always a military presence surrounding the centers.
The WRA was supposed to provide them with housing, medical care and jobs. The conditions in some of the relocation centers were anything but accommodating. In most of the relocation centers, they allowed the internees to establish their own local government.
Gordon Hirabayashi was a US citizen of Japanese lineage who refused to be relocated. He believed that the US government and army were violating his rights as a US citizen. Hirabayashi took his argument all the way to the US Supreme Court, however the high court ruled against him. In their decision, they stated that the government had the right to protect itself from invasion as well as from saboteurs.
On December 18, 1944, the WRA announced that all of the relocation centers will be closed by the end of 1945. From that point on the number of people held in the relocation centers decreases to around 58,000 by August 1, 1945.
By the end of November 1945, all of the relocation centers except one had been closed. The center at Tule Lake in California remains open, housing approximately 12,500 people.
March 20, 1946, The Tule Lake relocation center is closed.
President Harry S. Truman urged Congress to pass legislation that would appropriate the claims filed by thousands of internees against the US government. By 1965, the last of the 23,000 claims was settled. All toll, the claims cost the US $131 million.
Sources for the above includes: Records of the War Relocation Authority [WRA]; War Relocation Authority is Established in United States; Japanese Relocation (ca. 1943); Relocation of Japanese-Americans; RELOCATION of Japanese Americans; The War Relocation Authority & the Incarceration of Japanese-Americans During World War II; Executive Order 9102 Establishing the War Relocation Authority