The Internment of Japanese Americans: Sixty Years Later


James Zogby’s Column

On February 19, 1942, then-U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which designated large areas of the western United States as “military areas”, requiring special protection.  The order went further.  It gave the military the authority to exclude and remove “enemy aliens” from those areas.

Thus began the process which resulted in the roundup and internment of over 120,000 persons of Japanese descent.  Two thirds of the group were American citizens, with one-half of the total group having been born in the U.S.

Citizen and non-citizen alike, Japanese Americans were taken from their homes, herded into trains and buses, by military order, and taken to newly constructed camp sites in desolate locations, where they remained for 4 years.

These Japanese Americans lost all civil and political rights.  They also suffered incalculable losses of property and personal wealth.  Careers were ruined.  More than all this, of course, they suffered the trauma of absolute vulnerability and indignity of being considered aliens in the land of their birth.

While the ten sites were called “relocation areas”, they were, in fact, nothing more than crudely built concentration camps.  And while the U.S. officially maintained that these actions were taken to provide for the national defense, it was racism that lay at the core of the Japanese internment.

America was at war with Germany, Italy and Japan, but it was only Japanese Americans who were interned.  And while Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) was given as the principle cause of the Executive Order, the predicate for this act had clearly been established many years earlier.

Early in the 20th century, Japanese Americans, despite discrimination, were emerging as a successful and enterprising ethnic community in California.  They owned tens of thousands of acres of farmland and had become an important force in that state’s agricultural industry.  Anti-Asian sentiment had already taken a toll on the growing Japanese American community.  A law had been passed denying citizenship to foreign-born Asians.  In 1913, California passed a law prohibiting Asians from owning land.  By 1925, an expanded law that prohibited Asians from even leasing land had been adopted by more than a dozen other states.

And so it was merely an extension of this hostility that saw Japanese Americans classified as “enemy aliens” after Pearl Harbor.  Congressmen spoke about “their treacherous ways”.  The Attorney General of California referred to Japanese Americans as the “Achilles heel” of the nation.  Further congressional pressure resulted in Roosevelt’s issuance of the infamous Executive Order and the establishment of the internment camps.

This entire episode was, by any measure, a black stain on the soul of America-one that will not easily be erased.  Presidents have apologized for the internment and in 1988, after much lobbying, Congress passed legislation providing symbolic reparations–$20,000 for each of the 60,000 surviving Japanese American residents of the WWII camps.  And here in Washington, right across from the Capitol building, Japanese Americans have built the Japanese American War Memorial-a powerful reminder of the suffering and humiliation that racism inflicted on Japanese Americans.

I wanted to tell you this story and pay my respect to Japanese Americans, in part out of gratitude for the support that community has given to Arab Americans.

In fact, within days of the terrible terrorist attacks of September 11, as the racist anti-Arab backlash was just beginning, Japanese Americans invited me to address a significant solidarity rally at the site of the Japanese American War Memorial. They did not want Americans to forget that racism left unchecked can grow and take a terrible toll.

And so, this week, when the Japanese American community commemorates the 60th Anniversary of the Executive Order that denied them their freedom, Arab Americans have proudly signed on to cosponsor that event.

Japanese Americans have paid a terrible price, but as America has reflected on what it had done to them, we have learned some lessons and become a better people.  History will note that when Roosevelt issued his order, only two national organizations had the courage to condemn the move: the American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) and the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Today, with the U.S. experiencing similar shock and fear in the wake of September 11, not only Japanese Americans, but over one hundred different organizations and communities representing churches, ethnic groups and civil rights and political organizations have come forward to warn the nation against allowing its fear to deny others their freedom.  It is true that Arab Americans are facing some problems of discrimination and hate.  Some are experiencing backlash, others are victims of overzealous law enforcement.  But the America of 2002 is not the America of 1942.  And, in no small measure, due to the sacrifices of Japanese Americans, African Americans and others, Arab Americans can be assured that the horrible history of 1942 will not be repeated today.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.