On February 19, 1942, in what is now considered to be one of the worst mistakes of his presidency, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the internment of tens of thousands of people of Japanese descent.
The order came ten weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Up and down the West Coast, posters appeared declaring that “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated.” Some 110,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted and moved inland to internment camps in remote locations scattered across seven states. Nearly two-thirds of these “evacuees” were American citizens.
Security concerns prompted the drastic step – the U.S. government worried that people of Japanese ancestry might be spying for Japan. Mexico and Canada took similar actions. But the ugly truth is that hysteria and racism were also at work. Many Americans, with images of burning ships and dead sailors at Pearl Harbor seared in their minds, looked at Japanese-Americans and saw the enemy.
Many internees spent two and a half years in the camps, which were hastily constructed miniature cities, full of wooden barracks and surrounded by barbed wire. After the war, they faced the task of rebuilding their lives.
In no way can the internment camps be compared with Nazi concentration camps or Stalin’s Gulag, where millions died. But the terrible fact remains that loyal Americans who had done no wrong lost their property and, temporarily at least, their liberty. It’s an ugly blot on our nation’s history.
In 1988, President Reagan signed a law that offered a national apology to Japanese-Americans and $20,000 to each person who had been interned in the camps.