Japanese-American Internment

By William “Doc” Halliday

Most Americans believe that the United States was surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  I doubt this country was surprised strategically. 

By 1931 U.S.-Japanese relations had become strained.  Japan’s civilian government was unable to deal with the pressures of the global Great Depression and had been transformed into a militaristic régime. The new regime was prepared to strengthen Japan by forcibly annexing areas in the Asia-Pacific, and it started with China.  That year, the Japanese army launched attacks against Manchuria, quickly conquering it. Japan announced that it had annexed Manchuria and renamed it “Manchukuo.” 

The U.S. refused to diplomatically acknowledge the addition of Manchuria to Japan, and Secretary of State Henry Stimson said as much in the so-called “Stimson Doctrine.” That response, however, was only diplomatic. The U.S. did not threatened military or economic retaliation.  Japan desperately needed China’s raw materials in order to continue its program of modernization. The U.S. needed a democratic Chinese government to counter both Japanese military expansion in the Pacific and the spread of communism in Asia.

Actually, the United States did not want to disrupt its profitable trade with Japan. In addition to a variety of consumer goods, the U.S. provided resource-poor Japan with most of its scrap iron and steel. Most importantly, it sold Japan 80% of its oil. 

In a succession of naval treaties in the 1920s, the United States and Great Britain had attempted to limit the size of Japan’s naval fleet. However, they had made no attempt to cut off Japan’s supply of oil. When Japan renewed aggression against China, it did so with American oil, and in 1937, Japan began a full-blown war with China. 

In 1935 and 1936, the United States Congress had passed Neutrality Acts to prohibit the U.S. from selling goods to countries at war. The acts were presumably to protect the U.S. from falling into another war like the First World War. President Roosevelt did not care for the acts because they prohibited the U.S. from helping allies in need, although he did sign them. 

The acts were not active unless Roosevelt invoked them, which he did not do in the case of Japan and China. He favored China in the crisis, and by not invoking the 1936 act he could still shuttle aid to the Chinese.

Not until 1939, however, did the United States begin to directly challenge continued Japanese aggression in China. That year the U.S. announced it was pulling out of the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan, indicating an approaching termination to trade with the empire. Japan continued its operations against China.  .

In December of 1939, the U. S., which was supplying Japan with nearly all its aviation fuel, stopped the export of any technical information about the production of aviation fuel.  When the Japanese invaded Indochina in July of 1940 the U. S. responded by cutting off oil exports to Japan.  In September 1940, the U.S. froze Japanese assets.  In November of 1941 the U. S. told Japan to get out of China and Indochina. 

The American policies forced Japan to the wall. With the approval of the Japanese emperor, the Japanese navy began planning to attack Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other bases in the Pacific in early December to open the route to the Dutch East Indies and the oil located there.

In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the West Coast appeared particularly susceptible to another Japanese military offensive. A large population of Japanese Americans inhabited the western states and American military analysts feared some might conduct acts of sabotage on west-coast defense and agricultural industries.

On January 14, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation No. 2537, requiring aliens from enemy countries–Italy, Germany and Japan–to register with the Department of Justice. Registered persons were then issued a Certificate of Identification for Aliens of Enemy Nationality. A follow-up to the Alien Registration Act of 1940, Proclamation No. 2537 facilitated the beginning of full-scale internment of Japanese Americans the following month.

Liberal Japanese resented American anti-Japanese policies, particularly in California, where exclusionary laws were passed to prevent Japanese Americans from competing with U.S. citizens in the agricultural industry. Despite these tensions, a 1941 federal report requested by Roosevelt indicated that more than 90 percent of Japanese Americans were considered loyal citizens. Under pressure from military advisors and influential California politicians, Roosevelt agreed to begin the necessary steps for possible internment of the Japanese-American population.

Proclamation No. 2537 permitted the arrest, detention and internment of enemy aliens who violated restricted areas, such as ports, water treatment plants or even areas prone to brush fires, for the duration of the war. A month later, a reluctant Roosevelt signed the War Department’s blanket Executive Order 9066, which authorized the physical removal of all Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Ultimately the government forced more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, but some, including Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui and Gordon Hirabayashi, defied orders imposed exclusively on their ethnic group. For refusing to do what they’d been told, these courageous men were arrested and jailed. They eventually took their cases to the Supreme Court—and lost. 

Four decades later legal historian Peter Irons stumbled upon evidence that government officials had withheld several documents from the Supreme Court stating that Japanese Americans posed no military threat to the United States. With this information in hand, Korematsu’s attorneys appeared in 1983 before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco, which vacated his conviction. Yasui’s conviction was overturned in 1984 and Hirabayashi’s two years later.

In 1988, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which led to a formal government apology for internment and payment of $20,000 to internment survivors.

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