The internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II was part of an unprecedented expansion of domestic military authority on the West Coast of the United States, beginning even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, that came close to martial law.
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, now considering compensation for those who were interned, has gathered extensive documentation about the radical military response to the feared Japanese threat to the West Coast.
As Japan severely punished U.S. forces in the Pacific, "military necessity" was invoked to overrule objections from a few Justice Department officials who argued against the internment of Japanese Americans initiated by the War Department, James Rowe Jr., then an assistant attorney general, testified to the commission. In response to those words, he said, "people bowed down."
The process began six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor in response to tension with Japan. The War Department created a Western Defense Command covering the states of California, Oregon and Washington. Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt, 61, a soldier nearing retirement, was put in charge. Karl R. Bendetsen, a Washington lawyer who had become a colonel in the Army, became his influential assistant.
A week after Pearl Harbor, the War Department designated the West Coast a "theater of operations." California, Oregon and Washington became, in effect, a war zone, and DeWitt became a theater commander.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt promulgated Executive Order 9066, giving the War Department and the West Coast commander the power to impose "whatever restrictions" necessary to protect strategic military areas and control "the right of any person to enter, remain in or leave" such areas. Congress, asking few questions, authorized criminal penalties for violations of the order.
The military subdivided the West Coast war zone into strategic areas -- around airfields, munitions plants and ports -- that required special protection and from which security "risks" could be excluded logically. It then began expanding these areas and its own authority.
Edward J. Ennis, who with Rowe opposed the evacuation of Japanese Americans from these areas, described their expansion to the commission. "It was a nice little power station one day," he said of one designated strategic area that grew and grew until "they all decided the city of Seattle was a restricted area, the city of Portland was a restricted area."
Documents gathered by the commission include a transcript of a key telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy and DeWitt, who had just come from a meeting with California politicians demanding removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast.
McCloy: "Now, my suggestion is that we might call these military reservations, in substance, and exclude everyone -- whites, yellows, blacks, greens -- from that area and then license back into the areas those whom we felt there was no danger to be expected from."
DeWitt: "Oh, I see."
McCloy: "You see, then we cover ourselves . . . . The legal situation is taken care of in that way because in spite of the Constitution, you can eliminate from any military reservation, or any place that is declared to be in substance a military reservation, anyone, any American citizen, and we could exclude everyone and then by a system of permits and licenses permitting those to come back into that area who were necessary to enable that area to function as a living community. Everyone but the Japs."
Ennis, Rowe and Attorney General Francis Biddle continued arguing against a wholesale evacuation. "We didn't have any allies," Rowe testified. "There weren't any around, except Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas and he didn't have any votes."
American casualties in the Pacific were increasing, and there were daily accounts of brutal treatment of American troops at the hands of the Japanese forces. Ultimately, the Japanese invaded and occupied the American Aleutian Islands.
"I've had 40 years to think about it," Ennis, who later became a top lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the commission. "And I really think that what caused all the problems was the early three months of the war, when the U.S. was beaten all over. We were all frightened, we were all scared, particularly in California. I think it got to all of them.
" . . . We were always on the run. The press was after us. Congress was after us. The mail was after us and we were sort of reacting to all of this. And we we're tired, too. We were up all night."
"In many ways," said Ennis, "we at the Department of Justice were incompetent."
At first, the relocation of Japanese Americans was called "voluntary." People were encouraged to move on their own. The pretense was later dropped when this notice was posted in communities up and down the West Coast: "INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY . . . . All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o'clock noon . . . . The size and number of packages is limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group."
By late in the spring of 1942, virtually all Japanese Americans had been removed from the West Coast, first to hastily converted race tracks and then to barracks in remote locations of California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas. The Washington Post reported it at the time as a movement of people "without parallel in the nation's history." But it gave the story only four paragraphs.
Gen. DeWitt then "turned to face the Japanese air attack that he had awaited since December," according to an Army chronology presented to the commission by Army historian Fred Beck. "It never came."
Japanese Americans in Hawaii, where Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox originally had alleged disloyalty, never were evacuated. There were too many and they were too essential to the economy of the islands.
Eventually, Japanese Americans were admitted into the military. Their segregated units -- the famous 442d Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Battalion -- suffered heavy casualties fighting in Europe, becoming among the most decorated regiments in the war.
But in the internment camps, their relatives and other Japanese Americans were given loyalty questionnaires. Wrong answers resulted in thousands being transferred from minimum security camps to a newly fortified "segregation center" at Tule Lake camp in north central California.
By the middle of the war, the military relinquished control of the relocation program to the War Relocation Authority, first headed by Milton Eisenhower.
In November, 1943, Assistant Secretary of War McCloy wrote to Lt. Gen. Delos C. Emmons, who had replaced DeWitt as head of the Western Defense Command: "Taking everything into consideration I imagine that if the question of whether or not to evacuate arose now, instead of soon after Pearl Harbor, the decision would be against mass evacuation."
The government allowed "leaves" from the camps for some internees willing to resettle in the Midwest. But the decision to keep them off the West Coast and the rest in internment camps had not changed. Excerpts from documents collected by the commission help explain why:
Nov. 5, 1943, letter from McCloy to Emmons: "You have no doubt become aware of the existence of active and powerful minority groups in California whose main interest in the war seems to take the form of a desire for permanent exclusion of all Japanese, loyal or disloyal, citizen or alien, from the West Coast, or at least, from California . . . . This means that considerations other than of mere military necessity enter into any proposal for removal of the present restrictions, even for selected individuals."
Nov. 12, 1943, Emmons to McCloy: "Of course, the politicians are riding along at full speed. I think it would be very good policy, therefore, to let this feeling subside before any considerable number of Japanese are returned to the Coast."
May 13, 1944, memorandum from Army chief of staff to McCloy: "In my opinion the only valid military objection to this move return of the Japanese Americans is the one . . . that the return of these people to the West Coast will result in actions of violence that will react to the disadvantage of American prisoners in the hands of the Japanese. There are, of course, strong political reasons why the Japanese should not be returned to the West Coast before next November, but these do not concern the Army . . . . "
May 26, 1944, notes from the papers of Attorney General Francis Biddle about the Cabinet meeting of that date: "The secretary of war raised the question of whether it was appropriate for the War Department, at this time, to cancel the Japanese exclusion orders and let the Japs go home. War, Interior and Justice had all agreed that this could be done without danger to defense considerations, but doubted the wisdom of doing it at this time before the election."
June 8, 1944, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes to President Roosevelt: " . . . It is my understanding that War Secretary Henry L. Stimson believes that there is no longer any military necessity for excluding these persons from the state of California and portions of the states of Washington, Oregon and Arizona. Accordingly, there is no basis in law or in equity for the perpetuation of the ban . . . . The continued exclusion of American citizens of Japanese ancestry from the affected areas is clearly unconstitutional in the present circumstances . . . . The continued retention of these innocent people in the relocation centers would be a blot upon the history of this country."
June 12, 1944, President Roosevelt to Ickes: "The more I think of this problem of suddenly ending the orders excluding the Japanese Americans from the West Coast, the more I think it would be a mistake to do anything drastic or sudden . . . . "
Aug. 8, 1944, Maj. Gen. C.H. Bonesteel to the chief of staff: "Based on the above considerations, I am convinced that there no longer exists adequate military or legal reason justifying the continuance of the mass exclusion of Japanese from the prohibited areas of the Western Defense Command."
Aug. 17, 1944, McCloy to the secretary of the Navy: "I feel that the War Department can no longer justify the continued mass exclusion of citizens of Japanese American ancestry from the West Coast on the grounds of military necessity."
Oct. 31, 1944, McCloy to Bonesteel: " . . . From what I can judge to be the sense of those who will have the ultimate decision on most of these questions, there is a disposition not to crowd action too closely upon the heels of the elections. As many of the considerations will have to be dealt with on high political rather than military levels, I am inclined to think we shall have a greater opportunity for constructive plans at a date somewhat later than Nov. 6."
On Nov. 10, 1944 -- four days after the midterm congressional elections and almost four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor -- the Roosevelt Cabinet decided the Japanese Americans could be allowed to return home.