Lessons Learned: Japanese-American Internment During WWII

Uploaded by cfr on 21.02.2012

>> Jim Lindsay: What would you do if government officials knocked on your door and said you
had one week to pack up your belongings and move to a government-run camp?
I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic this week is President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 of February 19, 1942, which ordered the internment
of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Americans were shocked when Japanese forces struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They
had not been expecting or seeking a war with Japan.
But Japanese-Americans experienced a second shock. Their loyalty to the United States
was suddenly in doubt.
Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. officials began to worry that Japanese-Americans
living on the West Coast might be aiding Tokyo. They had no evidence that Japanese-Americans
were spying or sabotaging U.S. defenses. Nonetheless, citing “military necessity,” FDR directed
that people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast be relocated to inland camps.
>> Milton S. Eisenhower: When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became
a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than a 100,000 person of Japanese
ancestry: two-thirds of them American citizens, one-third aliens. We knew that some among
them were potentially dangerous. Most were loyal. But no one knew what would happen among
this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military
authorities therefore determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, have to
>> Jim Lindsay: Japanese Americans were given a week to evacuate their homes and report
to an “assembly center.” They were allowed to bring only the baggage they could carry.
Many sold valuable personal possessions for pennies on the dollar, or simply left their
goods behind because they could not be transported.
More than 100,000 people eventually were relocated to the camps. About two-thirds were American
citizens. Living conditions in the camps were difficult, and sometimes harsh. Many residents
lived in large barracks, meals were served in mess halls, and the camps were ringed by
barbed wire and armed guards.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the internment camps, and the policy remained
in place for nearly three years. The last camp did not close until 1946, after the war
What is the lesson of the Japanese internment camps? Just this: at times Americans have
regrettably sacrificed the civil liberties of their fellow citizens in a misguided attempt
to provide for their own security. The miscarriage of justice done to Japanese-Americans during
World War II was recognized in 1988 when Congress passed a bill officially apologizing for the
camps, providing for compensation to the survivors, and blaming “race prejudice, war hysteria,
and a failure of political leadership.”
Internment camps, quite thankfully, did not return after the surprise attacks on September
11. Americans had learned from our mistakes. But the country nonetheless continues to struggle
with the difficult question of how to strike the proper balance between civil liberties
and security.
The debates over the expanded surveillance powers contained in the PATRIOT act, indefinite
detentions at Guantanamo Bay, and whether suspects charged with conducting terrorist
acts should be tried in civilian or military courts all raise tough questions and go to
the heart of our constitutional promises. Future Americans may look back on the choices
we are making today, and judge them to be either too little, too much, or just right.
I encourage you to continue the discussion of how to strike the proper balance between
civil liberties and security on my blog, The Water’s Edge, which you can find at CFR.org.
I’m Jim Lindsay. Thank you for watching this installment of Lessons Learned.