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Sometimes the smallest actions have the largest impact.
Like when Germany sent the Zimmermann Telegram to Mexico and prompted the United States to enter World War I. Or, when Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias detected a bit of radio static that led to the discovery of the Big Bang. Or, when you try to flatten a penny by placing it on a railroad track, and the whole train loses control.
(Wait...has that ever really happened?)
Anyway, what we're saying is that Executive Order 9066 is one of those actions.
One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's thousands of decrees, E.O. 9066 (as it is more snappily known) was announced during a very tense time in American history. On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked the United States by bombing a military base at Pearl Harbor. Within a day, the country was at war with Japan. A week later, it was fully engaged in World War II.
As New Year's came and went, tensions within the United States mounted against people of Japanese descent. Super-racist sentiments fueled by war hysteria created the false perception that Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens were "in cahoots" with Imperial Japan. Rumors circulated that they were planning an uprising from within the country.
While none of these claims turned out to be true, FDR issued E.O. 9066 on February 19th, 1942, in response to the climate of distrust and on the insistence of Gen. John L. DeWitt, who was deeply suspicious of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. A compact document, the order gave the secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson, and other specific military officials the authority to create so-called "military areas."
From these areas, anyone, literally anyone, could be forcibly removed. With this power, people like DeWitt were able to deport 120,000 people of Japanese heritage to concentration or internment camps called WRA relocation centers for up to four years—without them having any say in the matter.
Yup. Let that sink in for a minute.
And the effects of E.O. 9066 lasted long after its suspension in 1944 and the end of World War II. Upon release from internment, prisoners were left jobless, homeless, and very poor. Racial prejudice against Japanese Americans persisted in the post-war period, adding to the difficulty of their reentry into American society.
In the decades since, the wartime internment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government has been thoroughly investigated. A series of legal cases and lawsuits, together with civil rights groups, such as the Japanese American Citizens League, sought official apologies for those families who were wronged. Late in his second term, President Ronald Reagan ratified the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted repatriations to individuals who suffered because of E.O. 9066.
It might be difficult to grasp that E.O. 9066 was ever even allowed to happen, let alone all of the harm it did. The mass imprisonment of people seems like something from the distant past, or something that only happened in Europe. The hard truth of it is that it happened right here in America. We'll say that again: it happened within America.
And it happened within living memory.
Okay, grab a snack. It's time for some real talk.
It's the 21st century. It seems like World War II happened a long time ago. But in the scope of human history, it really didn't. That was basically yesterday, in terms of historical significance.
It might also seem like the way people lived their lives and perceived the world in 1940s America is super old-fashioned by today's standards, but the spooky truth of it is…our cultures aren't very different.
The planet has seen abundant wars and political conflicts since World War II, and people still respond to violence with anger, fear, and paranoia—just like they did when Hitler invaded Europe and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It's an understandable response to look for someone to blame in the aftermath of tragedies. And, true, there's often a culprit guilty of such injustices to society, but commonly the wrong person or people are accused—and too frequently the blame is rooted in an ugly little thing called bigotry.
And this was exactly the situation with E.O. 9066. Though it was written with the best intentions—which, yeah, we know what a certain road to a certain fiery place is paved with—for the nation, it ignited the persecution of a population based solely on its race and culture.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent people who, by an overwhelming majority, were loyal to America were removed from their stable and thriving lives and placed in concentration camps with subpar living conditions.
While the Unites States was fighting the Germans and condemning the mass incarceration of Jews in Europe, it was conducting its own program of concentration camps back home. Though the American internment of people with Japanese heritage was nowhere near to the degree of atrocity committed in the German death camps, it was still fundamentally unethical and remains a dark moment in the nation's history.
Okay, we know things just got really heavy really fast, so let's pause for a moment to clarify a couple of World War II terms—because nothing gets a party going faster than World War II lingo. The phrase "concentration camp" is usually immediately associated with the Nazis in Germany, while "internment camp" is used to talk about the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in the United States.
While the different terms are helpful to distinguish between the two, uh, crimes against humanity, they ultimately mean the same thing. An internment camp is a concentration camp. It's important to recognize this and call it out for what it is; otherwise, these cruelties might not seem as truly terrible as they were.
This is why we're referring to the WRA relocation camps as internment camps and concentration camps—to remind us of what they really are. It's a small gesture, but with it we're able to learn from history and the tragedies of the past. If we don't, who or what is going to prevent them from happening again?
Oh, did we say "lighten the mood"? We meant give you insomnia.
Hey, how's that snack tasting right about now?
Terms of Imprisonment
The National Park Service has compiled an extremely convenient list of World War II-era terms related to the internment of Japanese Americans. Feel free to use this as a supplement to our "Glossary."
At Least They Were Organized
The National Archives really outdid itself by creating an electronically accessible Database of Japanese American Evacuees, which allows you to search for the names and other personal details of people imprisoned in WRA relocation camps.
Ignore the Misleading Web Address
This is the Japanese American Veterans Association's website, not some personal blog about coffee and yogurt. It hosts a digitized document project that contains all of the official pronouncements by the government related to Japanese internment.
Not to Be Passed Up
Passing Poston is a documentary film recounting the stories of four prisoners held in the Poston relocation camp. It examines its subjects' lives in the years after their release. Grab a tissue.
Takei Tackles the Tough Stuff
Another documentary film, this one with a different vibe. To Be Takei is a biographical film about actor, comedian, and activist George Takei, who spent part of his childhood in the confines of a WRA relocation camp. You'll want to grab a tissue for this one, too, but mostly because you'll be laugh-crying.
Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston's Farewell to Manzanar provides a firsthand account of life in the internment camps from the perspective of a young girl. It might be a YA memoir, but it ain't no beach book.
Snow Falling on Cedars
This is a romantic novel by David Guterson. Set in the postwar 1950s, it tells the story of a white American World War II veteran and reporter who carries on a love affair with a woman married to a Japanese American on trial for murder. It's a snapshot of social tensions leading up to and then following the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. There's even an equally romantic movie adaptation of the same name, if movies are more your thing.
Remembering the Act That Kicked It All Off
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of E.O. 9066, NBC News pays tribute to those who suffered because of it.
A Chilling Prelude
This article from The Saturday Evening Post examines the climate of anti-Asian racism in the time between the two world wars, revealing that prejudice against Japanese Americans existed in the United States long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not exactly a light read, but an important one nonetheless.
Burns So Good
Here we have an excerpt from the Ken Burns documentary about the National Park Service that focuses on the stories of people who were imprisoned in one of the most famous camps, Manzanar. It's brought to us by the Public Broadcasting System, that very important educational resource. Thank you, PBS, for everything you do.
The Atlantic Gets Pacific
Uh, we mean specific. This great post by The Atlantic includes a 16-minute color film about the Japanese American relocation. Definitely a document of its time, its rhetoric is super 1950s, but its images are incredibly revealing about the living conditions in the internment camps.
But It's Just a Piece of Paper
National Public Radio interviews Japanese Americans at the National Archives during an exhibition of the actual E.O. 9066 and Civil Liberties Act. Read about and listen to their responses as they saw two documents that changed their lives forever.
Bridging the Gap
Telling Their Stories is an oral history project that collects interviews between elders and students. Presented by the Urban School of San Francisco, it contains a section dedicated solely to the stories of Japanese Americans who experienced imprisonment during the 1940s.
Smithsonian magazine provides an extensive slideshow of historical photographs that traces the displacement of Japanese Americans. Documented by famous photographer Dorothea Lange, many of these images are iconic reminders of a homegrown injustice.
He Didn't Just Photograph Mountains
Here we have another collection of photographs documenting the incarceration of Japanese Americans, this time captured by another famous photographer, Ansel Adams. Known mostly for capturing images of geographical landmarks, Adams' photographs of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar is a captivating look at America's cultural landscape.