Study Guide

Executive Order 9066: The President Authorizes Japanese Relocation Historical Context

By Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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Historical Context

A Sinking Feeling

Remember Pearl Harbor?

No, not Michael Bay's epic cinematic failure starring Ben Affleck.

No one remembers that.

We're talking about the actual bombing of Pearl Harbor—which you probably don't remember either…unless you're older than 75. But you might have read about it because it's a big, important deal.

Nazis and Kamikazes

The attack on Pearl Harbor is often referred to as a "surprise aerial bombing" by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. It resulted in the deaths of 2,400-plus people and the destruction of U.S. military ships and submarines. Yeah. It was massive.

And, you know, it was an act of aggression by the Japanese that left the United States no choice but to respond by officially joining World War II.

What fun.

By this time, the second world war had been raging for more than two years. It began in Europe when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. In response, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany in an attempt to stop them. Obviously, this did little to dissuade the Germans from pursuing a military campaign to control the continent.

Over the next 24 months, Germany proceeded to invade Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In June 1940, they took over France—a move that left Great Britain all by its lonesome against Nazi power, which was spreading faster than butter on a warm pretzel. The situation is what you would call "a hot mess."

At about the same time, on the other side of the globe, Japan was nurturing its own version of fascism called "statism." Imperial Japan believed it possessed the incontestable right to rule all of Asia. All of it. (Have you checked out a map recently? Asia is massive.) This belief was rooted in warped historical perspectives, cultural falsehoods, and poisonous ethnic prejudice.

But the Japanese were all "go big or go home," so on July 7th, 1937, they invaded northern China, kicking off their tyrannical debut and starting what is now known as the Second Sino-Japanese War. China, being somewhat unprepared for the assault, didn't fare too well during the invasion. Japan advanced a comfy military presence in Chinese territory that would remain until the end of the war.

Meanwhile in the Dust Bowl

You might be wondering what the good ol' U.S. of A. thought about all of these international shenanigans. Well, America was none too happy about the goings-on in either Europe or Asia during the late 1930s and early 1940s. But that didn't mean it was ready to get involved.

It had its own problems to deal with.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had triggered a domino effect of economic crumbling both in the Unites States and across the world, ushering in the Great Depression. On the home front, it was an era of extensive unemployment, extreme poverty, and overall hardship. Coupled with the ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, life in America had become a tad unpleasant.

Politically, another ginormous war was the last thing anyone wanted. After World War I, a lot of the country felt reluctant to become involved in foreign affairs anytime soon. The sentiment was widespread and developed into a social movement known as "isolationism."

This meant that the United States minded its own business when it came to international conflicts and related issues, despite pleas for help from nations under siege by the Germans (like Great Britain). In fact, isolationism received such strong support in the United States during this time that it was made into federal law with the passing of the Neutrality Acts of 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939. Dang, that's a lot of neutrality.

Even as Japan joined forces with Germany and Italy (the granddaddy of fascism) to form the Axis powers under the Tripartite Pact of September 27th, 1940, the Unites States still maintained its stubborn stance of non-interventionism.

However, the U.S. president at the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was strongly anti-isolationist. Dude knew that Neutrality Acts wouldn't prevent foreign military aggression from coming to American soil, despite the laws' good intentions to keep the country out of trouble. He believed that the best way to thwart an attack from the Axis powers was to support those nations already locked in battle with them (again: Great Britain).

In one of his most famous speeches—and FDR gave a lot of famous speeches—the "Four Freedoms" address from January 6th, 1941, Roosevelt successfully argued in favor of a plan that provided war materials and supplies to nations under the threat of Axis domination.

In exchange, those nations would be able to continue resisting the Axis and keep their influence from reaching across the seas to the United States. This plan was called the Lend-Lease policy, and it most significantly aided China against Japan, Great Britain against Germany, and eventually the U.S.S.R. against both.

Yeah. That doesn't sound isolationist to us, either.

Teetering on the Edge

But America still kept one big toe in isolationist waters. While the Lend-Lease policy technically abolished American isolationism, it still managed to keep the United States from participating directly in the war. (This almost-but-not-quite maneuver was typical of the Roosevelt administration at the beginning of World War II.)

In addition to the activity of the Lend-Lease policy, the United States initiated a series of economic trade policies to limit the strength of the Axis powers. Think of this as being really passive-aggressive on a huge international scale.

Among these policies was an export embargo on oil and gasoline to Japan, most of which came from the Unites States. By cutting off access to fuel, the United States increased pressure on Japan's economy and infrastructure, which was still struggling due to the global effects of the Great Depression. It would only be a matter of time before its industry and military just simply…petered out.

Needless to say, diplomatic relations between the United States and Japan went from sour to curdled faster than a carton of whole milk in the noonday sun.

With Japan desperate to maintain its military superiority and political influence in Asia, it looked to invade additional nearby nations for access to oil and gasoline, including the American-held Philippine islands.

A Big Uh-Oh

The Japanese had a sneaking suspicion that the United States probably wouldn't appreciate an invasion of one of their territories. They also suspected that it would lead to a giant red, white, and blue-style smackdown. But they really needed that oil.

So, instead of invading the Philippines and waiting around for American retaliation...or just simply not doing it...the Japanese decided to take preemptive measures and attack the United States.


Occurring on December 7th, 1941, Japan's infamous act of aggression took the form of an air raid on U.S. military forces stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory. The United States waited all of one day to retaliate.

FDR declared war on Japan on December 8th, 1941.

Three days later, the United States was also at war with Germany.

Trouble at Home

With the country now involved in World War II on two continents, the vibe in the United States was understandably, um, tense. "Remember Pearl Harbor" was a slogan and rally cry for a new pro-war stance, and it ramped up patriotism among Americans.

Immediately after the attack, FDR dusted off the Alien and Sedition Acts (a set of laws going back to the late 1700s), which allowed him to assign "enemy alien" status to specific categories of foreign nationals. These people, who were non-U.S. citizens from Germany, Italy, and Japan, were arrested and imprisoned under the emergency conditions of impending war.

Xenophobic irrationality gripped the American public, especially on the West Coast, which was (and still is) home to one of the largest Japanese American populations in the United States. People falsely believed that Japanese Americans were a potential threat to the country's security and feared that they would band together to form treasonous insurgency groups.

This racist anxiety weaseled its way into the government and, with the help of Gen. John L. DeWitt, traveled all the way to the topmost executive level: the president. Though detailed U.S. surveillance reports suggested that Japanese Americans did not pose a security threat to the country to which they belonged, FDR still issued Executive Order 9066.

Over the next few months, DeWitt, with the support of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, would enact policy after policy to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans for the duration of World War II.

A Painful Legacy

After their release from the camps, some Japan-born immigrants were forced to start over from scratch for a second time since their arrival in America. Others, both immigrants from Japan and U.S.-born Japanese Americans, chose to leave the United States and relocate to Japan.

A vast majority were left with nothing.

Memorials and museums throughout the country remember the internment of Japanese Americans as a difficult chapter in U.S. history. Sites such as the monument to Manzanar and exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History educate people about this injustice, with the hopes that such mistreatment never happens again.

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