America fought World War II to preserve freedom and democracy, yet that same war featured the greatest suppression of civil liberties in the nation’s history. In an atmosphere of hysteria, President Roosevelt, encouraged by officials at all levels of the federal government, authorized the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. On March 18, 1942, Roosevelt authorized the establishment of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to govern these detention camps. He chose as its first head Milton Eisenhower, a New Deal bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture and brother of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a 1942 film entitled Japanese Relocation, produced by the Office of War Information, Eisenhower offered the U.S. government’s rationale for the relocation of Japanese-American citizens. He claimed that the Japanese “cheerfully” participated in the relocation process, a statement belied by all contemporary and subsequent accounts of the 1942 events.Listen to Audio:
Milton Eisenhower: When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry: two thirds of them American citizens; one third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. 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, would have to move. This picture tells how the mass migration was accomplished.
Neither the Army nor the War Relocation Authority relished the idea of taking men, women, and children from their homes, their shops, and their farms. So the military and civilian agencies alike determined to do the job as a democracy should: with real consideration for the people involved.
First attention was given to the problems of sabotage and espionage. Now, here at San Francisco, for example, convoys were being made up within sight of possible Axis agents. There were more Japanese in Los Angeles than in any other area. In nearby San Pedro, houses and hotels, occupied almost exclusively by Japanese, were within a stone’s throw of a naval air base, shipyards, oil wells. Japanese fishermen had every opportunity to watch the movement of our ships. Japanese farmers were living close to vital aircraft plants. So, as a first step, all Japanese were required to move from critical areas such as these.
But, of course, this limited evacuation was a solution to only part of the problem. The larger problem, the uncertainty of what would happen among these people in case of a Japanese invasion, still remained. That is why the commanding General of the Western Defense Command determined that all Japanese within the coastal areas should move inland.
Source: Japanese Relocation, produced by the Office of War Information, 1942.National Archives and Records Administration, Motion Picture Division.