Japanese American Internment: Righting a Wrong

February 19 is the Day of Remembrance commemorating the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced evacuation and relocation of all people in “military areas” who might pose a threat to national security. Since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor had occurred just months earlier, many believed that people of Japanese ancestry posed that threat, and the entire West Coast was deemed a military area.

Over the next six months, 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were taken from their homes and put into internment camps—nearly 70,000 were American citizens.

Rediscovery number:26606
“Evacuees of Japanese ancestry entraining for Manzanar, Calif., 250 miles away, where they now are housed in a War Relocation Authority center,” April 1, 1942. (Records of the War Relocation Authority, National Archives)

The evacuation forced many to sell their property and businesses at severe losses. Following the war, several groups sought compensation for the internees. Congress subsequently passed legislation providing nominal compensation, but nothing near what was needed to attempt to make up for lost property, let alone the immeasurable loss of civil liberty.

In 1980, Congress established a commission to review the facts surrounding EO 9066 and its impact on American citizens and others affected by the order. The commission held hearings around the country and heard testimony from more than 750 witnesses.

Rediscovery identifier:27957
Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, 1982. (National Archives Identifier: 24746908)

In its 467-page report, entitled Personal Justice Denied, the commission found the U.S. Government systematically detained people of Japanese ancestry despite a complete lack of evidence of any threat and without any direct military necessity.

The commission made several recommendations, including granting wartime survivors a public apology, individual reparations, and a public education fund. The commission’s records are available at the National Archives, which includes many personal stories from those interned.

In 1988, Congress passed H.R. 442 to implement the commission’s recommendations. The bill number was to honor the World War II 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which consisted almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry.

The legislation acknowledged the “fundamental injustice” of the internment and apologized on behalf of the people of the United States. The act further granted each of the estimated 60,000 surviving internees $20,000 in compensation, stating the government’s actions were motivated “by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The Presidential signing ceremony took place in front of many members of Congress of Japanese descent, including Congressman Norman Mineta, who was interned when he was a child.

In his remarks, President Ronald Reagan stated the act attempted to “right a grave wrong” but acknowledged no amount of money could make up for those lost years.

Interested in learning more? The National Archives has a vast amount of materials related to World War II Japanese American Internment and Relocation. Visit our website for more information.

The Reagan Presidential Library has made the video of the ceremony available on YouTube.

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