The Importance of Records: Japanese American Incarceration During World War II

The National Historic Landmarks Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board is considering the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, to be a National Historic Landmark. The study includes the history of the building as well as ways records housed in the National Archives Building have been used throughout history. Today’s post looks at how National Archives records were used in an attempt to make amends for Japanese American relocation and incarceration during World War II.

Throughout its history, the National Archives has played a vital link between citizens and the federal government. By making available the historic documents of the nation, the National Archives contributes to democracy by allowing Americans to understand and claim their rights of citizenship, to hold their government accountable, and to better understand the nation’s history. One prominent example of this occurred in the early 1980s in the attempt to make amends for a sad chapter in U.S. history: Japanese American relocation and incarceration during World War II. 

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066) authorizing the forced evacuation and relocation of all people in military areas who might pose a threat to national security.

Over the next six months, 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were forced from their homes and incarcerated in camps without due process—nearly 70,000 were American citizens. Not only did the detainees lose their personal freedoms, it took a devastating emotional and economic toll.

In 1948 Congress passed legislation attempting to correct the injustice, but it had limited impact. By the early 1970s, the Japanese American Citizens League began seeking redress for those detained during the war. Efforts by Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga and Congressmen Robert Matsui and Norman Mineta led Congress to establish a commission in 1980 to review the facts surrounding the enforcement of EO 9066 and its impact on American citizens and others. 

The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians focused on locating and gathering official documents, memoirs, and personal papers that revealed the federal decision-making processes to implement the EO. The commission also questioned surviving policymakers and detainees. In total, the commission held 20 days’ worth of hearings with over 750 witnesses testifying and completed copious research in archives, including at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. 

After years of work, the commission issued its final 467-page report, titled “Personal Justice Denied,” in two parts. The first part issued on February 24, 1983, examines the circumstances surrounding EO 9066, finding that the U.S. Government unjustly detained people of Japanese ancestry despite a complete lack of evidence of any threat and without any direct military necessity. 

The report contained hundreds of citations for records housed within the National Archives Building including: Records of the War Relocation Authority; Records of the Office of the Secretary of War; General Records of the Department of State; Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs; Records of the Office of the Provost Marshal General; Records of U.S. Army Operational, Tactical, and Support Organizations; Records of the Army Staff; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office; Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior; Records of the Office of Territories; General Records of the Department of the Navy; Records of Naval Operating Forces; Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Records of the Selective Service System; and Records of the Red Cross.

The second part of the report, which contained a list of recommendations, was published four months later, on June 16, 1983. It recommended having the federal government apologize “for the acts of exclusion, removal, and detention” and issuing Presidential pardons for anyone convicted of curfew and exclusion violations.

It also recommended that Congress direct federal agencies to review “with liberality” all applications for restitution associated with the internment, and that a special foundation be created to research and educate the public about “the causes and circumstances of” internment.

Finally, it recommended a congressional appropriation of $1.5 billion to pay all surviving evacuees and detainees $20,000 each in reparations.

While there was some opposition, Congress eventually passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 on August 10, 1988, implementing the commission’s recommendations. It acknowledged the fundamental injustice of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, apologized on behalf of the people of the United States, and 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.”

In a ceremony held on October 9, 1990, nine elderly surviving detainees received the first $20,000 payments as well as a formal apology signed by President George H. W. Bush: 

A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.

In enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. You and your family have our best wishes for the future.

In this instance, the original records created before, during, and after incarceration preserved in the National Archives were instrumental in holding the U.S. Government accountable for violating the rights of its citizens. Visit our website for information on researching Japanese American incarceration and relocation records in the National Archives, including the records of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

Learn more about the National Archives and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage on our website

The National Historic Landmarks Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board will review the National Archives NHL nomination on May 11, 2022. Visit their website to see the agenda, and the nominations being considered.

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