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Yesterday, February 19th, was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. In it, FDR said:

I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.

What did this mean in reality? It meant that thousands of people, primarily on the West Coast, primarily of Japanese ancestry, and predominantly U.S. citizens, were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war. PBS has a good timeline of how internment happened here, and you can read a lot about the history of the Japanese community in the U.S. and internment itself at Densho, an digital archive of images, documents, and interviews with those who were held in internment camps. In Korematsu v. United States (1944), this internment was held to be constitutional. Though formal apologies were later made, and the man at the center of the case – Fred Korematsu – was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the decision has never been overturned.

Here’s a newspaper clipping from a few weeks before the executive order, when restrictions had already been placed on the freedom of Japanese and Japanese-Americans to move around the country. Note that this author’s focus is on Japanese-Americans, who were U.S. citizens. In reading it, think about the animal metaphors deployed, and what arguments it makes about nature vs. nurture.

“The Question of Japanese-Americans” by W.H. Anderson, Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1942.

Perhaps the most difficult and delicate question that confronts our powers that be is the handling — the safe and proper treatment — of our American-born Japanese, our Japanese-Americans, citizens by the accident of birth, but who are Japanese nevertheless.

A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched. A leopard’s spots are the same and its disposition is the same wherever it is whelped.

So a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions, living in a transplanted Japanese atmosphere and thoroughly inoculated with Japanese thoughts, Japanese ideas and Japanese ideals, notwithstanding his nominal brand of accidental citizenship, almost inevitably and with the rarest of exceptions grows up to be a Japanese, not an American, in his thoughts, in his ideas and in his ideals, and himself is a potential and menacing, if not an actual, danger to our country unless properly supervised, controlled and, as it were, hamstrung.

Thus, while it might cause an injustice to a few to treat them all as potential enemies and to so limit and control their activities as to prevent the possibility of their becoming actually such, I cannot escape the conclusion and I am by no means speaking idly or without a reasonable amount of knowledge on the subject — I cannot escape the conclusion that such treatment, as a matter of national and even personal defense, should be accorded to each and all of them while we are at war with their race.


Erin Bartram studies 19th century U.S. history, with a focus on religion and gender. You can follow her on Twitter and read more of her writing at her website.