FDR Unilaterally Interned 120,000 Americans 75 Years Ago Today

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Kevin Daley Supreme Court correspondent
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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 75 years ago today, beginning the internment of 120,000 American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese descent.

The order enabled the secretary of war to designate “military areas” from which civilian activity would be precluded. These sites became the network of camps to which the Japanese, and a number of German and Italian-Americans, would be sent for the duration of the Second World War. The Roosevelt administration feared Japanese-Americans could function as a “fifth column” for the imperial government in Tokyo, conducting espionage and sabotage at the behest of Japanese army and intelligence services.

The overwhelming majority of the country’s Japanese population lived on the west coast. California, Oregon, Idaho, and Hawaii each adopted resolutions establishing days of remembrance for the 75th anniversary.

George Nakata, an 83-year-old sent to the camps as a boy, gave testimony before a committee of the Oregon state legislature in connection with the 75th anniversary of the order.

“I can never forget, upon entering the building, the smell of livestock urine, the pungent odor of manure underneath the wooden floors,” he said of the processing center to which his family was made to report.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the order in Korematsu v. U.S. The decision has never been overturned. Acting solicitor general Neal Katyal, the government’s lawyer at the Supreme Court, said in 2011 that the U.S. Department of Justice misled the justices in the case, suppressing evidence which vindicated those of Japanese descent, while overstating the conclusions the government had reached about the extent of the threat.

The Los Angeles Times, like other newspapers throughout the country, strongly supported the order, and adopted an editorial line promoting the wisdom of the decision.

“This is war,” the Times wrote. “And in wartime, the preservation of the nation becomes the first duty. Everything must be subordinated to that. Every necessary precaution must be taken to insure reasonable safety from spies and saboteurs so that our armed forces can function adequately and our industrial machinery may continue to work free from peril.”

“The time has come to realize that the rigors of war demand proper detention of Japanese and their immediate removal from the most acute danger spots. It is not a pleasant task. But it must be done and done now,” the paper added. “There is no safe alternative.”

The Times apologized for their poor judgment in its Sunday editorial this week.

“Given what we wrote in 1942, the 75th anniversary is a time for The Times editorial board to exercise some humility and to reflect on how we reach our positions on the passionate issues of the day,” it said.

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