FDR was likely one of America’s greatest and most beloved presidents. But he’s also responsible for one of the greatest atrocities in American history.
President’s Day 2018 falls on the 76th anniversary of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066, which relocated 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to internment camps around the United States. At the time, there was considerable antipathy toward Japanese-Americans, as the Japanese military had just attacked Pearl Harbor two months prior.
FDR ultimately made the decision to relocate Japanese-American citizens based on the advice of generals, who were concerned about Japanese-Americans’ proximity to various military bases on the West Coast. However, documents from the FDR presidential library show that in the weeks leading up to Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt’s top legal advisors — Attorney General Francis Biddle and Assistant to the Attorney General James H. Rowe Jr. — urged him to reconsider the internment plan, as it would require a suspension of basic civil rights for tens of thousands of American citizens.
“My last advice from the War Department is that there is no imminent threat of attack and from the F.B.I. that there is no evidence of planned sabotage,” Biddle wrote in a February 17, 1942 memo. “Their hurried evacuation would require thousands of troops, tie up transportation, and raise very difficult questions of resettlement. Under the Constitution 60,000 of these Japanese are American citizens.”
A confidential February 2, 1942 memo from James H. Rowe to presidential secretary Grace Tully gave a similar warning about the potential illegality of Roosevelt’s internment policy.
“Please tell the President to keep his eye on the Japanese situation in California. It looks to me like it will explode any day now,” Rowe wrote. “[Internment] would probably require suspension of the writ of habeas corpus — and my estimate of the country’s present feeling is that we would have another Supreme Court fight on our hands.”
As the memos indicated, the plan to forcefully relocate over 100,000 people from their homes to remote prison camps involved the suspension of due process rights for tens of thousands of citizens. People were told to surrender almost all of their private property and move to a place they had never been on very short notice, for an undetermined period of time. The National Parks Service (NPS) website described the dehumanizing process that Japanese-Americans were forced to endure under Executive Order 9066:
Each family was assigned an identification number and loaded into cars, buses, trucks, and trains, taking only what they could carry. Japanese Americans were transported under military guard to 17 temporary assembly centers located at racetracks, fairgrounds, and similar facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. Then they were moved to one of 10 hastily built relocation centers.
The camps themselves were known for particularly cruel living conditions for the tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans who hadn’t been accused of any crime.
“[O]ne of the hardest things to endure was the communal latrines, with no partitions; and showers with no stalls,” wrote Manzanar detainee Rosie Kakuuchi.
While detainees were given jobs and had the ability to participate in sports and leisure activities, they were paid abominably low wages — professionals were paid $19 a month (roughly $9.61 per day in 2018 dollars), skilled workers were paid $16 a month ($8.09 per day), and non-skilled workers were paid $12 a month ($6.07 per day). The federal minimum wage in 1942 amounts to roughly $4.77 an hour in today’s dollars, meaning a professional-level worker working an 8-hour day in a prison camp would only earn roughly one-third of what a typical American minimum wage worker would earn in 1942.
At the Manzanar prison camp, which primarily housed Japanese-Americans from the Los Angeles area, approximately two-thirds of detainees were U.S. citizens. The rest were Japanese immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for decades, but who were denied citizenship by law. Conditions at Manzanar were so harsh that at one point, detainees staged an uprising that prompted American soldiers guarding the camp to fire into a group of rioters, killing two detainees and injuring several others.
According to the Densho Encyclopedia — an online resource on Japanese internment camps edited by Japanese-American citizen and scholar Brian Niiya — the event came on the heels of growing tensions among detainees and administrators. Because of the high administrator turnover rate, many promises made by previous administrators, like higher salaries for workers, were broken by their successors. In one case, salary checks were late by roughly three months.
Detainees were angry with guards and administrators for stealing food supplies and selling them on the black market. Some of the detainees in the internment camps were doubling as informants for the FBI, prompting disgust from other detainees. Camp administrators had also imprisoned a detainee for beating a Japanese-American businessman who supported the internment policy, collaborated with the military in the internment of his fellow countrymen, and called for his fellow Japanese-Americans to be reinstated for the draft. On the night of December 5, 1942, detainees organized and confronted administrators with various demands, prompting the fatal shooting of two young detainees.
When the dust had settled, one young man, 17-year-old James Ito of Los Angeles, had been killed by the gunfire; another, 21-year-old Jim Kanagawa of Tacoma, would die of injuries several days later. Nine others were shot but survived.
Even though FDR has been ranked as America’s third most popular president (behind Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, respectively), his policy of depriving tens of thousands of American citizens of their Constitutional rights should be remembered along with his achievements each President’s Day.
Logan Espinoza is a freelance contributor specializing in economic issues. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and daughter. Contact him at logan DOT espinoza AT yahoo DOT com.