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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Behind the Wire

Family waiting for evacuation, Los Angeles

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, bringing the U.S. into the Second World War. In so doing, it also plunged Japanese immigrants and their children into the greatest crisis they had ever known, and put their very survival as a community into grave doubt.

Hours after the attack, U.S. security personnel began rounding up and arresting prominent Japanese Americans—businessmen, journalists, teachers, and civic officials—as security risks. Within a week, more than 2,000 Issei, the leaders of the Japanese American community, were behind bars. The press responded with a wave of paranoid hysteria, publishing virulent attacks on Japanese Americans and demonizing them as spies, saboteurs, and enemy agents. More ad hoc internments followed, and Japanese Americans throughout the West Coast began to be forced out of their jobs, subjected to warrantless military searches, and abused and attacked in public places.

In February of 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the U.S. military to evacuate any and all persons from "military areas" and provide accommodation for them elsewhere. In March, the army issued its first Civilian Exclusion Orders, requiring that "all Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated" from a number of areas on the Pacific coast and confined to "relocation camps" further inland. By the middle of November, all of California and much of Washington and Oregon had been declared military areas, and 100,000 Japanese Americans, Nisei and Issei, citizen and non-citizen alike, had been uprooted and transferred hundreds or thousands of miles away from home. By the end of the war in 1945, 125,000 people, half of them children, had spent time in what even Roosevelt admitted were concentration camps.

For the Japanese Americans who were forced into internment, the relocation process was a nightmare of dislocation and uncertainty. Once an exclusion order was issued, Japanese Americans were given one week in which to register with the authorities, gather whatever possessions they could carry, and report to an assembly center nearby. The evacuees were required to liquidate their assets in few days, and so homeowners were required to sell their houses, and business owners their farms, stores, and restaurants, hurriedly and at steep discounts, often for pennies on the dollar. The assembly centers were usually converted racetracks and fairgrounds, where thousands of people slept in stables, livestock stalls, or the open air while they waited to be transported to their assigned internment camps.

This large-scale imprisonment of U.S. citizens solely on the basis of their ancestry was met with almost universal approval by the non-Japanese-American population, and was accepted largely without question. No serious explanations were offered as to why no large-scale internment of German or Italian Americans ever took place, or why internment of people of Japanese descent was necessary on the mainland but not in Hawaii, where the large Japanese-Hawaiian population went largely unmolested. The army was never required to prove that the Americans interned in the camps posed any military threat, or that the relocations in any way made the nation safer from attack; their ancestry was considered evidence enough. No Japanese American was ever convicted of any act of sabotage during World War II.

When they reached the camps themselves, they saw spare, prison-like compounds situated on sun-baked deserts or bare Ozark hillsides, dotted with watchtowers and surrounded by barbed wire. The sites of the camps—Topaz in Utah, Minidoka in Idaho, Gila River and Poston in Arizona, Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Amache in Colorado, Rohwer and Jerome in Arkansas, and Tule Lake and Manzanar in California—had been chosen for their remoteness, and for most internees they must have seemed as alien as the surface of the moon. Life in the camps had a military flavor; internees slept in barracks or small compartments with no running water, took their meals in vast mess halls, and went about most of their daily business in public. Physical mistreatment was rare, but the armed guards and the ever-present snipers in the watchtowers were constant reminders of the residents' new status.

Over time, life in the internment camps began to follow its own routine. Students were sent to school every morning, and adult internees were given jobs, usually farming or maintaining the physical plant. Each camp had a governing council, and many of the institutions of normal community life—newspapers, businesses, sports teams, concerts, places of worship—grew and thrived within the barbed wire. At the same time, however, camp life worked to erode some of the most distinctive tenets of the Japanese American community.

The traditional structure of the Japanese family, with its emphasis on close bonds and respect for elders, was undermined by the camps' informal social milieu, where children could play for hours unsupervised and young people ate their meals with their friends rather than their parents. More importantly, however, paying jobs were only given to U.S. citizens-that is, to the Nisei. The younger generation, as the breadwinners, soon began to take on leadership roles in the internee community, while the Issei, who had worked for decades to build up businesses and lead their families, found themselves sidelined.

For an in-depth look at daily life in a Japanese American internment camp, go to the collection "Suffering Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar.

Throughout the war, interned Japanese Americans protested against their treatment and insisted that they be recognized as loyal Americans. Many sought to demonstrate their patriotism by trying to enlist in the armed forces. Although early in the war Japanese Americans were barred from military service, by 1943 the army had begun actively recruiting Nisei to join new all-Japanese American units. More than 30,000 Nisei men served in uniform, mostly in Europe, although a few were sufficiently fluent in Japanese to work as translators in the Pacific. One all-Nisei unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, went on to become the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. history, having received more than 18,000 individual decorations, including 52 Distinguished Service Crosses and one Congressional Medal of Honor.