"Suffering Under a Great Injustice": Ansel Adams's Photographs of
Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar
Executive Order 9066: Evacuation and Segregation
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes launched two attacks on Pearl Harbor, leaving 2,403 people dead and destroying U.S. planes and battleships. The following day, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan. Japanese Americans felt the repercussions over the following weeks. They were fired from government jobs, and had their cameras and short-wave radios confiscated. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts accused Japanese Americans in Hawaii of helping the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. And newspapers reported widely of suspected Japanese-American sabotage.
According to Adams, the Office of War Information reported in June 1943 that Nazi agents and not Japanese Americans had helped Japan bomb Pearl Harbor. "But this was too late,"Adams explains, "for wild stories were already broadcast; the public tension rose alarmingly, and the Military proceeded to recommend and enforce a series of evacuation orders."
On February 19, two and a half months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing:
…the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such actions necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commanders may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with such respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Sectary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion…
Within months, approximately 117,000 people of Japanese ancestry were removed from regions of the West Coast to internment camps such as the one at Manzanar. Two-thirds were citizens of the United States, children of parents who had been prohibited from becoming citizens because they had been born in Japan.
- Under what authority did President Roosevelt issue Executive Order 9066?
- What powers did the executive order give the military over civilians?
- What was the impact of Executive Order 9066?
Adams assessed the decision to evacuate Japanese Americans through Executive Order 9066, noting that:
No charges had been filed against these people nor had any hearing been held. Evacuation was on a Racial, or, perhaps more accurately, on ancestral grounds. It was the 'largest single forced migration in American History…'
The responsibility of the Military was tremendous; the spectacular victories of Japan, the crippling of our fleet at Pearl Harbor, the possibility of invasion of our west coast—all were facts of tragic import, and at the time, were considered more than ample justification of the mass exodus. In addition, there was the threat of public retaliation against the Japanese-American population. We may feel that racial antagonisms fanned the flame of decision, that political pressures were of no little consequence in supporting the military action. In the light of retrospection and true evaluation the evacuation may have been unnecessary, but the fact remains that we, as a nation, were in the most potentially precarious moment of our history—stunned, seriously hurt, unorganized for actual war…
- How does Adams describe the political and cultural climate after the attack on Pearl Harbor? According to Adams, what factors contributed to this climate?
- According to Adams, what were some of the justifications for Executive Order 9066 and the evacuation of Japanese Americans from the military zones?
- Do you find these justifications to be legitimate?
- Do you agree with Adams that relocation benefited Japanese Americans by removing them from possible persecution?
- How would you describe Adams's attitude towards Executive Order 9066?
- Is this attitude reflected in Adams's photographs? How might his feelings about the evacuation have affected the way he photographed Manzanar and its residents?
- Why might Adams have chosen to insert these photographs into his discussion of evacuation? Do these images contribute to the reader's understanding of the evacuation of Japanese Americans? If so, how?
The tragedy of segregation appears in the status of completely loyal persons having to choose between patriotic ideals and family obligations. It should be noted that 28% of the evacuees who went from Manzanar to Tule Lake were children under 18 years of age. The request for repatriation may mean allegiance to Japan, defeat, nostalgia, or simply the desire for family unity.
- Who was sent to the segregation center at Tule Lake and why?
- Why did some people refuse to foreswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan?
- Why do you think that such a large percentage of segregated evacuees were under the age of 18?
- Do you think that segregation was justified and necessary? Why or why not?
Adams clarifies, "I have not said that the evacuation was JUST, but that it was JUSTIFIED," adding, "There were great personal tragedies, financial losses, a deep disillusionment—all great and moving realities in comparison with the relatively simple physical discomforts." Passages and photographs in Born Free and Equal bring home the hardships of the forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes.
Mr. Roy Takeno’s 1944 New Year’s Day editorial takes account of the tragedies of evacuation while images of home interiors at Manzanar testify to the few possessions that most Japanese Americans were able to retain in the process of evacuation. Finally, Adams alludes to some of the worst treatment that certain individuals endured because of Executive Order 9066:
From both their own experiences, and from knowledge of the experiences of families and friends, many of the Nisei have suffered spiritual and psychological wounds that may never entirely heal. For example, the situation of the group at Terminal Island near Los Angeles: On December 7th, 1942, a large group of fishermen was seized for detention and transported to isolated camps; their wives and children were ordered from their homes without charge or process of law. Unfamiliar with the outside world they wandered for weeks as bewildered refugees in the "Little Tokyo" of Los Angeles, until the Military swept these women and children into Manzanar and other centers. Many of the alien men who were arrested on suspicion were detained for a year or more for no other charge than owning a fishing boat! All this burned deep scars into the hearts of those who came to Manzanar.
- What were the tragedies of evacuation? What aspects of evacuation do you think would be hardest to endure?
- How does Born Free and Equal portray the long-term impact of evacuation upon the Japanese-American population?
- Do you think that evacuation was justified?
- What else could have been done to respond to public fears and to ensure the nation's security?
- To what extent do you think the decision to issue Executive Order 9066 was influenced by U.S. policy and sentiment towards Japanese Americans in the decades before the war?