Was Internment Racist?

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started to receive pressure from U.S. Army officers to remove Japanese immigrants and their children from the Pacific Coast out of fear of another attack.[1] The Department of War was led by Henry L. Stimson who agreed with this request. Despite the fact that the United States was also at war with Italy and Germany, Japanese Americans were singled out from “other ‘enemy groups’” as “innately untrustworthy on racial grounds”.[2] That is not to say that Italian and German Americans were not targeted for this ‘evacuation’, because some were, but not to the extent to which this policy was applied to the Japanese. In February, 1942 FDR orally gave Stimson “consent to take whatever ‘reasonable’ action the secretary deemed necessary.”[3] A short time following this consent, the President signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the army to establish areas where civilian evacuees could be taken and kept for an indeterminate about of time. This internment drew on strong anti-Asian immigrant sentiment which had been bubbling up for decades, but was also the result of a war time decision reached under pressure from the military and citizenry.

Although Executive Order 9066 did not explicitly mention Japanese Americans, the policy was applied to them almost exclusively.[4] Internment was applied to all those of Japanese ancestry on the Pacific coast; the Issei who were first generation immigrants, their children, the Nisei who were American citizens because they had been born in the U.S. and the Kibei, also born in the U.S., but educated and raised in Japan.[5] About two thirds were American citizens who “were incarcerated without charge, trial, or evidence against them.”[6]

Why were the Japanese singled out? This fear of the Japanese had deep roots in the anti-immigrant attitudes which took hold in the west in the mid-nineteenth century which gave rise to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The racist stereotypes which applied to Chinese immigrants were transferred to the Japanese who were also seen as “treacherous, servile, and uncivilized.”[7] This and Japan’s military aggression and victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, gave those on the Pacific coast pause. Many felt as though the Japanese could pose a credible threat to the United States so through the early twentieth century many efforts were made to limit and control Japan’s naval strength through treaties and agreements. Those in Washington worried because of a potential threat to our Pacific holdings; the Philippines, Hawai’i, and Guam.

Not only were those in Washington worried about this external threat, those on our soil also posed a threat. As Japanese farm workers in the west were able to begin using their savings “to buy land of their own, self-interest, greed, and bigotry fanned the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment among white commercial, labor union, and nativist groups.”[8] Some claimed that the Japanese who had settled on the Pacific coast were sent here as spies or to prepare the way for a Japanese invasion, this became known as “yellow peril” in the media and in political circles.[9] Japanese immigrants and their descendants were seen as “unassimilable” and it was thought that intermarriage would result in “biological and social misfits.”[10]

These racial stereotypes combined with fear following the attack on Pearl Harbor fanned the flames for this extreme response to a perceived enemy. This was the first time the United States had sustained an attack so close to U.S. soil. Despite wartime preparations to prepare for a Japanese attack, the “War Department and the army chief of staff had repeatedly discounted the possibility of external attack on Pearl Harbor”.[11] Operating on the false assumption that the Japanese could not mount an assault of this magnitude, they were completely unprepared for this “sneak attack”.[12] This attack served to inflame the suspicions and distrust of Japanese Americans and provided the justification for internment. In the months following the attack, this hysteria took shape on the Pacific Coast, an example of the opinions held by some, “on January 24 a Seattle woman wrote, ‘kindly give some thought to ridding our beloved Country of these Japs who hold no love or loyalty to our God, our ideals or our traditions, or our Government – They should never have been allowed here.’”[13] This fear of the alien, the foreigner, anti-immigrant sentiment and stereotypes combined with war time fears, and a desire to keep the citizenry safe provided false justification to our President and his administration to intern and confiscate property from 110,000 – 120,000 U.S. citizens and their parents for two and a half years until the last camp was closed in 1945.



Robinson, Greg, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001.

[1] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2001), 3.

[2] Robinson, By Order of the President, 3.

[3] Robinson, By Order of the President, 3.

[4] Robinson, By Order of the President, 4.

[5] Robinson, By Order of the President, 4.

[6] Robinson, By Order of the President, 4.

[7] Robinson, By Order of the President, 9.

[8] Robinson, By Order of the President, 15.

[9] Robinson, By Order of the President, 15.

[10] Robinson, By Order of the President, 42.

[11] Robinson, By Order of the President, 73.

[12] Robinson, By Order of the President, 74.

[13] Robinson, By Order of the President, 91.