Truth, Justice, and the American Way: Japanese-American Internment in the “Good War”

Like President Woodrow Wilson before him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the American people to avoid scapegoating citizens of German, Italian, and Japanese descent as the United States entered war. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, however, FDR’s reassurance that there was “nothing to fear but fear itself” rang hollow.[1]

As the nation went to war with the Empire of Japan, distrust and fear spread to Americans of Japanese descent. On Valentine’s Day, 1942, General John DeWitt warned the president of the threat posed by Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor, saying, “In the war in which we are now engaged, racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race.”[2]The lack of concrete evidence supporting DeWitt’s claims did not discredit them. Internment supporters like California Attorney General Earl Warren construed it as proof that attacks were eminent, believing the absence of fifth column activity was “the most ominous sign in our whole situation…Our day of reckoning is bound to come.”[3]Five days later, bowing to public opinions like those of DeWitt and Warren, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, creating “military areas” to intern thousands of Japanese-American men, women, and children for the duration of the war. The reckoning had come, but only for a very specific portion of the population. Over one hundred thousand American citizens were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps for the duration of the war. Their belongings, livelihoods, and civil liberties were forfeited because local military officials believed their presence near military bases and installations in the West presented a threat to national security. Fear took precedence over the protection of constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not create the racism towards the Japanese-American community; it gave it teeth. He argues the discrimination against Americans of Japanese descent began with the settling of the West in the mid to late nineteenth century. Racism towards Chinese settlers naturally flowed to the Japanese because they shared similar physical characteristics, and competition for limited land and employment opportunities heightened conflicts between ethnic groups. Discriminatory laws governing land ownership and restricting other ways Japanese-Americans could participate in society left them on the periphery, creating and bolstering barriers to their integration. During World War II, this outsider status would then be offered as “evidence” of their unwillingness to assimilate into American society.

At the same time Japanese-Americans were being interned in the name of national security, scientists were forging a weapon that would change the world. On July 16, 1945, Robert Oppenheimer and the other membersof the Manhattan Project (the code name for the group tasked with developing the weapon) were among the first to witness the explosion of an atomic bomb in the deserts of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Even in this barren and desolate space, the raw power of the bomb and its 40,000-foot mushroom cloud could not be denied. Oppenheimer described it as “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” a line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. They knew the bomb would be destructive. They knew it was a power unlike any other known. They also knew it was developed for one reason- to demonstrate an awe and fear-inspiring weapon that would finally put an end to the world war.

Less than a month later, on August 6, the U.S. deployed the bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why those cities were chosen has inspired a lot of debate. The bombs were meant to achieve two main goals: 1) Force unconditional surrender by the Japanese, and 2) demonstrate the weapon’s power to the world. Much of Japan had already been bombed by the Allies/U.S.- Tokyo was already destroyed, so bombing it wouldn’t showcase the bomb’s power dramatically enough. Other strategic targets introduced even more issues- no one knew what would happen if an atomic bomb exploded near suspected missile sites or arms dumps. Hiroshima was a military target but also small and compact enough to be completely destroyed by one bomb. This was the horribly eloquent demonstration the United States was looking for. A second atomic bomb was dropped on the shipbuilding city of Nagasaki three days later.

But why drop a second bomb? Again, this is something historians continue to debate. The simplest answer, and the answer repeated by many of the soldiers and airmen who participated, was the official instruction was to drop two bombs. The military had developed two bombs, the order was to drop two bombs, so two bombs were dropped. We also have to remember that the Empire of Japan did not surrender after Hiroshima- one atomic bomb had not achieved the objective. Even after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japanese war council members disagreed about whether the war should to continue. In the end, Emperor Hirohito gave permission for unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945.

The United States was no longer at war, but the nation would fight about many of the decisions made during the war, like the internment of American citizens and the deployment of atomic weapons, for years to come. The dropping of the atomic bomb separated the history of human warfare into before Hiroshima and after Hiroshima. There was no turning back. Nuclear armament became central to domestic security and a path to national legitimacy. Before mutually-assured destruction was a tagline or cornerstone, it was a harsh realization. Albert Einstein described it best when he said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

This was not enough to stop the proliferation and development of new weapons. In 1952, the United States developed and testing a hydrogen bomb, over 1,000 times more powerful than that exploded over Hiroshima. Though no other country has used a nuclear weapon in war since, the threat remains. North Korea tested a hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb in September 2017. It continues to test-launch short-range projectiles, or intercontinental ballistic missiles, that can carry thermonuclear warheads. The status of Russian’s arms program and questions around Putin’s willingness to use its nuclear arsenal also causes pause. The nations of India and Pakistan, enemies for which war seems only to be awaiting a new flashpoint, are both nuclear powers. Policy makers and international leaders hope the threat of a fourth world war fought with sticks will be enough to convince current leaders that nuclear war, though powerful and final, is not the best way to decide their differences.

The legacy of Japanese-American internment was not international like that of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it did cause many ripples here at home. Reverend Emery Andrews, writing in 1943, said “future historians will record this evacuation–this violation of citizenship rights–as one of the blackest blots on American history; as the time that democracy came the nearest of being wrecked.”[4]Andrews was correct, but it took over forty years. In the 1980s, the Supreme Court vacated the convictions under the 1944 decisions of Korematsu v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States. The original decisions affirmed the President’s (and Congress’s) ability to amend constitutional rights to protect the nation in a time of war. Korematsu II vacated the conviction of Fred Korematsu, but it did not vacate the case law. The precedent still stands and can be- and is- used to justify taking away citizens’ constitutional rights during a national “emergency.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan officially apologized for WWII internment and signed the Civil Liberties Act that granted monetary reparations to internment survivors and family members. The speeches and checks did not fully atone for what Japanese-Americans experienced during the war, but the effort did silence much of the discussion on the topic.

A terrorist attack on American soil that recalled Pearl Harbor in destruction and effect reopened the debate. On September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, bringing down both towers and killing thousands. Simultaneously a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and another plane crashed in Pennsylvania, its target presumed to be the White House. Though planned and perpetrated by the militant Islamic group al Qaeda, a terrorist organization disavowed by the majority of Muslims worldwide, Arab- and Muslim-Americans became scapegoats for the tragedy. Anti-Muslim hate crimes skyrocketed between 2000 and 2001, increasing by 1700 percent.[5]

Historians did not miss the similarities between the changes in how Japanese-Americans were perceived and treated following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and how Arab- and Muslim-Americans were perceived and treated following 9/11. Many expressed concerns that the United States continually follows the same pattern of uniting behind a common hatred in the name of domestic security. Recasting the past as a warning to the present, historians focused on how the combination of unchecked racism and the expansion of presidential power allowed Japanese-American citizens’ constitutional rights to be sacrificed in the name of national security.

The American memory of WWII tends to focus on our successes, not our failures. The defeat of the Axis powers and liberation of Jewish concentration camps amplify the good in the “good war,” but overshadow the ways the United States distorted some democratic ideals and practices to achieve them. Even though historians agree Japanese-American internment was “our worst wartime mistake,” America does tend to consolidate national unity through common hate in times of crisis. Americans have tried hard to forget the internment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, leading many historians to fear it could-and will- happen again. Though the “military necessity” of internment was never proven and the Supreme Court laterruled it was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” the legal precedent stands.[6] As historian John Dower wrote, “war hates and race hates do not go away; rather, they (go) elsewhere.”[7]

KMS 2019

Sources Cited

Daniels, Roger.Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues). New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004.

Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Gee, Harvey. “Habeas Corpus, Civil Liberties, and Indefinite Detention during Wartime: From Ex Parte Endo and the Japanese American Internment to the War on Terrorism and Beyond.” The University of the Pacific Law Review47 (2016): 792-838, accessed October 31, 2016, HeinOnline.

Giannis, Joshua. “The Court, The Constitution, and Japanese-American Internment,” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs(Summer 2011): 87-96, accessed October 31, 2016,

Khan, Mussarat and Kathryn Ecklund, “Attitudes Toward Muslim Americans Post 9/11,” Journal of Muslim Mental HealthVII, no. 1 (2012): 1-16, accessed December 29, 2016,

“Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself: FDR’s First Inaugural Address,” History Matters, accessed December 6, 2016,

Malkin, Michelle. In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004.

Muller, Eric L. American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

——. “Indefensible Internment: There was no good reason for the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.” (Dec. 1, 2004), accessed December 21, 2016,

Oluwu, Dejo. “Civil liberties versus military necessity: lessons from the jurisprudence emanating from the classification and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa43, no. 2 (July 2010): 190-212, accessed December 5, 2016,

Raico, Ralph. “American Foreign Policy: The Turning Point, 1898-1919,” The Independent Institute(February 1, 1995), accessed October 21, 2016,

Reeves,Richard. Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015.

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

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

——. “A Critique of Michelle Malkin’s ‘In Defense of Internment’, Part Two.”, (August 8, 2004), accessed December 21, 2016,

Shaffer, Robert. “Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese American Rights During World War II,” Historian61, No. 3 (Spring, 1999): 597-618, accessed November 21, 2016, EBSCOHost.


[1]“Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself: FDR’s First Inaugural Address,” History Matters, accessed December 6, 2016,

[2]John DeWitt quoted in Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II(New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015), 41.

[3]Earl Warren quoted in Daniels, 37.

[4]Robert Shaffer, “Opposition to Internment: Defending Japanese American Rights During World War II,” Historian61, No. 3 (Spring, 1999): 597-618, accessed November 21, 2016, EBSCOHost, 598.

[5]Mussarat Khan and Kathryn Ecklund, “Attitudes Toward Muslim Americans Post 9/11,” Journal of Muslim Mental HealthVII, no. 1 (2012): 1-16, accessed December 29, 2016,, 2.

[6]Oluwu, 207.

[7]John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War(New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 311.