Franklin D. Roosevelt served as U.S. president from 1933 to 1945. His singular importance to Japanese Americans derives from his term during World War II when he signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to remove and detain Japanese Americans. Signed on February 19, 1942, EO 9066 marks the start of the concentration camps, but its origins long predate that fateful day.
The United States anticipated war with Japan decades before that nation's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At least as early as World War I, U.S. military planners were concerned with “the Japanese problem” in Hawai'i. Military and civilian intelligence investigated aliens, radicals, and communists who allegedly threatened the nation's security, and from 1917 to 1918 the army took a
special interest in German “enemy aliens” both in Hawai'i and on the continent. But in the islands where Japanese Americans comprised a substantial percentage of the population and were the principal labor force for the territory's sugar plantations, the mainstay of the economy, “the Japanese problem” eclipsed all other security concerns.
By the time Roosevelt became president, U.S. intelligence agencies had already determined that Japanese Americans endangered the nation's security by their increase in numbers through high birthrates, the number of men of military age, the number of eligible voters, their racial and cultural attributes, and their dubious national loyalty. The Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the FBI, prepared lists of Japanese Americans it considered dangerous to the domestic order, and the army in Hawai'i planned to declare martial law on the outset of war with Japan and therewith suspend civil liberties, enabling the unimpeded detention of Japanese American community leaders.
Soon after he assumed the presidency, Roosevelt received a report from military intelligence gauging the potential for internal subversion among Japanese Americans in Hawai'i. The memorandum described the possibility of a surprise attack by Japan involving a naval landing and an uprising among Japanese Americans. Military planners accordingly directed their strategies toward fending off an external invasion while neutralizing “hostile sympathizers” in the islands.
On August 10, 1936, Roosevelt expressed his concern over that scenario, and asked the military if it had any recommendations to make to meet that expected danger. “Has the local Joint Planning Committee (Hawaii) any recommendation to make?” he inquired. “One obvious thought occurs to me—that every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” (Okihiro, 173–74).
The president's use of the term concentration camp is notable, along with his lumping of citizen with noncitizen. U.S. citizenship for Japanese Americans, according to Roosevelt, failed to confer the rights of citizens as guaranteed under the Constitution.
Two weeks later, the president persisted. He inquired of the military, “what arrangements and plans have been made relative to concentration camps in the Hawaiian Islands for dangerous or undesirable aliens or citizens in the event of national emergency” (Okihiro, 174). It appears Roosevelt's mind was set on his indiscriminate view of Japanese Americans as a collective group, whether aliens or citizens, and his anticipation of concentration camps for those “dangerous and undesirable aliens or citizens.” In reply, the military reassured the president it had for years remained alert to the possibility of espionage and sabotage and had made preparations to contain the danger.
Historians have focused on Roosevelt in seeking out the causes for the mass removal and detention of Japanese Americans during World War II because his EO 9066 authorized the concentration camps. And while military, political, and economic interests pushed for Japanese American exclusion, in the end, it was
the president who made the decision to sign the instrument that enabled the action.
Long before World War II, Roosevelt held racial prejudices against Japanese Americans, favoring their immigration exclusion and discriminatory legislation against them to preserve the “racial purity” of the white race. He believed they were unassimilable, and were thus culturally distinctive and even undesirable. And he was well aware of “the Japanese problem” that allegedly threatened the national security as presented by civilian and military planners. The civil liberties of that group of U.S. citizens were, accordingly, an abstraction that carried few political consequences for Roosevelt. In fact, he probably thought their removal and confinement would advance the U.S. war effort, which was his overriding concern when he signed EO 9066.
Despite the president's leading role in the wartime concentration camps, his executive order had to be interpreted and implemented by the military and then by the civilian agencies, the Wartime Civil Control Administration and War Relocation Authority, that carried out the president's order. Those, too, were key figures in the determining the nature of the Japanese American concentration camps.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Okihiro, Gary Y. Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865–1945. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.