Did the United States Put Its Own Citizens in Concentration Camps During WWII?

The housing barracks, built by the U.S. Army engineer corps, at the internment center where Japanese Americans are relocated in Amache, Colo., are shown on June 21, 1943.
AP Photo

Times of war are historically hostile to civil rights. Even U.S. President Abraham Lincoln -- arguably the most beloved president in history -- took liberties with the Constitution during the Civil War. For one, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus to allow prisoners to be held without trial. Historians argue whether this was justified, and even many of his supporters are willing to admit that Lincoln's actions are ethically gray. Eighty years later, another president was faced with a similarly difficult decision when the United States was pulled into war.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the decision to relocate more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from their homes on the West Coast to camps around the country. Although FDR himself called them "concentration camps," we don't use that term today -- it's loaded because of its connection to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. The American camps bore little resemblance to the concentration camps where Nazis were attempting to exterminate the Jewish race, but at the time, Americans knew little about what was really going on inside Nazi concentration camps.


Though many argue that the forced relocation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans was primarily motivated by racism, the U.S. government cited national security reasons for the sweeping relocation (although a congressional commission would later conclude otherwise, as we'll see). Nazi concentration camps were designed to extinguish the Jewish people, who the Nazis considered lesser beings, from the human race. Clearly, the use of the term "concentration camp" to describe U.S. relocation camps is misleading; for that reason, scholars prefer to call them internment camps.

Terminology aside, the relocation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans was a controversial and heavily criticized issue. Not until decades after the war did a congressional commission conclude that the relocation decision was prompted by "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership" [source: Kops]. So what reasons did officials give in the 1940s for the relocation?


Japanese-Americans in the Aftermath of Pearl Harbor

As military police stand guard, people of Japanese descent wait at a transport center in San Francisco on April 6, 1942, for relocation to an internment center at Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles.
AP Photo

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, government officials immediately placed Hawaii under martial law and became concerned about the Japanese-Americans who lived on the West Coast of the United States. Intelligence gathered before the attack indicated that Japan was recruiting spies and had already secured a spy network there [source: Kops]. However, whether certain officials knew about this -- and whether it motivated their support for the relocation efforts -- is a matter of debate.

Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, government officials rounded up who they considered potentially dangerous aliens for review. This included more than 1,500 aliens from Japan, but also some from Germany and Italy. After review, some aliens were released, and others were sent to detention camps. Soon, the government imposed curfews and travel restrictions on Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. Meanwhile, Canada also enforced a relocation policy, which required more than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians to move from the West Coast to other regions or camps.


On Feb. 19, 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which gave the military the power to designate zones in which "any or all persons may be excluded" for national defense purposes [source: FDR Library]. As a result, about 112,000 people, both first-generation (issei) and second-generation (nisei) Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forced to go to temporary assembly centers and then to relocation camps, regardless of citizenship. Although the executive order primarily affected Japanese living on the West Coast, it also resulted in hundreds of Italian-Americans and German-Americans being banned from zones on both coasts [source: Malkin].

With about two weeks notice at most, Japanese on the West Coast had to leave their homes behind and bring with them only what they could carry. They lived in the assembly centers (such as military barracks or repurposed fairgrounds under military control) for months until the late summer of 1942, when they were finally sent to one of 10 internment camps.


The Internment Camps

Internees ate together in a mess hall, which caused family structure to suffer when teenagers chose to eat with their friends.
AP Photo

The War Relocation Authority (WRA) set up 10 internment camps to house Japanese-Americans during the war. The camps, which were in isolated locations in California, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Arkansas, were all guarded and enclosed with barbed wire. Each camp was a self-contained community with hospitals, schools and a form of democratic self-government.

Even the WRA readily admitted that conditions within the camps were subpar. The government provided compartmentalized barracks, with one family per room. Each of these small rooms had cots and mattresses, blankets, a stove and a light. Residents used public laundry and bathroom facilities as well as a mess hall for meals. In addition to a small allowance for clothes and other personal expenditures, the wages for those who worked was low compared to outside market. To sustain a more comfortable living, many dipped into their personal savings. However, this wasn't an option for the first-generation Japanese, whose assets were frozen. They had to rely on the money they got selling personal possessions before relocation.


Although the Japanese-Americans staying in these camps tried their best to maintain the semblance of a normal life with leisurely activities like movies and baseball leagues, family life suffered a blow. For instance, during meals, the younger generation jumped at the chance to eat with their friends, and families became fractured [source: Wu]. Parents also lost some of their authority when their children began making the same salary as them [source: Sowell]. The camps offered few options for employment, all of which came with similarly low wages. As a result, life in the camps disrupted the traditional family unity and structure.

In 1943, the WRA distributed a questionnaire to all internees who were 17 or older that was designed to determine their loyalty to the United States. Among other things, it asked if the internee would renounce allegiance to the Japanese emperor. That year, those who passed the loyalty test were allowed to leave the camps for work or school.

Finally, in December 1944, Japanese-Americans were allowed to return to the West Coast, and internees were gradually allowed to leave the camps. Life couldn't immediately go back to normal for most of them, however. In many cases, the internees' property and businesses had been neglected, vandalized or taken over by others [source: Min]. The government estimated that these people's financial losses amassed to $400,000,000 (in 2009, that's roughly equal to $5,219,852,760.80) [source: Sowell].


Were the Internment Camps Constitutional?

A Japanese family returns home to find their garage vandalized with graffiti and broken windows in Seattle, on May 10, 1945.
AP Photo

The constitutionality of the internment camps was called into question almost as soon as they were set up. One important case regarding this issue came to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944 in Korematsu v. the United States. In this case, the court upheld the constitutionality of the camps due to "military necessity." But that same year, the court ruled in Ex parte Endo that those who'd proven their loyalty to the United States couldn't be detained.

Due to the slew of lawsuits and the public outcry against the questionable legitimacy of the camps, the government closed them before the war ended. Criticism mounted in ensuing decades, and victims demanded redress for their losses. In 1980, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the relocation programs. Two years later, the commission concluded in the report "Personal Justice Denied" that relocation was motivated by "racism" and "wartime hysteria." By 1988, Congress approved redress payments and issued official apology letters.


President Roosevelt's relocation decision remains controversial, and there are different camps of thought on the subject. Those who disagree with his decision point to the fact that during the whole of World War II, no Japanese-American was ever convicted of espionage [source: Sowell]. These critics also argue that most of the officials who pushed for relocation weren't privy to the intelligence that indicated the existence of a Japanese spy network on the West Coast. If it is true that officials didn't know about evidence of a spy network, it would support the theory that they were motivated by racism (as the congressional commission concluded).

After Sept. 11, when Arab-Americans became subject to suspicion and racial profiling, the argument became particularly relevant again. In 2003, Congressman Howard Coble stirred up controversy with his response to a caller on a radio show who wanted to see Arab-Americans relocated. Coble responded that he wouldn't support such a measure, but that he agreed with FDR's decision to relocate Japanese and Japanese-Americans [source: AP]. Although Coble specified that the vast majority of Japanese-Americans weren't enemies of United States, he said he believes some likely meant harm to the country. In addition to national security reasons, Coble also argued that the camps actually protected Japanese-Americans, who, he said, weren't safe on the street. In her controversial book "In Defense of Internment," conservative writer Michelle Malkin expanded on these arguments. She argues that the relocation was not motivated by racism but by legitimate national security reasons; she defends post-Sept. 11 racial profiling when national security is at stake.

While these are certainly controversial opinions, they point toward the fact we need to find a better way to deal with national security issues.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • "Executive Order 9066." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
  • Brooks, Roy Lavon. "When Sorry Isn't Enough." NYU Press, 1999. (April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=qvltaD1t0wEC
  • FDR Library. "Executive Order 9066." FDR Library. (April 25, 2009) http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/od9066t.html
  • Kops, Deborah. "Racial Profiling." Marshall Cavendish, 2006. (April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=349W2TSsmHwC
  • Malkin, Michelle. "In Defense of Internment." Regnery Publishing, 2004. (April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=nvsIQNwYvSwC
  • Min, Pyong Gap. "Asian Americans." Pine Forge Press, 2006. (April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=5PSYZMs8TzEC
  • Niiya, Brian. "Japanese American History." Verlag für die Deutshe Wirtschaft AG, 1993.(April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=QZg6Ft_jvJ0C
  • Sowell, Thomas. "Ethnic America." Basic Books, 1983. (April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=m60q57zoReUC
  • Wu, Jean Yu-wen Shen, Min Song. "Asian American Studies." Rutgers University Press, 2000. (April 25, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=_xr2kLmUI4YC