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

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

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.

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