On February 19, 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gave local military commanders the authority to declare military areas where exclusion zones could be established from which any or all persons could be removed. Although the order did not specifically identify Japanese aliens and citizens, they were overwhelmingly the greatest number of people involved.
A few thousand people of, German and Italian origin or lineage, mostly those actively identified with pro-Nazi German American Bund or various Fascist organizations, were affected. But around 120,000 Japanese of all status were rounded up and placed in War Relocation Camps—virtual concentration camps—far from their homes.
Of these the vast majority were from the West Coast, which was in the midst of a virtual panic about a possible Japanese invasion stoked with newspaper fantasies that local Japanese would form a fifth column and sabotage defense efforts. The war fed anti-Asian bigotry that had long been a staple of West Coast social and political life. Yet in Hawaii, which had actually come under attack and where Japanese were nearly a third of the total population, only 1,800 were interred.
Families were typically given 48 hours to a maximum of two weeks to prepare for relocation and allowed to bring only what they could personally carry. Many had to simply abandon homes, businesses, farms, and automobiles or were forced to sell them far below value.
Camps were scattered inland over most of the states west of the Mississippi, many in inhospitable and remote areas. Families were allowed to remain together and were generally held in barracks like buildings hastily erected with little or no insulation. Although rations were adequate, schools were allowed to operate, and some degree of self-government allowed within the camps, conditions were generally harsh and many military guards hostile.
As time went on individuals who could find work and sponsors away from the coast were allowed to leave the camps. Many were sponsored by religious organizations and found work in hospitals, on farms, and even in war production plants.
Despite these conditions, many young men, particularly the American born Nisei generation, voluntarily enlisted in the Armed Forces. Others were drafted. Many served in the most highly decorated unit of the U.S. Army, 442 Regimental Combat Team while their families remained behind barbed wire.
In December of 1944 the Supreme Court declared the detention of loyal citizens unconstitutional, but did not overturn the whole relocation program.
On January 2, 1945 the program was officially ended. Internees were given $25 and tickets to homes most of them no longer had. Some camps had to remain open to accommodate those who had no where to go.
In 1988, after years of petitions for redress, Congress finally passed an act apologizing for the Internment and acknowledging that it was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” The act included reparations for survivors. It was signed by President Ronald Regan, who many believe did so only because it was a slap to the memory of F.D.R.
Despite the fact that Supreme Court decisions on the most famous test cases during the war were overturned in the 1980’s because the War Department was found to have lied about or hidden facts in the cases, the underlying law allowing “emergency” internment has never been overturned.
In 1950 the McCarran Internal Security Act was passed over the veto of President Harry Truman which allowed the internment of “each person as to whom there is a reasonable ground to believe that such person probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage,” by which was meant members of the Communist Party or their agents, dupes, and tools. The Army was directed to designate holding camps and actually began construction of some. Some were former Japanese internment camps or Prisoner of War camps.
Although the camps were never used, their existence was a continued threat. After it was learned that the Nixon Administration had considered invoking the Act and interning anti-war protestors and Black Militants like the Black Panthers, congress revoked most of the internment provisions of the McCarran Act in 1971 substituting criminal trial and prison sentences for certain overt acts.
In 1993 the Supreme Court overturned many of the remaining sections of the law as an unconstitutional abridgement of free speech.
But vestiges of the act remain in force and have been cited in such recent prosecutions as the Pentagon Papers case in1972, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) involving the collection of intelligence by pro-Israeli lobbyists in 2005, and the current Bradley Manning case.
In the days following the 9/11 attacks there were public calls for the rounding up and detention of Arab and other practicing Muslim aliens of both illegal and legal status. Broad new powers, some barely understood by the public, were granted to the government under the so-called Patriot Act which again could lead to possible wide spread detention in “the interest of national security.”
One thing that unites the radical right and the American left is a conviction that the McCarran Act camps are being readied for use against them. An elaborate scenario involving UN Black Helicopters, a New World Order, and jackbooted Federal thugs kicking down doors to seize guns is a staple paranoia of the right which has taken on new urgency with them since the election of Barak Obama, the Muslim/Communist/Fascist/American-Hater.
The enhanced use of domestic surveillance and the coordination by Federal authorities in attacks on Occupy Movement encampments and demonstrators across the country fueled similar fears on the left.
While both paranoid scenarios seem farfetched, the nagging truth is that they don’t seem entirely impossible. After all, it happened before.
It could happen again.