President Franklin Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 4/13/2016
  • Essay 310
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On February 19, 1942, two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) signs Executive Order 9066, setting in motion the expulsion of 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast, first into temporary assembly centers and later to 10 inland prison camps in isolated areas of the country. Two thirds of those imprisoned are U.S. citizens. The government will not permit them return to their communities in Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona until January 1945.

A Clamor for Expulsion

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, as a clamor for their expulsion rose, residents of Japanese American (Nikkei) communities on the West Coast had reason to be uneasy about their security. Pressure mounted over the ensuing three months for a mass exclusion of all residents of Japanese ancestry living in the coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California, regardless of citizenship.

Devastating and humiliating Allied military losses followed the Empire of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor -- at Hong Kong, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Southeast Asia -- and a barrage of baseless reports in the press claiming complicity of the Japanese American community with the enemy nation served to raise doubts about the loyalty of Japanese Americans. In January 1942, after assessing the causes of the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox (1874-1944) exacerbated these concerns by claiming that a "fifth column" (internal supporters of an external attacker) was at work in Hawaii, thereby implicating Japanese Americans living there. A subsequent ad hoc commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts (1875-1955) ultimately laid blame on military incompetence. But it also inaccurately cited fifth-column activity in the islands, thus pointing a false finger of blame specifically at Japanese Americans.

The press kept alive fears of an enemy in the midst by hawking the Roberts Report and spreading unsubstantiated rumors, one of them of downed Japanese pilots at Pearl Harbor found wearing college rings from American universities. This rumor took on local flavors when rings were identified as being from UCLA, Stanford, or the University of Washington depending on where the stories originated.

Thus, as a result of a scapegoating military, citizens with a prejudice against resident Japanese, a nationalistic press, and the ongoing silence of President Roosevelt, the country appeared poised to support action against Nikkei communities. The first formal proposal for a mass incarceration came just 12 days after Pearl Harbor, when 4th Army Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt (1880-1962), head of the Western Defense Command, called for removal and internment of all enemy aliens over the age of 14 living in the coastal regions of the American West. Had these recommendations been approved and implemented, 40,000 Japanese aliens and even more German and Italian nationals would have been forced from their homes. Between then and mid-February 1942, when President Roosevelt finally authorized the military to act, arguments raged in the administration over whether all Japanese, both aliens and U.S. citizens, should be removed from the West Coast.

Those who viewed the presence of Japanese Americans as a threat to the nation's security prevailed, and on February 19, 1942, the president issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Secretary of War and his military commanders to identify military areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded" ("Transcript ..."). Although silent on which groups should be excluded or the geographic locations from which they should be excluded, interpretation of the order soon focused specifically on the Nikkei population residing on the West Coast, two thirds of them U.S. citizens by birth. Roosevelt's action appeared to validate the army's argument that evacuation was a military necessity because loyal Japanese Americans could not be distinguished from the disloyal.

Exclusion Begins

Six days later, on February 25, navy officials ordered Nikkei residents of Terminal Island, located in Los Angeles Harbor next to a navy shipyard, to vacate their homes. The 500 residents impacted by this order thus became the first Japanese group to be moved out en masse. On March 2, General DeWitt issued the first of four exclusionary proclamations, which divided the states of Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into two military areas from which Japanese would ultimately be excluded. Military Area 1 included roughly the western halves of the states of Washington, Oregon, and California and the southern third of Arizona. Later, on March 30, DeWitt expanded the exclusion zones to include the remainder of California, located in Military Area 2.

Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1, which DeWitt issued on March 24, ordered removal of the Japanese American residents of Bainbridge Island, located on the west shore of Puget Sound directly across from Seattle. Because no facility in the Pacific Northwest was yet ready to receive them, the Bainbridge Island group was sent by train to the Owens Valley Reception Center (subsequently renamed the Manzanar War Relocation Center) in eastern California, becoming the first Japanese placed in an incarceration camp under Executive Order 9066. (The Japanese residents removed from Terminal Island in February also ended up at the Manzanar camp, but arrived there after the Bainbridge Islanders did).

Within a month, a mass exodus started as the army began posting additional civilian exclusion orders in all areas on the West Coast that had a Japanese presence. With assistance from the Census Bureau, the army divided the two exclusion zones into 108 geographic areas, each averaging approximately 1,000 Japanese residents (ranging from 243 to 3,867). Civilian exclusion orders for each of those areas were drawn up and posted in shop windows, on telephone poles, and in other public places, providing details of when the area was to be emptied and where people were to report. The last of these orders was fully implemented by the end of August 1942.

Overall, more than 90,000 U.S. citizens and their alien elders were herded into existing public facilities that the government euphemistically called "assembly centers." Twenty thousand others were taken directly from their homes to long-term "relocation centers" once those were ready for occupancy. The men, women, and children who went to the assembly centers were later sent to the "relocation centers" (more accurately prison or concentration camps), 10 in all, located in sparsely populated regions of the arid west and swampy areas of Arkansas.

This incarceration proceeded without due process of law as required by the U.S. Constitution. In fact, no camp inmate was accused of any crime or charged or convicted of any act of espionage or sabotage.


Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993, revised 2004); Louis Fiset, Camp Harmony: Seattle's Japanese Americans and the Puyallup Assembly Center in World War II (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); "Transcript of Executive Order 9066," Our Documents website accessed April 4, 2016 (; U.S. War Department, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1943); "Terminal Island, California," Densho Encyclopedia website accessed April 13, 2016 (,_California/); "Bainbridge Island, Washington," Densho Encyclopedia website accessed April 13, 2016 (,%20Washington/).
Note: This essay replaces a previous essay on the same subject.

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