March 24, 2023

The Internment of Japanese Americans

The Internment of Japanese Americans

March 24, 1942. During World War Two, the US Army begins forcibly moving Japanese Americans into internment camps.


Cold Open - FBI raids

It’s the night of December 7th, 1941 in a house outside Los Angeles, California.

A Japanese American teenager, Hy Yubu, lies in bed as sounds of the news drift from downstairs where his parents sit on the couch, their ears glued to the radio. Hy can’t sleep. He’s been on edge since this morning when word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor first broke. As Hy listens to the radio and almost falls asleep… a loud pounding on the front door jolts him back awake.

Hy climbs out of bed, creeps to his bedroom door… and cracks it open. He slips out of the bedroom and carefully makes his way to the top of the stairwell to try to see what’s going on as the banging continues.

When his mother finally opens the front door, three men in dark suits push past her.

One of the men grabs the radio, and heads outside with it. Another pulls pictures from the wall and throws books off of a bookshelf. For a moment, Hy wonders if his family is being robbed. But then, one of the men whispers something to his partner, and the two men converge on Hy's father, put him in handcuffs, and drag him out of the house.

Hy runs down the stairs to his frightened mother and falls into her arms. He has no idea what’s just happened, or what these men are going to do with his father. 

Early on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt will declare war on Japan, and the United States will officially join the Allied Forces in both the Pacific and European theaters of World War II.

But this international conflict has immediate and severe domestic repercussions. Only hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FBI agents take into custody over 1,000 Japanese American religious and community leaders. Soon, American military officers and members of Congress will push President Roosevelt to take further steps against what they call the threat of espionage and sabotage from Japanese Americans. Thousands of Japanese nationals, and American citizens with Japanese heritage, will be forced out of their homes and into internment camps beginning on this day, March 24th, 1942.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 24th, 1942: The Internment of Japanese Americans.

Act One: General Dewitt makes his proposal

It’s January 21st, 1942 in Washington D.C.

Inside the office of the War Department, an intense discussion is underway. On one side of a desk sits Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. On the other side, a fiery officer named Lieutenant General John Dewitt.

Dewitt is the head of the United States Army’s Western Command. His primary job is to protect the American West Coast. And ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor just over a month ago, Dewitt has been appalled by the lack of government action to secure California, Oregon, and Washington against the people he considers to be the biggest threats to the region: Japanese Americans.

Dewitt stands and paces the room. His face red, and his voice animated, he launches into a tirade about how American political leaders are ignoring acts of sabotage that Japanese Americans have already carried out. He says that power lines have been brought down across rural sections of California. And he’s convinced Japanese farmers in the area are to blame. Secretary of War, Stimson, listens patiently as Dewitt hammers home the fact that if Japan launches an attack on American soil, it will undoubtedly take place on the West Coast. And Dewitt is certain that Japanese Americans are already laying the groundwork for a potential invasion.

Stimson agrees with much of what Dewitt is saying. But he knows that in order to take action against Japanese Americans, they’ll have to win the support of President Roosevelt. And he will want proof that Japanese Americans pose a legitimate threat before signing off on anything.

Stimson tells Dewitt to wait while he reaches out to a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle, Attorney General Francis Biddle. And when Stimson steps out of the office, Dewitt tries to remain calm. He knows that many in Washington DC think he’s blowing things out of proportion. That he sees threats where they don’t actually exist. But Dewitt is a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I. He’s seen enough of conflict to know the best way to ensure victory is to neutralize the enemy before they strike.

Eventually, Stimson returns with Attorney General Biddle by his side. Dewitt makes the same argument to Biddle that he makes to Stimson. He points out that of the roughly 127,000 Japanese Americans in the country, almost 90 percent of them live on the West Coast. Dewitt says that it is crucial for the government to view the West Coast as a potential war zone that is already inhabited by the enemy.

When Attorney General Biddle asks Dewitt what action he thinks is warranted, Dewitt says Japanese Americans should be removed from their homes and taken to secure areas managed by the military. Dewitt never uses the phrase “internment camps,” but it’s clear to Biddle that that’s precisely what Dewitt is talking about.

And though Biddle acknowledges there’s a potential threat, he’s eager to make a clear distinction between Japanese nationals living in the country and American citizens of Japanese descent. It’s a distinction that’s been made by many Japanese Americans for years. Japanese communities in the States refer to people born in Japan who immigrated to the U.S. as Issei. Their children, American citizens born in the US, are called Nisei.

In America, Issei and Nisei have different rights when it comes to voting, military service, and receiving government benefits. So Biddle is adamant that the distinction between the two groups remain intact when discussing any potential eviction and internment. Biddle admits removing some Japanese-born individuals from their homes might prove necessary, but he does not want the rights of American citizens to be violated. So Biddle tells Dewitt to prepare a report on the situation and his potential solutions for President Roosevelt. And he urges Dewitt to respect the rights of all American citizens.

Dewitt heads back West and gets to work on his report. But he has no intention of focusing solely on Japanese nationals. He doesn’t believe there should be any distinction made at all. As Dewitt will later say, “A Jap’s a Jap. It makes no difference whether the Jap is a citizen or not.”

And Dewitt is confident he’s in the right. He understands the threat facing the West Coast better than anyone in DC. So Dewitt works hard to create a report that’s strong enough to win President Roosevelt over.

Some will later suggest that Dewitt fabricated the truth to make his report seem more credible. But whether Dewitt knowingly lied or not, his report has the desired effect. In February 1942, President Roosevelt is convinced to move forward with the internment of Japanese Americans. Against protests from Attorney General Biddle, Roosevelt will sign Executive Order 9066, leaving the fate of Japanese Americans in the hands of Lt. General Dewitt and the United States Army.

Act Two: Executive Order 9066

It’s February 1942 at the White House.

Attorney General Francis Biddle sits in the Oval Office across the Resolute Desk from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Francis is trying to convince the president to protect the rights of American citizens who were born to Japanese immigrants.

Over the past several days, Roosevelt has been poring over a report from Lt. General John Dewitt. Dewitt and other military leaders are arguing that the West Coast should be divided into multiple military zones. And that the United States Army should be given authority to remove from the zones any civilian they deem a threat and confine them in military-run camps.

While the report does not specify the internment of Japanese Americans, Roosevelt and Biddle know this is what is being proposed. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Members of Congress and state politicians on the West Coast have been lobbying Roosevelt to let the Army start evicting Japanese Americans from their homes.

And as he sits in the Oval Office today, Biddle fears Roosevelt is close to caving to political pressure. So he makes one last ditch effort to sway the president's mind. He insinuates that parts of the report are simply not true. Dewitt insists that Japanese Americans are already engaging in acts of espionage. And one piece of proof offered are accusations that power lines across rural California have been brought down by saboteurs. Biddle tells Roosevelt that those claims are false. And that the great menace behind the downed power lines was a herd of grazing cows. But still, Roosevelt’s mind appears fixed.

Biddle is growing desperate. So he decides to appeal to his boss’ ego. Biddle points out that two-thirds of the people who would be removed from their homes under the plan are American citizens, and violating the rights of those citizens could turn the American people against Roosevelt and badly damage his public image.

Roosevelt is in his third term as president. And during that time, he worked hard to be seen as a man of the people. And he’s crafted a reputation as a politician who is willing to fight for Americans regardless of race or class. But all that was before Pearl Harbor. And now, Roosevelt’s top priority is winning the war.

And Roosevelt isn't so sure that Americans will be against Japanese internment. Since the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment has been on the rise. Signs with phrases like “Japanese Keep Moving” and “No Japanese Allowed” can be seen displayed in front of businesses across the West Coast. So ultimately, Roosevelt ends the meeting determined to support Dewitt’s proposal.

Biddle leaves the Oval Office knowing he’s failed. And if he can’t convince the president to see the light, there’s little chance he’ll be able to sway any member of his cabinet. But Biddle holds onto hope that there is still one person who might be able to get President Roosevelt to change his mind.

In mid-February 1942, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt learns about her husband’s plan to move forward with Japanese internment. As a staunch civil rights advocate, she is disgusted by her husband’s decision.

And one night, while the two are alone, the First Lady tries to convince her husband that he is making a mistake. She’s shocked that he would even consider violating the rights of tens of thousands of American citizens. But Roosevelt cuts her off and tells her never to bring up the subject again.

Then on February 19th, 1942, President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066. The directive officially divides the West Coast into several military zones and grants the US military power to remove from those areas all Japanese Americans and detain them in camps without due process. Execution of the order falls to Lieutenant General John Dewitt and the United States Army.

General Dewitt begins his campaign by calling for Japanese Americans to voluntarily leave their homes. But within weeks, Dewitt will decide stronger measures are required. And soon, members of the Army under Dewitt’s command will remove close to 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, round them up, and confine them into camps.

Act Three: Bainbridge Island

It’s March 24th, 1942 in the town square of Bainbridge Island, Washington.

A Japanese American store owner opens the front door of his shop and steps out onto the street. A few doors down, he sees an American soldier hammering a flier onto a telephone pole.

The store owner waits till the soldier moves onto the next block, then walks up to the telephone pole to investigate. Printed on a flier, in large, bold letters are seven words: “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.”

Issued by Lt. General John Dewitt, “Civilian Exclusion Order Number 1” calls for the removal of roughly 275 residents of Japanese ancestry living on Bainbridge Island. The order states that those residents have six days to leave their homes with only what they can carry. The order also dictates that one member of each family must appear immediately at the Army’s so-called “civil control station.”

So later that day, on March 24th, members from each Japanese family on the island appear at the makeshift Army office. There, they are assigned a number for their family and told to make preparations to leave their homes.

“Civilian Exclusion Order Number 1” is just the beginning of a mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. The order serves as a template for the many others that will follow.

Because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s belief that many Americans would support the actions of the U.S. military appears to be true. A 1942 poll conducted by the American Institute of Public Opinion finds that 93% of Americans favor the forced removal of Japanese immigrants from their homes and 59% favor the removal of American citizens with Japanese ancestry. 

But even as public opinion starts to shift over the years, the U.S. military continues to justify their actions maintaining support through propaganda newsreels covering what they call “Japanese Relocation:”

"HOST: When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone. Living in that zone were more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds of them, American citizens; One-third aliens. We knew that some among them were potentially dangerous. But no one knew what would happen among this concentrated population if Japanese forces should try to invade our shores. Military authorities, therefore, determined that all of them, citizens and aliens alike, would have to move."

Throughout the war, the military and some in the media continue to push the narrative that Japanese Americans are “evacuees” who see leaving their homes as a noble sacrifice to support the American war effort.

But decades later, survivors of the camps and their children will speak out.

"SPEAKER: If you had 1/16th Japanese blood, even if you were a baby in an orphanage, you were put in an orphanage in one of the camps. This was based on race."

Following the war, United States intelligence agencies conclude there was no evidence that Japanese Americans engaged in acts of espionage, or that Japanese Americans posed a threat to the country. Still, it will take decades for the US government to publicly apologize and acknowledge the injustice of Japanese internment camps. To this day, survivors, their families, and historians continue to grapple with the long-term effects of the horrific mass incarceration that began with Civilian Exclusion Order Number 1 on this day, March 24th, 1942.


Next on History Daily. March 27th, 1915. After years of evading authorities and causing outbreaks, the woman known as Typhoid Mary is arrested and placed in quarantine.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.