Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

The War Relocation Authority & the Incarceration of Japanese-Americans During World War II


1790 - 1952
    American immigration law does not allow Japanese aliens resident in the United States to become American citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868, provided that all people born in the United States, including people of Japanese descent, were American citizens. The Immigration Act of 1924 provided that aliens who were ineligible for citizenship including people of Japanese descent, would not be allowed to immigrate to the United States. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 removed the ethnic and racial bars to immigration and naturalization; Japanese could now immigrate to the United States and become naturalized citizens, and Japanese aliens resident in the United States, some for many years, could now become naturalized citizens.
    December 7: Japan attacks the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and also American military facilities in the Philippines, Guam, and Midway Island.

    December 8: The United States declares war on Japan.

    December 8: The Attorney General of the United States announces that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is detaining a select group of Japanese aliens who are regarded as "dangerous to the peace and security" of the nation. He states that only a small number of Japanese aliens would be arrested and warned against a tendency to consider all Japanese aliens in the United States as enemies. By December 11, 1941, 1200 Japanese aliens had been arrested.

    December 8: The government closes the land borders of the United States to all enemy aliens and to all people of Japanese ancestry, whether alien or citizen.

    December 11: The Army creates the Western Defense Command, which is given the responsibility of defending the Pacific Coast of the United States.

    December 30: The Attorney General of the United States authorizes raids without a search warrant on the homes of people of Japanese descent provided that at least one resident is a Japanese alien.

    Reports and rumors circulate regarding alleged sabotage by people of Japanese descent at Pearl Harbor and alleged Japanese submarine activity off the Pacific Coast.
    Late January: The government releases a report about the Pearl Harbor attack, prepared by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts. The report alleges without documentation that espionage agents in Hawaii, including Japanese-American citizens, helped the Japanese naval force that attacked Pearl Harbor.

    February 10: Secretary of War Henry Stimson writes in his diary: "The second generation Japanese can only be evacuated either as part of a total evacuation, giving access to the areas only by permits, or by frankly trying to put them out on the ground that their racial characteristics are such that we cannot understand or even trust the citizen Japanese. This latter is the fact but I am afraid it will make a tremendous hole in our constitutional system to apply it."

    ca. February 10: Attorney General Francis Biddle is advised by agency lawyers that removal of people of Japanese descent from Pacific Coast areas would be a legal exercise of the President's war powers.

    February 11: Secretary of War Henry Stimson calls President Roosevelt and recommends the mass evacuation of people of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast area. Roosevelt tells Stimson to do whatever he believes is necessary.

    February 12: Columnist Walter Lippmann publishes a nationally syndicated column in which he says, "The Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and from without. The Japanese navy has been reconnoitering the coast more or less continuously. The Pacific Coast is officially a combat zone; some part of it may at any moment be a battlefield. Nobody's constitutional rights include the right to reside and do business on a battlefield. And nobody ought to be on a battlefield who has no good reason for being there."

    February 13: Members of Congress from the Pacific Coast send President Roosevelt a letter in which they recommend the "immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage" aliens and citizens alike from the entire strategic area of California, Washington, and Oregon.

    February 14: The U. S. Army's Western Defense Command sends a memorandum to the Secretary of War recommending the evacuation of "Japanese and other subversive persons" from the Pacific Coast area.

    February 19: President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, which empowers the Secretary of War or any military commander authorized by him to designate "military areas" and exclude "any and all persons" from them. Shortly before signing the Executive Order, the President received a memorandum from his advisers which said, "In time of national peril, any reasonable doubt must be resolved in favor of action to preserve the national safety, not for the purpose of punishing those whose liberty may be temporarily affected by such action, but for the purpose of protecting the freedom of the nation, which may be long impaired, if not permanently lost, by nonaction."

    February 23: A Japanese submarine shells an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, California, causing little damage. Another Japanese submarine shelled the Oregon coast on June 21, 1942, causing little damage. A submarine launched aircraft dropped two incendiary bombs in the forest near Brookings, Oregon on September 9, 1942, and another two bombs were dropped by the same aircraft in the Oregon forest about three weeks later. Neither bombing caused significant damage. These four incidents are the only authenticated Japanese attacks on the American mainland during World War II.

    March 2: The Western Defense Command issues a proclamation which designates the western halves of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the southern third of Arizona as a military area and states that all persons of Japanese descent are to be removed from this area. Through the month of March 1942, people affected by this proclamation are allowed to move to new homes of their own choosing outside the military area, and about 8,000 people in fact move outside the military area during the month.

    March 18: President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9102, which establishes the War Relocation Authority (WRA) within the Department for Emergency Management. The WRA is empowered "to provide for the removal from designated areas of persons whose removal is necessary in the interests of national security…." The WRA is further empowered to provide for evacuees' relocation and their needs, to supervise their activities, and to provide for their useful employment. Milton S. Eisenhower is named director of the WRA.

    March 21: President Roosevelt signs Public Law 77-503, which makes it a federal crime for a person ordered to leave a military area to refuse to do so.

    March 22: The first removal of people of Japanese descent from the designated Pacific Coast area occurs. The people are from the Los Angeles area; they are sent to the Manzanar relocation center in northeastern California. The center comprises a 6000 acre site, enclosed by barbed wire fencing, and within that site a 560 acre residential site with guard towers, search lights, and machine gun installations. During the next eighteen months, about 120,000 people of Japanese descent are removed from the Pacific Coast area to ten relocation centers in California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas.

    March 27 to 30: The Western Defense Command issues proclamations which severely restrict the movements of persons of Japanese descent in the Pacific Coast military area, and which prohibit them from leaving the military area. The Western Defense Command had decided that allowing people of Japanese descent to leave the military area and go wherever they chose was creating too much disturbance and opposition among local people.

    April 7: A meeting of WRA officials with representatives of eleven western states convenes in Salt Lake City, Utah. The representatives for the most part express distrust of and dislike for the people of Japanese descent who were being evacuated to their states. The WRA concludes that, because of this hostile local opinion, the evacuees from the Pacific Coast must be housed in evacuation camps guarded by the Army. During the meeting, the governor of Wyoming told the director of the WRA, "If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree."

    Spring: WRA administrators divide the people of Japanese descent in the Pacific Coast military zone into three categories: (1) Issei, immigrant Japanese born in Japan (about 40,000 in the military zone); (2) Nisei, American born and educated children of Issei parents (about 63,000 in the military zone); and (3) Kibei, American born but educated wholly or partly in Japan (about 9,000 in the military zone). A fourth category was Sansei, second generation American born, the children of the Nisei (about 4,500 in the military zone).

    Spring: The WRA begins releasing college students, agricultural laborers, and linguists from the relocation centers on a temporary basis.

    June 17: Dillon S. Myer is named director of the WRA, succeeding Milton S. Eisenhower. Myer served as director until the agency's program was completed in 1946.

    August 7: The Western Defense Command announces the completion of its removal of people of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast military area.

    ca. September: The WRA decides that its purpose must be to resettle the evacuees in new homes well outside the Pacific Coast military area, not to detain them indefinitely in the relocation centers. By the end of 1944, about 30,000 evacuees had been resettled in new homes, primarily in states such as Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, Utah, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York.
    Winter: The number of evacuees at relocation centers peaks at about 107,000.

    March 11: The director of the WRA sends a letter to the Secretary of War in which he recommends an immediate relaxation of the exclusion order against persons of Japanese descent. In a letter of May 10, 1943, the Secretary of War said he would not consider the WRA director's recommendation until the "vicious, well-organized, pro-Japanese minority group[s]" were removed from the relocation centers.

    May 14: Dillon S. Myer, director of the War Relocation Authority, issues a statement which says that the relocation centers "are undesirable institutions and should be removed from the American scene as soon as possible. Life in a relocation center is an unnatural and un-American sort of life. Keep in mind that the evacuees were charged with nothing except having Japanese ancestors; yet the very fact of their confinement in relocation centers fosters suspicion of their loyalties and adds to their discouragement. It has added weight to the contentions of the enemy [the Empire of Japan] that we are fighting a race war-that this nation preaches democracy and practices racial discrimination."

    June: The United States Supreme Court rules unanimously in Hirabayashi v. United States that a Japanese-American citizen must obey the curfew regulations promulgated by the Western Defense Command. One of the concurring opinions notes that "Today is the first time, so far as I am aware, that we have sustained a substantial restriction of the personal liberty of citizens of the United States based on the accident or race or ancestry. It bears a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to [Jews] in Germany."

    ca. June: The Tule Lake relocation center is selected as the place where evacuees perceived to be loyal to Japan rather than to the United States, often on very imperfect evidence, are to be segregated. About 9,000 evacuees were moved to Tule Lake from the other nine relocation centers in September and October, 1943. The center eventually housed about 18,000 evacuees.
    January 1: The number of evacuees at relocation centers is about 93,000.

    February 16: President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9423, transferring the WRA from the Office for Emergency Management to the Department of the Interior. This transfer was in response to disturbances on November 1 through 4 at the Tule Lake segregation center. President Roosevelt felt that WRA's placement in a Cabinet level department would strengthen its administration and enable it to better present itself to Congress and the public.

    June 30: The first of the ten relocation centers is closed.

    July 1: President Roosevelt signs Public Law 78-405, called the Denaturalization Act of 1944, which creates a procedure whereby American citizens may lose their citizenship in time or war by renouncing it in writing. In late 1944 and early 1945, about 5,500 evacuees at the Tule Lake segregation center made application to renounce their American citizenship under the provisions of Public Law 78-405.

    November 21: President Roosevelt says at a press conference that "a good deal of progress has been made in scattering [evacuees] through the country, and that is going on every day. The example I always cite is the county in [which] probably half a dozen or a dozen families could be scattered around on the farms and worked into the community."

    December 18: The director of the WRA announces that all relocation centers will be closed by the end of 1945, and that the WRA's operations will be ended by June 30, 1946.

    December 18: The United States Supreme Court (Korematsu vs. United States) upholds the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of people from certain areas by the Secretary of War or military commanders designated by him. The court finds the Executive Order and the actions it authorizes to be a constitutional exercise of the President's war powers. In a related decision (Ex Parte Endo), issued on the same day, the court rules that Executive Orders 9066 and 9102 cannot be construed to give the WRA "authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal" to detention in a relocation center.
    January 1: The number of evacuees at relocation centers is about 80,000. January 1945 and following: Evacuees returning to the Pacific Coast area are often received with intimidation and acts of violence. On May 14, 1945, the Secretary of the Interior publicly denounced the people responsible for this behavior.

    July 13: The director of the WRA announces that all relocation centers, except the one at Tule Lake, California, will be closed on scheduled dates between October 15 and December 15, 1945.

    August 1: The number of evacuees at relocation centers is about 58,000.

    August 14: Japan surrenders. Japan signed the formal instrument of surrender on September 2, 1945.

    September 4: The Western Defense Command issues a proclamation revoking all exclusion orders and military restrictions against persons of Japanese descent.

    October and November: Eight of the remaining nine relocation centers close.

    December 1: The number of evacuees at the Tule Lake segregation center, the last of the WRA centers to remain in operation, is about 12,500.
    March 20: The Tule Lake segregation center is closed. About half of all evacuees released from the relocation centers returned to the Pacific Coast area; most of the remainder settled in other parts of the country.

    April 24: The Truman administration sends to Congress proposed legislation which would establish an Evacuation Claims Commission to adjudicate claims against the United States for losses suffered by evacuees as a result of their removal from their homes and detention in relocation centers.

    June 26: President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9742, which terminates the WRA effective June 30, 1946.
    February 2: President Truman sends to Congress a special message on civil rights in which he requests legislation to settle claims against the government by the 110,000 people of Japanese descent who were evacuated from their homes during World War II.

    July 2, 1948: President Truman signs the Japanese-American Claims Act, which authorizes the settlement of property loss claims by people of Japanese descent who were removed from the Pacific Coast area during World War II. According to a Senate Report about the act, "The question of whether the evacuation of the Japanese people from the West Coast was justified is now moot. The government did move these people, bodily, the resulting loss was great, and the principles of justice and responsible government require that there should be compensation for such losses." The Congress over time appropriated $38 million to settle 23,000 claims for damages totaling $131 million. The final claim was adjudicated in 1965.
1950 - 1998
    September 23, 1950: Congress passes, over President Truman's veto, Public Law 81-831, which includes the Emergency Detention Act of 1950. This act authorizes the implementation of procedures, modeled on those used to incarcerate people of Japanese descent during World War II, which would be used against those, assumed to be Communists or Communist sympathizers, who might commit acts of espionage or sabotage in time or war or national emergency. Congress repealed this law in 1971.

    February 19, 1976: President Gerald R. Ford issues Proclamation 4417, titled "An American Promise," on the 34th anniversary of the issuance of Executive Order 9066, which had authorized the removal of people from designated military areas. "I call upon the American people to affirm with me this American Promise," President Ford's proclamation reads, "that we have learned from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American, and resolve that this kind of action shall never again be repeated."

    Early 1983: CWRIC issues its report, Personal Justice Denied. The report concludes, "The promulgation of Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it…were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance of Japanese Americans contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan. A grave injustice was done to Americans and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who…were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II." The report recommends, among other things, that Congress apologize to the evacuees and that the United States make a tax-free payment of $20,000 to each surviving evacuee.

    August 10, 1988: President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Rights Act of 1988, which includes a provision for payments of $20,000 each to surviving Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated because of their ethnicity during World War II. Japanese Americans referred to these payments as "redress" for the wrongs they suffered.

    October 9, 1990: Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, in a ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, DC, presents the first payments to Japanese Americans under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1988. "Your struggle for Redress and the events that led to today," the Attorney General said, "are the finest examples of what our country is about, and of what I have pledged to protect and defend, for your efforts have strengthened the nation's Constitution by reaffirming the inalienability of our civil rights."

    1998: President Bill Clinton bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Fred Korematsu, the plaintiff in Korematsu vs. United States (1944), in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the government's removal of people of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast military zone. Korematsu's conviction had been overturned in 1984 because the government's evidence was determined to be tainted.