The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led some to fear that the Japanese would soon attack the West Coast. There were 127,000 Japanese Americans living in the continental United States when the war began. Most lived in California. Fear and racism combined to deprive these Japanese Americans of their civil rights.
By February 1942, California’s Attorney General Earl Warren had begun efforts to persuade the federal government to remove all people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, despite the fact that there was no evidence that Japanese Americans had any disloyalty to the United States.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing military commanders to establish “exclusion zones.” These zones would include parts of the East and West Coast, totaling about one third of the country.
Under the authority granted by the President, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt issued a number of Proclamations instituting curfews and restricting the rights of movement of Japanese Americans (including people with at least one-eight Japanese ancestry), and ultimately forcing them to abandon their homes and move to dozens of internment, relocation and detention centers located in unpopulated areas (usually native American reservations) outside the exclusion zones.
Despite the persecution of their community, a large number of Japanese Americans volunteered to fight in the war. The famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought in Europe, was formed from those Japanese Americans who agreed to serve. This unit was the most highly decorated US military unit of its size and duration. These Japanese American soldiers participated in the liberation of Jews from the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, Germany, while many of their own families were still interned in camps in the United States.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the curfew and internment orders, many people later had a change of heart. Earl Warren, who had lobbied aggressively for the restrictions on Japanese Americans while California Attorney General, was later elected three times as governor of California and subsequently became the 14th Chief Justice of the United States. As Chief Justice, he led the Court to its landmark unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), prohibiting banning segregation in public schools. In his memoirs, he admitted that interning Japanese Americans had been a mistake.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford proclaimed that the internment camps were “wrong” and a “national mistake” which “shall never again be repeated.” In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a law providing redress of $20,000 for each surviving detainee.