The American Civil Liberties Union and the Fight Against Japanese American Internment

This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the mass expulsion of Japanese Americans from the west coast of the United States. Specifically, the order allowed the Secretary of War to designate certain regions as “military areas” from which anyone could be expelled at the discretion of the Secretary or his commanders. The order, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt about ten weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was defended by the federal government as a wartime protection measure.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Arthur Garfield Hays echoed the opinion of others in the organization when he initially wrote to a peer about his tendency to approve the actions of the government during crises; however, he soon after came to the conclusion that “we are safer in the long run if the government recognizes constitutional limitations, even in time of war.” Despite similar debates between board members, the ACLU quickly responded to the executive order by issuing several statements to Roosevelt and to John L. DeWitt, the commanding general of the Western Defense Command. The ACLU’s statements condemned Executive Order 9066 as discriminatory, pointing not only to the blatant prejudice against Japanese Americans, but also to the legal inequality that the order bolstered. In particular, the ACLU referred to the fact that the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration (also known as the Tolan Committee), which conducted hearings in February and March 1942, recommended that German and Italian “alien residents” be afforded the chance to attest their loyalty to the United States before civilian boards– a recommendation that the committee did not extend to Japanese Americans.

First page of an ACLU letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in reaction to Executive Order 9066. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Subgroup 1, Volume 2394.

The ACLU’s protestations were met with perfunctory responses from the federal government. Enforcement of the executive order over the next two years resulted in the involuntary “evacuation” of over 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes, in addition to approximately 14,000 people of German or Italian descent. Japanese Americans living on the Pacific coast, who were given as little as six days’ notice to report for evacuation, were first transported to Assembly Centers, described by the ACLU as “mainly hastily converted race-tracks.” Some people stayed at these Assembly Centers for as long as six months, watched under armed guard and treated as prisoners. They were eventually moved to one of ten War Relocation Authority detention centers, located in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, where they again faced poor living conditions and oppressive treatment.

As the internment of Japanese Americans proceeded, the ACLU took action in the courts. In Korematsu v. United States, the ACLU argued that Executive Order 9066 violated the Fifth Amendment rights of Fred Toyosaburo Korematsu, a Japanese American man who ignored his evacuation order and was subsequently arrested. The ACLU’s Supreme Court amicus curiae brief elaborated that the order was unconstitutional because it denied due process by classifying individuals “based solely on ancestry” and by not making any provisions for hearings. The Korematsu case was decided in favor of the federal government, as was Hirabayashi v. United States, another early case about resistance to the executive order.

ACLU press release on the dissolution of the War Relocation Authority and closure of the internment camps. “Nisei” is a Japanese word used to described second-generation Japanese Americans; that is, the American-born children of Japanese immigrants. American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Subgroup 1, Volume 2584.

Though Executive Order 9066 was suspended in December 1944, the process of closing the detention centers and “resettling” the internees took several months– in fact, the last detention center was not shuttered until 1946. The deeper impact of the forced displacement and imprisonment stretched further still, and cases were tried in the courts for years to come. One prevalent issue was the renunciation of American citizenship. Many Japanese Americans had been coerced into signing statements of renunciation while detained at the Tule Lake detention center in California, infamous for its role as a segregated camp for individuals the government considered disloyal or dangerous. In 1948, a federal judge ruled that the renunciations had been made under duress, thereby restoring citizenship to approximately 2,300 people. The ACLU also contributed to the legal battles against alien land laws in California and Oregon, which had stipulated that Japanese Americans who were prohibited from becoming citizens were not able to own land.

Despite these advances, ACLU founder Roger Nash Baldwin asserted that “redress by law for the colossal injustices and losses of our Japanese minority is impossible.” Still, he maintained that legal action could “help change attitudes and build a larger and more friendly public for the inevitable complete acceptance of the Japanese as part of our American democracy.”

The ACLU materials at the Mudd Library include thousands of pages of documents related to the ACLU’s involvement in the fight against Japanese American internment. These documents, found in Subgroup 1 of the ACLU Records, have been digitized in their entirety and are available for members of the Princeton community to view here. For more information on the ACLU collection, please consult our LibGuide.

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