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.

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