On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt infamously signed and issued Executive Order 9066. For the unaware, Executive Order 9066 was the authorization for the Secretary of War to create military zones and exclude certain people from these zones after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although the order does not explicitly mention people of Japanese descent, it cleared the way to allow subsequent military orders that led to the eviction and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans (which came out to every Japanese American in California, Washington, and Utah). For comparison, only 3000 Italians were rounded up.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Although, in 1988, the United States formally apologized for EO 9066 and compensated surviving victims of the internment, there are many troubling similarities between what happened during World War II and what is happening now. On the surface, something like EO 9066 seems to be a reasonable, if not a flawed response, to a crisis at that time. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor two months earlier. There could have been spies on American soil. Perhaps EO 9066 was given out of military necessity. With historical context, however, it is obvious that there was more at play.
In 1940, almost two years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government commissioned Charles B. Munson, a businessman from Detroit, to write a report to investigate the loyalties of Japanese Americans. This 29-page report, officially named “The Report on Japanese on the West Coast of the United States of America,” or better known as the Munson Report, contained Munson’s conclusions after interviewing Japanese Americans. After talking to many Japanese Americans, he concluded that “They have made this their home. They have brought up children here, their wealth accumulated by hard labor is here, and many would have become American citizens had they been allowed to do so.” Additionally, he wrote, “There is no Japanese ‘problem’ on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese […] for the most part, the local Japanese are loyal to the US.” Interestingly enough, FDR was given the Munson Report twice to read before his infamous order and, despite the lack of proof of a Japanese threat, still went through with it.
Where did the origins of 9066 come from if not militarily motivated? An Op-Ed in the LA Times published before Pearl Harbor by attorney W.H. Anderson argued that “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched—so a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents—grows up to be a Japanese, not an American.” Even before Pearl Harbor, there clearly is a sentiment that Japanese people are other. They are not American and they do not belong in the US. These racist remarks were not just limited to the Japanese. In 1913 (almost thirty years before Pearl Harbor), California passed the first Alien Land Law. This law stated that if you were an immigrant from Asia, you could not become a citizen nor could you own land. Washington, Arizona, Texas, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana passed similar laws in the following years. In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese American immigrant, took these laws to the court. In Ozawa v. United States, Ozawa argued that since he lived in America for two years and assimilated to American culture and tradition, he therefore should be granted citizenship. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against him, stating that people were American based on their skin color rather than assimilating into the culture or traditions of America.
Despite the change in cultural attitudes in the mid 20th century, understanding FDR’s controversial order and the racial motivation behind it is essential.
As an Asian-American, it is important to see where we have come from and how much more work is still ahead of us. Although not exactly seen as “vipers” any longer, we must ask: to what extent are we still not considered American? Hopefully none of my readers consider “whiteness” a prerequisite for citizenship, but there is a distinct otherness to which society relegates Asian Americans. I think it is indicative of our culture that, just this past election cycle, Yuh-Line Niou became the first Asian American representative for the district containing Chinatown in New York, and when there is little to no representation of Asian-American actors/actresses in our media, which affects how our country sees itself. Yet, in today’s political climate, EO 9066 is relevant on an even broader level because it begs the question: who really belongs in America?
The answer to this question, I believe, can be found in the difference between W.H. Anderson’s Op-Ed and Munson’s report. Whereas Anderson never personally connected to Japanese Americans, Munson went around the coast to interview the people. He became very familiar with them, their heritage, their stories. This is why he was able to conclude that they were not threats, while Anderson could not. I’m assuming most people reading this are informed on what’s going on in the world and in America in terms of refugees and immigration. Perhaps, instead of being quick to judge who gets to stay and who does not, it is time to, like Munson, understand the struggles and the stories of the people we do not immediately understand. EO 9066 is historically remembered as a huge mistake for a country that promises to be a beacon of democracy and was built on a justice system that assumes innocence until proven otherwise. A question that must be asked on the 75th year of this edict: how will history remember the decisions we make?