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The Internment of the Japanese Americans, 1942: Re-Enacting the Policy Debate

NOTE: This teaching module was written by Dr. Kirk Jeffrey, Professor of History at Carleton College, and is used with his permission.

Copyright 2005, Kirk Jeffrey.


In 1942, a few months after the Japanese attack on US air and naval facilities at Pearl Harbor, military officials on the West Coast, acting under presidential authority, moved about 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans away from the West Coast and interned them in ten hastily built “relocation camps” located in Arizona, California, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Arkansas. Often called the “worst wartime mistake” of the US government, the relocation policy enjoyed widespread popular and elite support at the time. Indeed, during the war, complaints that the government was being "too soft" on the Japanese Americans far outnumbered complaints about the unfairness of the relocation policy.

Historians try to make sense of historical events, ideas, and people by examining them in the context of their own times rather than simply passing judgments based on our standards today. Many people participated, directly or indirectly, in the inception of the internment plan in the months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This activity is an historical re-enactment or game. Students will be assigned a role as a public or military official or an outside observer. Every “role” is an actual historical figure who was alive in the 1940s. This group will meet twice to come up with a policy recommendation for President Franklin Roosevelt, who will not attend the meetings.

What’s Expected of Participants | Specific Roles | Committee Deliberations & Role of the Chairman
Getting into Your Historical Role | Timeline of Events in 1941-42

The Structure of Power & Responsibility in Wartime Washington

What’s Expected of Participants

1. Develop a good background knowledge of the events of 1941-42 when the US, after months of tension and high-level diplomacy, found itself in the war following a surprise air attack at Pearl Harbor. Your reading of Robinson’s By Order of the President, especially Chapters 1-3, will be vital.

By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans
by Greg Robinson
Harvard University Press (May 1, 2003)
ISBN: 067401118X)

2. In this game, everybody will adopt a historical persona. You should learn about your character in depth so that you can credibly enact his or her role.

All the historical roles present challenges: in many cases we have a great deal of information about the person’s views, but in others the record is less complete. You will probably find that you must do a serious job of research to gain an understanding of your character. For each character, I have listed two or three books that might prove helpful; but you should regard these as starting-points and plan to go beyond them in your search for information.

3. Submit a written profile of your character (2000 words, or about eight pages, double-spaced). An “executive summary” of this profile (500 words) is due the week before.

4. Participate actively and effectively in the two scheduled meetings of President’s advisors. In the two sessions, you must generally stay in character: put forward ideas and take positions that are plausible for your character around the beginning of the war. Thus you can’t present opinions that you yourself hold in 2003. Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, will chair the meetings; he may call on anyone to present his or her views on any issue under discussion.

You don’t have to confine yourself exclusively to what your character said and did in 1941-42, and the group of advisors might end up recommending to President Roosevelt something different from what his real advisors recommended in 1945. So you have some freedom of action, as long as you generally behave in a way consistent with what you know about your character. Most important, you are free to alter your views based on what you hear during the deliberations of the group. (Indeed, because there was a strong pressure to defer to military judgement during the war emergency, you had better be prepared to fall into line.)

5. For the first meeting of the advisory group, present a written memorandum of no more than 1000 words (that’s about four pages) explaining concisely what your character thinks.

If you can’t nail down exactly what your character thought, build your interpretation on your broader knowledge of this person’s career up to that time, but try to avoid unfounded speculation: “He was head of the FBI so he must have believed . . . “ The memo should be addressed to the “Japanese American planning group” and should lay out your character’s initial position in direct, forceful language, giving reasons appropriate to the character’s training and experience—as a California politician, an Army officer, the head of the ACLU, or whatever. In preparing your memorandum, you may find it prudent to discuss your ideas with others whose goals and outlook are similar to your own, but you must try to be historically realistic about this; for example, Culbert Olson and Earl Warren, political adversaries in California, would not have discussed strategies. (Warren defeated Olson in the election for governor later in 1942.) Others who will attend the meetings will subject your memorandum to a very sharp reading. You need not believe what you argue, but you must try to persuade others as if this were early 1942.

6. Before class, familiarize yourself with the memoranda that others have submitted.

7. Submit an essay in which you discuss the decision to remove the Japanese Americans from the West Coast, focusing on how your work in the course—background reading, research, the re-enactment sessions, and other activities—have affected your understanding of these events. This essay should be no more than 1500 words in length.

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Committee Deliberations & Role of the Chairman

In the two meetings held to discuss the fate of the Japanese Americans, all “officials” and “guests” will have the opportunity to present their knowledge and opinions. This does not mean that all members are equal; obviously, the views of figures close to the President, those with detailed knowledge of the situation on the West Coast, and those who bear over-all responsibility for managing the war effort will be accorded the greatest attention and respect.

Col. Stimson will chair both meetings by virtue of his age and the respect accorded to him, and because the Japanese-American problem is deemed to be, at bottom, a matter of military security. Stimson will determine who can speak and when, though with due regard, doubtless, of the need for a full airing of views. The chairman (and anyone else) can put pointed questions to others on the committee in order to explore some line of thinking or to expose weaknesses in someone’s position. The chairman also has the power to cut someone off when he feels that enough has been heard from that person.

The six key policy advisors will vote on the issues debated; the chairman will frame the questions. These six voting advisors are: Stimson, Biddle, Ickes, Marshall, Hopkins, and McCloy. Each voting advisor will have a chance to explain his judgments before voting. It is possible, however, that formal votes will not be needed because the six may arrive at a consensus on every matter. Then Col. Stimson will summarize the group’s findings and draw up a set of recommendations for the President.

One member of the class will play the role of Stimson. The other roles will be assigned by random draw, except that only women students may draw for the role of Eleanor Roosevelt.

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Getting into Your Historical Role

You might begin with the timeline of important events and add information about your character’s thinking as it evolved day by day. Read carefully everything you can find about his or her thoughts; keep careful notes. The titles given above are just starting-points; you will be expected to go beyond them and to read as widely as you can.

As you read and learn about your character, try to figure out answers to questions such as these (and add your own):

  • What knowledge and opinions did this person have about the Japanese on the West Coast before December 7, 1941?
  • How did his or her thinking evolve week by week after Pearl Harbor?
  • What sources of information did your character have?
  • How inclined was he or she to defer to the military?
  • How impressed was he or she with the arguments of civil libertarians?
  • Do you find any evidence that your character bore a particular hatred or suspicion of the Japanese as a people?
  • Was your character particularly interested in matters of espionage and sabotage? Did your character give any credence to rumors that the Japanese might attempt some sort of attack on the West Coast?
  • What did your character think of public opinion and the pronouncements of politicians and newspapers in the West?
  • Above all, what does your character want to accomplish as a member of the informal group of advisors in touch with FDR? What does he or she think the President should be told?

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Timeline of Events, 1941-42 and Basic Facts


Nov 7: FDR is given the final version of the Munson Report with a “summary” by John Franklin Carter. The report and the summary diverge in significant ways.

Dec 7: Warplanes from six Japanese aircraft carriers carry out a surprise raid on Pearl Harbor, the home base of the US Pacific Fleet, on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. Numerous American ships, planes, and lives are lost—the most lives on a single day since the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, the most until September 11, 2001.

Dec 7-8: The President authorizes the FBI to arrest enemy aliens deemed “dangerous to public peace or safety.” Some 2,000 Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) on the West Coast are arrested over the next four days.

Dec 8: President Roosevelt asks that Congress declare that “since December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire”; Congress complies.

Dec 29: Roosevelt's alien-enemy proclamations: all “alien enemies” in the Western Defense Command area are ordered to surrender radio transmitters, shortwave receivers, and certain types of cameras to local police. On January 1, 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle authorizes the issuance of warrants to search the premises of any enemy alien on an FBI claim that there is "reasonable cause" to believe that banned items might be found. These policies lead to major FBI search-and-seizure raids along the West Coast in February. For example, four hundred Japanese American fishermen in the Los Angeles area are held for questioning while their boats were searched for radio transmitters and secret codes.


Jan 14: The Canadian Government orders that all male Japanese nationals aged 18-45 be removed from the Pacific province of British Columbia. On the same day, FDR orders that a registration of alien enemies begin early in February.

Jan 23: A commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts (appointed by FDR in mid-December) issues its report on the causes of the Japanese success at Pearl Harbor. Though the report is rather mild, newspapers interpret it as highlighting the role of “enemy spies” and “aliens.” Anti-Japanese sentiment intensifies, especially in the West.

Jan 29: Attorney General Biddle announces that alien enemies will be excluded from certain areas on the West Coast where military installations, defense plants, or other vital facilities are located.

Feb 19: The President signs Executive Order 9066, the product of a fierce battle between the War and Justice Departments. This document has several interesting features:

  • It makes no specific mention of the Japanese Americans.
  • It does not distinguish between aliens and citizens.
  • It explicitly authorizes military commanders to order the "exclusion" of "any and all persons" from designated areas but does not authorize long-term internment. The word evacuation is not used.
  • ·It is grounded in the President's Constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

Feb 21-March 12: The Tolan Committee takes public testimony on the West Coast.

March 2: General DeWitt issues the first Public Proclamation that will lead to evacuation. This proclamation designates the western halves of California, Oregon, and Washington and the southern half of Arizona as Military Area No. 1 and warns that certain "classes of persons" to be designated later will be excluded from this area.

March 18: Roosevelt's Executive Order 9102 creates the War Relocation Authority (WRA) as an independent agency (it will later be placed within the Department of the Interior) jointly responsible with the War Department for the evacuation program.

March 21: To provide criminal penalties for noncompliance with DeWitt's orders, Congress passes and FDR signs Public Law 503. This law authorizes the Justice Department to enforce the orders through criminal prosecution.

March: DeWitt issues instructions for the establishing of two "Reception Centers" through which Japanese Americans will be funneled out of Military Area No. 1. These later become the Manzanar and Parker internment camps. DeWitt also begins the process of locating and acquiring other sites for camps and authorizes the Engineer Corps of the Army to begin to construct fifteen "Assembly Centers" within Military Area No. 1 to receive evacuees.

March 24: DeWitt's Public Proclamation No. 3 makes the first direct move toward evacuation by imposing a curfew. All alien enemies and Japanese American citizens are to remain in their homes between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. These people are also ordered to restrict their movements to a five-mile radius from their homes.

On the same day, DeWitt issues the first Civilian Exclusion Order. This order requires the 54 Japanese American families living on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound (close to the Bremerton Naval Base) to report to the Puyallup Assembly Center (on the State Fairgrounds south of Seattle) by March 30. A series of exclusion orders follow, the last one on June 7, 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor.

March 27: DeWitt's Public Proclamation No. 4 forbids the Japanese Americans living within the boundaries of Military Area No. 1 to leave the area without permission. This stops the unsupervised flow of Japanese Americans into the interior of the country; it freezes them in place to await the inevitable order to report to an assembly center. All three of the directives of late March—curfew, exclusion, and freeze—are backed by Public Law 503. Japanese Americans who fail to abide by them face criminal prosecution.

April 7: Governors and other officials of the western states meet with officials of the WRA in Salt Lake City to discuss the WRA plan (announced a few days earlier) to resettle Japanese Americans in rural areas and to find jobs for them as farm laborers and in other kinds of work. The state officials declare that they want the Japanese Americans to be held in concentration camps for the duration of the war. Between April and June, the WRA discards its original plan and begins creating a system of camps. By November, all Japanese Americans held in assembly centers in Military Area No. 1 have been moved to the ten camps.

Between June and November: Japanese Americans living in Military Area No. 2 (those parts of the western states not included in Military Area No. 1), including those who had moved there from Military Area No. 1, are also forced by military order to join the earlier evacuees in relocation camps.

Number evacuated

  • from Military Area No. 1, 97,000
  • from Military Area No. 2, 15,000*
  • total, 112,000

* 10,000 of those in Military Area No. 2 had recently moved there from Military Area No. 1.

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The Structure of Power and Responsibility in Wartime Washington

In some respects this re-enactment will not at all resemble the real course of debate in 1942. In wartime, a much smaller group of policymakers and advisors holds real power than in peacetime, while most people are kept in the dark about many important matters. Officials concerned with fighting the war, protecting internal security, and managing the economy will get their way; those who focus on other matters won’t. It is inconceivable that officials like Henry Stimson, George C. Marshall, and J. Edgar Hoover would ever have sat down for talks with outsiders like Roger Baldwin, Mike Masaoka, and Eleanor Roosevelt. However, the president and his advisor Harry Hopkins tried always to remain aware of ideas and opinion outside Washington DC in order to avoid becoming the captives of the top generals and officials.

Here is a simple outline showing where some of our historical characters (underlined) fit into wartime Washington:


  • Informal advisors including Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, and many others
  • Opinion shapers and leaders outside government including Walter Lippmann, Roger Baldwin, etc., etc.

ROOSEVELT’S “WAR CABINET” (informal): Stimson, Knox, Morgenthau, Biddle, others as required

  • Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson (the War Department administers the US army)
    • Assistant Secretary John J. McCloy (and other assistant secretaries)
  • Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall
    • Staff officers administering departments, including Gen. Allen W. Gullion
    • Staff officers managing geographic districts, including Gen. John L. DeWitt
    • Field officers commanding the units of the army
  • Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox (not in the re-enactment)
  • Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau (not in the re-enactment)
  • Attorney General Francis Biddle
    • Assistant Attorney General Edward J. Ennis (and other assistant attorneys general)
  • FBI director J. Edgar Hoover


  • Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes
  • Other cabinet departments (state, agriculture, labor, commerce, etc.)

CONGRESS (not significantly involved in shaping policy on the Japanese Americans in 1942)

THE FEDERAL COURTS (enter the picture after relocation and internment have taken place)


  • State governments
  • Professions (law, medicine, etc.); higher education; newspapers, radio; churches
  • Etc.

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This site was updated on 15-Dec-18.