How Pearl Harbor created a climate of fear

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Story highlights

  • We must acknowledge the way a climate of fear enabled the US government to incarcerate its own citizens
  • Germans, Italians were arrested after Pearl Harbor, but Americans' fear of "persons of Japanese ancestry" was worst

Daniel Greene is adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University. The opinions in this article belong to the author

(CNN)Seventy-five years ago today, hundreds of Japanese bombers attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. America's shock, and its grief for the more than 2,000 US military dead on this date of "infamy" led to overwhelming unity of purpose as we entered a world war.

Yet America's unity was matched by its profound fears about national security in the days after Pearl Harbor. Well before December 7, 1941, Americans believed that enemy spies and saboteurs lived among us. Some did, though not nearly as many as we imagined. In 1940, the FBI reportedly received 3,000 complaints or tips every day regarding acts against America's national defense.
Daniel Greene
Amid this climate of fear, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain and question thousands suspected of having ties to America's enemies. Many Germans and Italians were arrested in the days after Pearl Harbor, but the American people's fear of "persons of Japanese ancestry" hardened the most.
    In the months after the attack, the US government acted decisively on these fears, physically relocating more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, more than two-thirds of whom were American citizens, to 10 inland camps across Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. Many more temporary detention centers and assembly centers dotted the American landscape in 1942.
    Although administered by an agency called the War Relocation Authority -- and referred to by the government as "relocation centers" -- these were American concentration camps.
    American congressmen used the term themselves. In January 1942, Republican Leland Ford of California suggested to Hoover and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox "that all Japanese, whether citizens or not, be placed in inland concentration camps." Ford was not alone. On February 18, his Democratic colleague John E. Rankin of Mississippi took the floor of the US House of Representatives and announced: "I am for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska, and Hawaii now and putting him in concentration camps."
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    The day after Rankin spoke on the House floor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing relocation. The order did not mention Japanese-Americans specifically, nor did it use the term "concentration camps." It did, however, claim that the "successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage." The order permitted the government to exclude people from prescribed areas. The forced relocation of "persons of Japanese ancestry" soon began. Thousands of Japanese-Americans lost their jobs, homes and liberty.
    One month after FDR's order, a public opinion poll revealed that 93% of Americans thought we were "doing the right thing" in moving "Japanese aliens" from the Pacific coast.
    Japanese-Americans used their country's legal system to fight back. At least 12 challenges to curfew, evacuation and detention orders made it to the courts during the war. Four of these cases reached the US Supreme Court. In each case, the courts concluded that the war powers of Congress and the President justified the acts.
    Even as the Supreme Court sided with the US government in a 1943 case, Associate Justice Frank Murphy noted in a concurring opinion that "restriction of the personal liberty of citizens ... bears a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to members of the Jewish race in Germany and in other parts of Europe." Murphy warned that sanctioning discrimination on the basis of ancestry "goes to the very brink of constitutional power," though he rationalized that "conditions of great emergency" indeed justified the government's actions.
    Some of the clearest thinking in response to ginned-up fears about internal enemies came from African-Americans, who were at the same time waging their own campaigns with federal authorities to integrate the US Army and defense industries.
    In September 1942, the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, ran an article titled "Americans In Concentration Camps," which courageously noted that "Color seems to be the only reason why thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry are in concentration camps. Anyway, there are no Italian-American or German-American citizens in such camps."
    In fact, approximately 11,500 people of German ancestry and 3,000 people of Italian ancestry -- many of them citizens -- were detained at some point during the war. But this was not a comprehensive removal program, as experienced by people of Japanese ancestry.
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    Today, there is little doubt that The Crisis was correct to put prejudice at the center of this egregious violation of rights. By summer 1942, after the Battle of the Midway, the possibility of internal sabotage on the Pacific Coast diminished. Officials in the War Department knew that relocation was no longer necessary because the threat of air raids or invasion had nearly vanished. Yet the government stuck to its relocation policy for another three years. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan offered a formal apology and redress of $20,000 to every living survivor of these camps.
    On this anniversary, we should not forget the service of 16 million troops and millions more Americans on the home front who made great sacrifices to win the war. Nor should we create false equivalencies between the forced removal of Japanese-Americans and the vast web of concentration and death camps that enabled the genocide of Europe's Jews. Yet, we do a disservice to this solemn day if we fail to acknowledge the way a climate of fear enabled the US government to identify, demonize and incarcerate its own citizens in American concentration camps.