Today in History: FDR Issues Executive Order Creating American Concentration Camps

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On this date in 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed the infamous executive order 9066, authorizing the War Department to establish military zones that would serve as internment camps for Japanese and Italian Americans.

After the United States entered World War II, the president felt that the presence of foreign nationals could not be tolerated in time of war, and would produce seditious and rebellious behavior:

“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”

Under the policy, 120,000 people were summarily rounded up and placed into captivity, separated from their families, homes, property, and livelihood for long lengths of time.

Cruelly reminiscent of anti-Jewish programs enacted by the Third Reich in Germany, Roosevelt’s decree was a clear-cut violation of the Fifth Amendment guarantee to life, liberty, and property. The order was also imposed by executive decree, bypassing Congress and appearing as the command of an all-powerful monarch.

President Roosevelt engaged in efforts to relocate citizens by issuing a secondary decree, Executive Order 9102, which specifically established the War Relocation Authority. The new federal institution was bestowed the power to forcibly seize and relocate individuals into the camps.

Rather than reversing this heartless transgression, the federal courts gave the policy legal credence. Demonstrating the complicity of the federal judiciary in the exploit, the court ruled that Roosevelt’s actions were wholly constitutional in the 1944 case of Korematsu v. United States.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, stated that the court was unable to conclude that it was beyond the war powers of Congress and the president to confine people of Japanese ancestry to the designated “war areas.” This assertion was made despite the fact that the Constitution confers no such power to either branch.

Nevertheless, Black wrote that the president’s new agency could not be reprimanded despite its loose criteria for determining whether individuals were “disloyal,” and thus subject to such exclusion, relocation, and confinement. In the judge’s estimation, internment was necessary to protect against means of unproven espionage. In considering the actions to intern citizens, Black wrote that “we cannot – by availing ourselves of the calm perspective of hindsight – now say that, at the time, these actions were unjustified.”

Justice Frank Murphy vehemently dissented to the opinion of the majority, and condemned “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.” Murphy correctly added that the exclusion policy went “over the very brink of constitutional power.”

Individuals must not be deprived of their constitutional rights, he wrote, despite the government’s concerns for security. Murphy recognized the reason for the Fifth Amendment’s existence and understood that a despotic condition would arise if the government ignored it. Without regard to Murphy’s warning, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal program by a margin of six to three – giving a judicial seal of approval for Roosevelt’s treacherous internment program.

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