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When Fear Was Stronger Than Justice

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History, Tour Presidio

Seventy five years ago, ten weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which formed the basis for the mass forced removal and incarceration of over 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Two-thirds were American citizens. The other third, not born in the US, were prohibited by law from becoming US citizens. Over half were children or infants.

At that time, Presidio Building 35 served as the headquarters for the Western Defense Command, commanded by General John L. DeWitt. In the panic following the attack on Pearl Harbor, many people including General DeWitt became concerned that Japanese Americans were conspiring to sabotage the American war effort. Systemic racism against Japanese Americans, for example laws preventing them from owning land, had existed for many years. Even though most Japanese Americans considered themselves fully loyal to the USA, suspicions about their loyalties were pervasive. At least two official investigations into possible espionage or fifth column activity on the part of Japanese Americans had concluded that these communities posed no threat to the safety and security of the United States. These reports were ignored.

General DeWitt and other military leaders recommended that Japanese Americans be removed from western coastal areas. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, issuing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders “to prescribe military areas…from which any or all persons may be excluded.”

Following this executive order, General DeWitt issued a series of proclamations from the Presidio that excluded “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” from living in “Military Area No. 1” which included coastal areas of Washington, Oregon, and California, and the southern half of Arizona. When the voluntary evacuation order failed, relocation became mandatory. People were given one week or less to prepare, and those who failed to evacuate were subject to arrest. The evacuees were imprisoned in 10 inland “relocation centers” or concentration camps. “Evacuated” families left behind homes, businesses, pets, land, and most of their belongings. For the next two and a half years, those imprisoned endured extremely difficult living conditions and poor treatment, although they had never been charged with, nor convicted of, a crime.

While their families were incarcerated in the camps, Japanese Americans made tremendous contributions to the war effort. In 1943 the US Army announced that it would accept volunteers for an all-Nisei combat unit. The 100th Infantry Battalion / 442nd Regimental Combat Team was among the most highly decorated units in U.S. history. Women volunteered for the Women’s Army Corps and the Red Cross. Graduates of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Language School, located at Presidio building 640, served valiantly on the on the front lines as translators and interpreters. During the course of World War II, ten Americans were convicted of spying for Japan, but not one of them was a Japanese American.

The imprisonment of Japanese Americans was justified as a “military necessity,” a claim based in fear and prejudice without any evidence. In 1988, the US government officially apologized for this “grave injustice” and paid reparations. The lesson to be taken from the experience of Japanese Americans in World War II is that fear of an attack on the US should never again be used as the basis of ignoring our traditions of equal justice under law.

A number of exhibitions are planned this year to commemorate the wartime exclusion of Japanese Americans, 75 years after the signing of Executive Order 9066. April 1st is the grand opening of the new “Exclusion” exhibition at the Officer’s Club. Visitors can see the National Japanese American Historical Society’s permanent exhibit “Prejudice & Patriotism: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service” at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center at Crissy Field in the Presidio.

On April 27th, the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, a Presidio tenant, is hosting the event “Letters from the Camps: Voices of Dissent” at the Officer’s Club in conjunction with the “Exclusion” exhibit and related programming.