It seems impossible that the United States government would round up citizens and send them off to internment camps but that's exactly what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII. From 1942-46, families were forcibly relocated to designated areas and held prisoner. It's a chilling chapter of history that today's politicians frequently cite, some as a cautionary tale, others as a basis for future discrimination.
After the war, public opinion declared that the forceful internment of around 120,000 Japanese Americans was one of the most shocking things ever done by the U.S. government. The internment sites may not have had gas chambers like German concentration camps, but their creation was rooted in xenophobia and racism nevertheless — a 1980 investigation by President Carter revealed as much. Dragging law-abiding citizens off to remote prisons when they weren't even accused of breaking a law is a messed up thing to do, and that is just the beginning of the story.
There are plenty of Japanese internment camp horror stories to be told. They're not easy to read, but necessary to understand how fear can undermine the supposed values of American democracy.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under pressure from panicked citizens, west coast political leaders, and organized labor, FDR authorized the Secretary of War and any designated commander to "to prescribe military areas... from which any or all persons may be excluded." The order allowed the military to remove Japanese Americans from their homes and put them in patrolled camps.
Notably, the move was opposed by many in the Justice Department.
American citizenship was not enough to keep someone out of the internment camps. Many Japanese immigrants suspected they would be detained, since the Constitution technically only grants legal protections like due process to US citizens. However, they assumed their American-born children would be protected.
Tragically, Nisei, Japanese Americans born in the US, were rounded up along with their parents and herded out to camps all the same. Many of them had never even been to Japan. Further complicating matters at the camps, only Nisei were allowed to hold positions of relative authority within them. This upended family dynamics completely, with children outranking their parents.
Though German and Italian aliens were also subjected to internment on a much smaller scale, no comparable policy of internment existed for American-born citizens of German and Italian descent.
When actor George Takei was 5 years old, his family of five was forced from their home at gunpoint and sent to live in a horse stable at a local race track. After several weeks living in the horse stall, they were sent by rail 1,000 miles eastward to the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.
The grounds were surrounded by barbed wire, which Takei recalls seeing beyond the American flag as he was made to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Armed guards in sentry towers made sure no one attempted to escape. Internees shared one common latrine, ate "wretched" food in a mess hall, and shared barracks with other families.
As a child, Takei did not fully understand the gravity of the situation. As an adult, he has become an activist, warning of the real dangers of racism and intolerance. He has come to view the internment centers "as an assault not only upon an entire group of Americans but upon the Constitution itself — how its guarantees of due process and equal protection had been decimated by forces of fear and prejudice unleashed by unscrupulous politicians."
As innocent Japanese Americans were shuffled out of their houses by armed men, they didn't have the luxury to properly pack for their trip. People were given little notice to "tie up their loose ends" before they were to report to the temporary detention centers.
Internees were only allowed to bring with them what they could carry. People took one suitcase each, filled with whatever clothes and essentials they could fit. They wore their best clothes, so as to not have to pack them, which gave the impression that Japanese Americans were "dressing up" to go to the camps.