It's a question that still vexes historians: Why did Franklin Roosevelt, one of the country's greatest wartime presidents and a revered humanitarian, sign an order that condemned nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of them Americans, to years of unwarranted incarceration?
For years, the president's decision was justified with two simple words: "military necessity." Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the Army commander overseeing the West Coast, believed neither Japanese-born immigrants nor their American children could be trusted. Fearing invasion, he thought the Japanese community was filled with spies and saboteurs. A month after Pearl Harbor, DeWitt insisted that the fact that there had not yet been any acts of sabotage "proved" that such attacks were imminent. (No American of Japanese ancestry was ever convicted of sabotage during the war.) Though Roosevelt's own intelligence network on the West Coast was assuring him that the Japanese-American community was loyal, when his local military commander pushed for removal, he relented.
The sad truth of the matter, historians say, is that DeWitt wasn't alone: The entire political establishment in the western states, from governors to congressmen to law enforcement, was pushing for "evacuation," too. War hysteria and race prejudice ruled the day. Henry McLemore, a popular newspaper columnist, captured the tenor of the times in January 1942: "I am for immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior," he wrote. "I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off, and give 'em the inside room in the badlands."
It still isn't clear exactly what Roosevelt thought, but his cardinal sin during the months after Pearl Harbor, historians believe, was not saying anything at all. He certainly wasn't a rabid racist, and he didn't fan the flames of prejudice, but he didn't try to douse them, either. As more bad news came in from the Pacific, political momentum swelled. By February, Roosevelt faced a united front and gave in. "In times of stress," says Greg Robinson, author of By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, "nobody can be trusted to defend constitutional rights without public support."
Once the decision was made, Roosevelt seemed to have few regrets. At a press conference in 1944, after he had won re-election and when there was no longer any threat of invasion, Roosevelt told reporters: "A good deal of progress has been made in scattering [Japanese-Americans] throughout the country," he said. "And it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can't be kept locked up in concentration camps." Two months later, the government announced that the internees were free to go.