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U.S. authorized internment camps 50 years ago today

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Military-established zones and curfews. Military orders laid down as the law of the land. No hearings, discussions or votes. Just a proclamation from a general that uprooted people from their homes and shipped them to stark detention camps.

This is a story of America, just 50 years ago today.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to remove Japanese-Americans from the Pacific Coast and confine them in camps. Soon after, the Army rounded up more than 110,000 people _ 70,000 of them U.S. citizens _ on the Pacific Coast and sent them to live in hastily erected barracks surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers in sentry towers.

These people had done nothing wrong. But they had Japanese ancestors.

For that, they were stripped of their Fifth Amendment rights: "No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law."

In a decision that has become fodder for law school classes on constitutional law, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the evacuation as a wartime necessity.

In the calm of the post-war years, researchers have concluded that the Army had no evidence of sabotage or espionage by people of Japanese descent on the Pacific Coast. But in the hysteria after Pearl Harbor, the forces of politics overwhelmed reasoned justice. Dale Minami, a San Francisco lawyer active in Japanese-American issues, fears it could happen again.

"Even if (the Supreme Court decision) were totally abolished and overruled, that wouldn't prevent the government from rounding up minority groups in a time of crisis," he said. "It might be a slight roadblock, but that's all."

The Supreme Court upheld the evacuation in a 1944 ruling on the case of Fred Korematsu, a welder in Berkeley, Calif., who had tried to hide from military authorities. They caught up with him, and he was convicted of violating the relocation order.

In 1983, a federal district court overturned Korematsu's conviction. Attorneys for Korematsu, now in his 70s and living outside Oakland, Calif., presented new evidence that the military's argument for the internment _ the threat of sabotage and espionage by Japanese-Americans _ had been unsubstantiated.

Japanese-Americans won another victory in 1988, when the U.S. Congress promised to redress past wrongs by paying $1.2-billion _ $20,000 each _ to the surviving 60,000 Americans who were interned. President Bush issued an official apology in 1989.

Burke Marshall, a constitutional law professor at Yale Law School, said he can't imagine circumstances under which the current Supreme Court would uphold a similar action based on racial or ethnic background.

"I think the court and everybody that teaches in this field and in the country at large thinks that what the United States did to Japanese-Americans was wrong, unjustified and unconstitutional," said Marshall, who was assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Kennedy administration.

Still, Minami thinks that all Americans must continue to be vigilant. In ordering the evacuation, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Dewitt argued: "A Jap's a Jap. It makes no difference whether he's an American or not." Minami fears that kind of thinking isn't dead.

While the 1983 ruling cleared Korematsu, the 1944 Supreme Court precedent is still there if the government can demonstrate a need.

In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, in a dissenting opinion to the 1944 decision: "Once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution . . . the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens.

"The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need."