Fractured Ideals: Japanese American Internment through a Government Lens: Part 1 – A Challenge to Democracy

Americanism … loses much of its meaning in the confines of a Relocation Center.

A Challenge to Democracy (1943)

February 19, 2017, is the 75th Anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. Issued in 1942, soon after the United States’ entry into the Second World War, EO 9066 authorized the Secretary of War to designate military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded” and “provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary … to accomplish the purpose of this order.”

Though the text of EO 9066 does not contain the word “Japanese,” the intent and effect was the creation of a sweeping program to remove 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from their homes in coastal California, Oregon, and Washington State in the name of national security. Though the language of the time called this an “evacuation” or “mass migration,” those affected were forced to leave their communities as the Federal government moved them to heavily-guarded camps in isolated areas hundreds of miles away.

The Film Record

The newly-created War Relocation Authority (WRA) heavily documented the government’s program of Japanese American incarceration from 1942 through 1945, so we have many opportunities to understand how the camps looked, how they were laid out, and what the Federal government said about them.

The WRA collaborated with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Office of War Information (OWI), the War Department, and the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry to make films intended for several different audiences. The films are most definitely propaganda, but they reveal points of tension between the actions of the government and the democratic ideals the nation was fighting a war to defend.

A Challenge to Democracy

A Challenge to Democracy was produced by the WRA with the cooperation of the OWI and OSS. It is the most comprehensive United States government propaganda film about the Japanese American internment and relocation program. The narrator states that what we are witnessing is “evacuation” of Japanese Americans to “wartime communities” or “relocation centers” and insists that “they are not prisoners, they are not internees.” The images in the film tell a different story.

At one point, the narrator states “relocation centers are not normal and probably never can be.” In fact, the government’s longer-term plan was to move the Japanese Americans deemed loyal into towns and cities in the interior of the United States. A Challenge to Democracy likely was directed towards the Caucasian residents of these communities in an attempt to make them more accepting of displaced Japanese Americans. 

More via Fractured Ideals: Japanese American Internment through a Government Lens | The Unwritten Record

Explore more resources from @usnatarchives​ on Japanese American Internment and Executive Order 9066: