Keeping Silence: Executive Order 9066 at 75
--by Beth Hessel, Executive Director
The recent presidential executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States by residents of seven Muslim-majority countries and by all refugees arrives as many Americans are remembering the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the order empowering the Secretary of War and his commanders to exclude any persons from the West Coast of the United States “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The stated rationale for both executive orders was national security.
While President Roosevelt did not explicitly name Japanese Americans in EO 9066, it was clear from the furor and propaganda whipped up by the press, patriotic groups, and politicians that the 120,000 Japanese American residents and citizens residing in California, Oregon, and Washington were the intended subjects of this action. Indeed, Lt. General John L. DeWitt, the official in charge of the Western Defense Command, soon decided that anyone with one-sixteenth Japanese ancestry, including infants in orphanages or foster care, was subject to the exclusion order.
These types of active responses to suffering were slow to develop among Presbyterian congregations during World War II. One avid supporter of Japanese American rights, former YMCA missionary Galen Fisher, generously noted in a Christian Century article in the spring of 1942 that faithful Christians simply hadn’t believed their government could do something as flagrantly unconstitutional as incarcerating without due process nearly 70,000 American citizens, many of them juveniles.
Christians on the West Coast, however, had plenty of notice that the civil rights of Japanese American citizens and residents were endangered. Most, including people who faithfully filled the pews of Presbyterian churches each Sunday, chose to do nothing to oppose EO 9066. A national opinion survey conducted in late March 1942 by the federal Office for Emergency Management found nearly unanimous support for removing Japanese residents from the West Coast and 59 percent approval for removing Japanese American citizens.
A Congressional Commission led by California Representative John Tolan held hearings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle in February and March, ostensibly to lower the level of hysteria on the West Coast. The majority of witnesses spoke in favor of the mass removal of the Japanese American population. Among the few non-Japanese American witnesses to speak up for selective hearings, civil rights, and justice were former Protestant missionaries to Japan.
One such speaker was Presbyterian Gordon Chapman, who would go on to serve as Executive Secretary of the Protestant Church Commission for Japanese Service, an organization that became an outspoken advocate for Japanese Americans and the official mediator between Japanese American Protestants in the incarceration camps, the federal government, and churches. Chapman testified to the Tolan Committee that the policies under consideration were “unnecessarily drastic, contrary to our American principles of fair play, destructive of some of our best human resources . . . [and] likely to appear as a repudiation of the rights of human freedom at a time when we are having a difficult enough time proving to the world that we are actually fighting such a battle for the world.”
Certainly, during their years of imprisonment in camps and resettlement into new cities and towns, both Christian and Buddhist Japanese Americans found help from white Christians. Members of Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. churches participated in Christmas gift drives for children in the camps; provided more than $20,000 annually to a college scholarship program that helped some Japanese American students escape the camps and attend colleges; created resettlement programs in their hometowns, sponsoring families and individuals much as churches do refugees today; and in some cases welcomed Japanese Americans into the lives of their congregations. (The Presbyterian Church in the U.S. had no missions among the Japanese American population prior to 1942, and so, like other denominations, did not deeply engage with the issue during the war. Notable exceptions included several Arkansas congregations that shared pulpit ministries with nearby camp churches.)
Note: This is the first in an occasional series to mark the years of incarceration, resettlement, and new life for Japanese American Presbyterians.
Yoshiko Uchida, Desert Exile, The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family.